? Small Slices -- Reviews of the openings of popular novels to explore principles of story structure, by Bill Johnson
A Story is a Promise

A Story 
is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling Book Cover

A fifth edition of my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available on Kindle for $2.99, and from Barnes and Noble for their Nook reader.
This new edition explores what happens when story characters are an extension of authors and suggests techniques for authors to create characters with fully realized inner lives. The book includes a section titled Deep Characterization, and a revision of A Story is a Promise, with an outline of The Lovely Bones and updated reviews of films, including Inception. It also includes the new essay, Storytelling and the Superconscious Mind.

Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author

Small Slices

by Bill Johnson

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

These reviews offer an overview of how the openings of these novels were written to engage an audience. They are not meant to convey a review of a full book, just a taste of one small slice of each book.

All reviews by Bill Johnson, copyright 2001-2014.

Creating an Alien if Familar World

Notes on The Hunger Games

Cover of the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins offers an example of how to tell a story around a familiar if alien world, here the United States that has divided into mini-states. This kind of story requires raising questions and introducing information about this new world that draws an audience forward to want to know more.

In the beginning...

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

The novel starts rooted in the POV of Katniss, a young girl. The opening conveys subtle information about the world, waking up cold, a mattress with a canvas cover, the question, what is the reaping? It also raises character questions, who is Prim? Why is she having bad dreams? What do her dreams have to do with the reaping?


     I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

This conveys a stronger sense of place, but more questions. Why does the mother appear 'beaten-down'? What happened to the once beautiful mother? Who is this 'they' who commented on the mother's former beauty?


     Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the ugliest cat in the world. Mashed in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash.

This conveys a description of a cat, but also a subtext about this world, that pets fend for themselves in a harsh world. There's also the subtext here that the narrator does not like this cat.


Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least he distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home.

Again, another question: why did the narrator feel compelled to kill the cat? With the title, Hunger Games, the reason is implied; one more mouth to feed.

Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed.

That confirms the why the narrator wanted the kitten dead, but raises another question: why is she responsible for feeding her mother and sister?

But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser. Even catches an occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

This conveys the narrator's desire to make her little sister happy. That a pet is fed entrails and not cat food again suggests something about this familiar yet alien world.

     Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

There's a subtext here that in this harsh world, accomodations are made, but only grudgingly.

This is the first page of the book. It continues with the narrator getting up and ready to go out hunting, and relates that she lives in District 12 that is crawling with coal miners. Again, questions are raised that will soon be answered, and the answers will raise new questions.

The author next relates that District 12 is surrounded by an electrified fence to protect the inhabitants from wild dogs and other wild animals. District 12 is sounding more like a gulag, which it comes out that it is for most of its inhabitants, but the narrator is willing to go beyond that fence.

Suzanne Collins demonstrates a deft touch in introducing this narrator in a harsh world, but also showing her inititive to not be fenced in. Novels that lack this clearly defined, carefully crafted character and plot and scene development from their opening lines risk being static and dramatically inert.

The rest of the reviews that were on this page are now available for .99 on my writing workbook, Reading to Write, a novel approach to novel writing. Available on Smashwords.

These are some of the titles reviewed.

Magic Spells
The Bell Jar
Lady Chatterley's Lover
The Outsider
The Tin Drum
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Funeral for Horses
Tell No One
Catcher in the Rye
Harry Potter