A Story is a Promise


A Story 
is a Promise

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

Bringing the Dead to Life

Notes on Twilight


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

I'm always curious when a book becomes a phenomena. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, is such a novel. So I bought it to see how the story 'works' to draw in its audience. In these notes I'll begin by breaking down the novel's opening preface line by line.

First line,

I'd never given much thought to how I would die--though I'd had reason enough in the last few months--but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

This is pure drama, which I define as an anticipation of an outcome. There are many dramatic questions here.

    Why did the narrator have reasons to imagine his or her death?
    What kind of death is the narrator facing, that he or she couldn't have imagined it?
    What situation does the narrator find him or herself in?
    Where is the narrator?

To get the answer to these questions, the reader has to read the next sentence. That is the prime responsibility of the first sentence of a novel, that a reader be compelled to read a second sentence. That's why this kind of mysterious first sentence is often seen in popular novels. A first sentence that is not compelling becomes a first step in a reader disengaging from a novel. I teach that it's three steps and the reader is gone.

There's a difference between a dramatic question and a question. 'Would I die today?' is a question, but it's not a dramatic question like the first sentence above. When I try and teach some writers the art of a good opening line with dramatic questions, some people respond by framing ordinary sentences as questions.

Second paragraph, second sentence,

I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

This begins to suggest a place, 'the long room,' while raising the question, why a long room? Where is this room? It also raises the question, who is the hunter? Why does the hunter look 'pleasantly' at the narrator who, based on the first sentence, would appear to be facing death from the hunter? Or not. To get the answer to that question, the reader has to read the third sentence.

These two sentences have set up a process I call question, answer, question. The first sentence raises questions, the second sentence begins to answer those questions (who or what is threatening the narrator with death), while the answer to the question (the hunter is threatending the narrator) simply raises another question, who is the hunter?

This question, answer, question process creates an on-going hold on the attention of readers, and also creates forward movement that pulls the reader ahead. When the opening to an unpublished novel lacks this process, the sentences are often a collection of details describing a time, place, or character. Such statements operate as statements: this is what so-and-so looks like; this is what this place looks like. The risk is that such statements lack drama -- there's no anticipation of an outcome. There can be an anticipation of an outcome based on the appearance of a character, but when there's not, the opening pages of a story can be the weakest writing in an unpublished novel.

A literary agent or editor reading the above two lines would be immediately aware that this is a novel written by a storyteller.

Third paragraph,

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

Many more questions here; more 'pull' on the reader.
    Why is the narrator ready to die in place of someone else?
    What makes that noble?
    Why is it important to the narrator that this noble act 'count for something?'
    What has the narrator done in life that he or she needs to balance the scales?

Fourth paragraph,

I knew that if I'd never gone to Forks, I wouldn't be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn't bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

This begins to answer the question, where is this story happening (Forks), but that answer raises another question, where is Forks? Why did the narrator go to Forks? Why does the narrator not regret the decision, which could lead to his or her death? How did this journey to Forks become this grand fulfillment of a dream for the narrator?

Last sentence of preface,

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.

More questions. Why is the hunter so friendly? So relaxed about killing someone?

To get answers, readers must turn the page and start reading chapter one.

This preface is designed to have the maximum impact; to raise many questions while providing a few answers. The pace of the story does slow with the first chapter, but the hook has already been set and the audience reeled in.

Excellent story mechanics.

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