A Story is a Promise

A Story 
is a Promise

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

Writing Pain

by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.

A character who acts in spite of the pain is a dramatic character. Dramatic because action done in pain always includes an embedded question: why would a character act when action increases his or her pain? When a character’s action is required to resolve some life issue, a character’s need to act resonates with a story’s audience that experiences similar issues. The job for the storyteller is to make sure a story’s audience begins to share a character’s pain from the opening lines of a story. Once that happens, the members of a story’s audience will need to journey with a character toward a story’s promised relief (even if in some cases that relief comes from death).

To understand this process of transfering a sense of pain from a story characters to a story's audience, consider a character sitting in a chair with a rock in his or her shoe. As long as that character doesn’t stand, he or she won’t feel any pain. But as soon as that character stands, pain is reflected in his or her body language, in what’s said or not said, or suggested by how that foot is protected. But, until this character stands, the chances are an audience would not suspect a problem nor feel anything about the problem.

Now consider that rock might be composed of an emotional problem. Or, a problem a character has with someone else. Or, a character might be caught up in events that need resolution.

Now, when that character stands and limps, we naturally understand that this pain will interfere with what they want to accomplish. It also leads an audience to wonder: why is this character willing to act when it obviously causes pain? What put that rock in this character’s shoe? Why hasn’t the rock been taken out? Will the character continue to act if action increases the pain, but ultimately offers the only way out of the pain?

I call this process of transferring the conflicted feelings or pain a character experiences to an story's audience narrative tension. When a character experiences narrative tension, he or she in too much pain to not act, but to act increases the pain. Once that narrative tension is transferred to a story’s audience, the members of a story’s audience desire to experience the removal of that painful rock they now feel in their shoe.

People greatly desire the relief of narrative tension a powerful story character experiences because in life, so many people live in a strew of narrative tension: unresolved relationship issues, problems at work, about being acknowledged, feeling worthy, a need to believe in heaven because of a fear of hell but a lack of certainty about what one should do in life to get to one place instead of the other.

For many people, the relief of narrative tension they experience from a good story can be one of the most powerful experiences of one's life. That's one reason Klingon is the fastest-growing language in the US. Being a klingon offers many people a powerful relief from the narrative tension they experience in life. Every hugely successful story offers a huge relief of narrative tension to its audience. Harry Potter fits in, if only for a time. Dorothy finds her way home. Rocky proves that he's a somebody. And when most of us watch those movies or read those books, for a time we experience what it's like to fit in, be somebody, and have a home where we belong.

A novel that lacks a main character in a state of narrative tension will fail to be compelling.

This process of using pain to advance a story is well-illustrated by the movie A Simple Plan. The story’s main character is Hank, who lives a simple life in a rural town. He has a good marriage and a good job at a feed store. He’s not going anywhere, but he’s accepted his life. But, as he talks about his life, a flat tone in his voice suggests there’s a small pebble in Hank’s shoe. His limp is hardly noticeable. Then Jacob, the town idiot and Hank’s brother, and Lou the town drunk, chase a fox into some woods and find a crashed plane with a half million dollars inside. Hank wants to do the right thing and turn in the money. But, Jacob and the town drunk want to split the money three ways. It’s a tough situation. Hank wavers. That pebble in his shoe just heated up. With this money, he could have a better life, not just for himself, but his wife and, soon, a new baby. He could get that nagging pebble out of his shoe. Hank comes up with a simple plan. He’ll hide the money. In the spring, when the snow melts, the plane will be found. Once they know to whom the money belongs, they’ll decide whether it’s safe to spend or not.

It’s a simple plan.

Then disaster strikes. While Hank and Jacob are disguising the retrieval of the money, an old farmer stops by. Jacob hits the farmer, who seems to die. To preserve the simple plan, Hank decides to fake an accident that causes the farmer’s death. But, then it turns out the farmer isn’t dead, so Hank has to finish what Jacob started.

The simple plan has escalated to murder. That pebble in Hank’s shoe is now hot and blistering. It’s burning a hole in the sole of Hank’s foot.

Then more problems arise. The town drunk has always been content with his role, but the money seems a quick way to ease his pain and despair. Only Hank giving him some money threatens the simple plan. Another complication, Hank’s brother wants money to buy his parent’s vacant farm and fix it up. That also threatens the simple plan, since the village idiot coming up money to buy a farm would be improbable.

Every character started with a pebble in their shoe. Instead of the money easing the slight pain that pebble causes, it magnifies it because the money seems so close, to hold such promise. Each now has a jagged, hot rock in their shoe because of the very thing that would have seemed to banish their pain.

To protect her husband, Hank’s wife comes up with a plan to get the town drunk to confess to the murder of the farmer. She’s now invested in preserving the simple plan, seemingly to protect Hank. Hank now needs Jacob to set up his best, and only, friend’s false confession.

When Lou realizes that his friend Jacob has set him up, he turns on Hank with a shotgun. Jacob has to choose between killing his best friend or saving his brother. He saves his brother, kills his friend.

Then Hank has to kill Lou’s wife to cover up what’s just happened.

At each step of the story, each character’s pain continues to increase, continues to drive their actions.

Hank comes up with a plan to explain that Lou shot his wife, then turned on Hank, and Jacob shot Lou to save his brother. But, will he be able to convince the emotionally numb Jacob that he’ll back up the story? Jacob slowly agrees to tell Hank’s story.

Because Hank is a respected figure, the sheriff buys his version of events, even though they don’t make much sense.

Then an FBI agent shows up looking for the missing plane. Hank wants to return the money to the plane and just return to his old life, but his wife bitterly complains about how painfully empty and ugly life her life is with Hank. That pebble in her shoe has begun to burn. Hank sees no way but to go forward.

Then it comes out that it’s a fake FBI agent who’s come to find the plane, but Hank can’t let the sheriff go out into the woods alone with the fake agent to be killed. Hank desperately stalls for time to get a gun from the sheriff’s office. He finds a gun, but not the right bullets. Then bullets and gun. The narrative tension here goes straight from Hank to the audience. In the field near the plane, Jacob shows up. He’s talked to Hank’s wife and knows what’s about to happen.

The search begins and the sheriff finds the plane. Hank tries to warn the sheriff about the fake agent, but the sheriff is killed. Then the fake agent demands Hank get the money. Because Hank appears so ‘nice,’ the fake agent doesn’t take precautions and Hank gets out his gun (first dropping most of the bullets because of his fear and anxiety). Hank gets the drop on the fake FBI agent, who comments that Hank doesn’t appear to be the cold-blooded type and that they’ll both ‘have a lot of explaining to do.’ "Just me," answers Hank, and he shoots the other man in the head.

The simple plan has been preserved.

Then Jacob comes on the scene and tries to help the dead sheriff, but Hank tells him not to ‘mess up’ the scene. Jacob, numbly, asks how anything he could do at this point could mess up what’s just happened.

When Hank tries to explain how they just have to get through the next few hours to be happy, Jacob can no longer carry this burden.

Hank, "Goddamit, this is what it (happiness) costs."

Then a look of peace settles on Jacob’s face. It’s clear he knows what he must do now to put out the fire consuming his leg and raging toward his heart. He quietly picks up the gun of the fake FBI agent and hands it to Hank.

Jacob, "Make it look like the bad guy did it, Hank."

Hank at first doesn’t want to comprehend what his simple brother is asking, but the audience knows.

Hank, "We’re almost home."

Jacob, "I’m tired, Hank." From the revelations we’ve had from Jacob of what he would have used the money to escape -- his painful, horrible, lifelong loneliness -- we feel what he’s tired of. Jacob’s pain isn’t an abstraction to us. It’s that aching wound in the heart every lonely person lives with.

Hank tries to talk his brother out of what he’s asking, but Jacob keeps repeating the point that it’s the perfect way to preserve the perfect plan.

Finally, Jacob says, "I don’t want to be here."

At the beginning of this story, it would have been inconceivable what we know is going to happen next.

Jacob, "If you love me, Hank, you’ll do it."

Jacob tells Hank that if he won’t do what Jacob’s asking, Jacob will end his own life, destroying the simple plan.

Hank shoots the brother he now loves deeply, the brother he clearly despised as the story began. Crying out, "Jacob," Hanks drops to his knees beside his beloved brother. Hank weeps.

This scene is extended so we feel every moment of the deep, heart-wrenching pain here.

Hank is then interrogated about how a liar can be detected, but the questions are meant about the fake FBI agent. The men talking to Hank have no idea whom the real liar is.

An agent puts some of the money Hank returned to the plane in a bag and comments to the effect it’ll ‘only be a matter of time’ until they find the rest. It turns out that one out of every ten bills is marked. If one is spent, the FBI will know where the money is, and catch who’s spending it.

The simple plan was all for naught.

At home, Hank burns the money while his wife pleads that they flee the country to preserve the simple plan.

The story ends with Hank narrating how there are occasionally days when he can pretend he has his old life back.

It’s also clear he’s not really in pain anymore. That little pebble in his shoe burned with such fierceness, it consumed his heart and soul, leaving Hank dead inside. But free of pain.

To understand your characters, understand what kind of pebble they have in their shoes as your story begins. Then make those pebbles progressively bigger, hotter, sharper, jagged. As your story forces your characters to act with more and more determination to relieve or escape their pain, show the blood beginning to leak out of the shoes, first a drop, then a smear, then a bloody trail.

When your audience sees – and feels -- your characters acting in spite of their pain, your audience will understand in a way words can never convey that your characters are being driven by something that torments them. When what torments your characters also torments your audience in real life, at that point your audience will want, will demand, to feel your characters free from their pain. Even if that freedom means their deaths.

In that terrible, beautiful moment, we feel a release from our own pain.

At that moment, like Jacob, we are at peace.

Such is the greatest art of the storyteller, to leave an audience inwardly transformed by the storyteller’s intent.

(This article appeared in ScreenTalk, The International Magazine of Screenwriting.)

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