A Story is a Promise


A Story 
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The Exorcist -- Page Three
A Review By Bill Johnson

Posted September 6, 1997

In this third page of The Exorcist, Blatty continues to both advance his story and to introduce the characters most affected by this story.

Continuing...

	Then who was the trickster?
	

Again note how the audience is set up to have an answer to the question, but not Chris. Storytellers often makes their readers a confidant.

	A somnolent mind imposing order on the rattlings of heating pipes or 
	plumbing?
	

Again dark, suggestive words, "somnolent mind."

	Once, in the mountains of Bhutan, she has stared for hours at a 
	Buddhist monk who was squatting on the ground in meditation. 
	Finally, she thought she has seen him levitate. Perhaps.
	Recounting the story to someone, she invariably added, "perhaps."
	And perhaps her mind, that untiring raconteur of illusion, had 
	embellished the rappings.
	

With this passage the author suggests that all is not what it seems in our world. Note the phrase, "untiring raconteur of illusion," sets up a kind of defense for Chris to find a more "rational" explanation for what's happened. It also continues to develop her character via how she reacts to these rappings. We now have an image of her as someone with an active imagination. Again, the author doesn't say, "Chris realizes she has an active imagination." He writes that pondering the rapping pipes she realizes that her mind is an "untiring raconteur of illusion." One phrase is a weak, flat statement, the other is clever, engaging, suggestive. Storytellers always looks for those words that make their characters vivid and concrete.

	Bullshit!  I heard it!
	
	Abruptly, she flicked a quick glance to the ceiling.  There!
	Faint scratchings.
	
	Rats in the attic, for pete's sake!  Rats!
	

Note how Chris tends to put an exclamation point on her remarks. Yes, it's Blatty who's actually doing it, of course. It's another subtle way of setting out Chris's personality. Second note, Blatty does not leave Chris without some sense of resolution about the rappings. One that is fearful in its own right, rats in the attic, but note how he moves Chris from a sense of resolution to something else.

	She sighed. That's it. Big tails. Thump, thump.  She felt oddly
	relieved.  And then noticed the cold.  The room.  It was icy.
	

Blatty gives Chris only a moment of being "oddly relieved." And note even then that she isn't "perfectly relieved" but "oddly relieved." It again the subtle word choice that plays to the direction Blatty is guiding the story. Then note the escalation of the moment. She's no sooner "oddly relieved" then she notices the room is oddly "icy" cold. Blatty is not letting Chris, or the audience observing this moment through Chris, a moment of respite.

The storyteller always looks for the way to heighten the drama of every moment of a story and to escalate the tension of the advance of the story during those moments.

Continuing,

	She padded to the window. Checked it. Closed. She touched the
	radiator. Hot.
	

Note how Blatty has again given Chris a reason to set out details about the room. He doesn't do it at the beginning of the scene, or create an artificial reason to bring out this information about the room. He creates around the story advancing along its story and plot line a reason to describe the room.

	Oh, really?
	
	Puzzled, she moved to the bedside and touched her hand to Regan's
	cheek. It was smooth as thought and lightly perspiring.
	

Again the odd choice of words, her cheek as "smooth as thought." It's a subtle way again of how Blatty explores how things in our world actually cross different boundaries, a pair of shoes leading to a mediation on spirit and matter and consciousness, a young girl's cheek a reflection of her thoughts.

	I must be sick!
	

Notice how Blatty keeps us with Chris here. He recreates for us this dramatic moment when Chris first notices something happening in Regan's room.

	She looked at her daughter, at the turned-up nose and freckled 
	face, and on a quick, warm impulse leaned over the bed and kissed 
	her cheek. "I sure do love you," she whispered, then returned to 
	her room and her bed and her script.

This dramatic moment gives Chris a reason to pay attention to her daughter's looks in a way that is natural and unforced; it's part of the moment. Blatty didn't create an artificial event or introduction to find a way to describe Regan that would then exist outside of his story line and plot line.

Also note the expression of love Chris holds for Regan and how that creates a question about the outcome of her and Regan's character arc:

Will Chris be able to hold onto that love for Regan with what's going to happen?

Storytellers design the elements of their stories to build in these questions. So far Blatty has set up his story question,

What will the outcome of this battle between good and evil be?

A character arc for the still nameless Jesuit priest,

What will be the outcome of his battling this enemy again?

By naturally creating questions, a story's audience is drawn to keep reading to get answers. Note also that all these questions arise from what's at stake in this story and this battle between good and evil playing out in this house. In the first sentence of the novel Blatty writes about "exploding suns that register dimly on blind men's eyes." This story's audience is being given a ring side seat to this anticipated explosion, and no sunglasses will be allowed.

This brings the novel to the bottom of page 13, page two of the story.

The question that arises is, did Blatty think about all this as much as I've set out? The honest answer, I don't know. But if he didn't, if he just set out to write this story and this is the result, the reason he could do that was because he's internalized principles of storytelling that made his creation of this story dramatic. Those principles guided what he wrote to have a clear, potent, dramatic purpose.

I can appreciate failed novelists who would like to believe there's some simple formula that exists outside understanding the craft of creating a story that would help them write a successful novel. Some computer program they could just fill in the blanks. While I believe those kind of programs can help writers working on their own to process through a number of story issues, writers still need to understand how to both frame their questions and how to put together words that create images that set out a story's dramatic purpose and advance it. That, I believe, isn't something that can be set down to a preordained system.

Continuing,

	For a while Chris studied. The film as a musical comedy remake of
	Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A subplot had been added dealing
	with a campus insurrection.  Chris was starring. She played a
	psychology teacher who sided with the rebels. And she hated it.
	
	It's dumb.  This scene is absolutely dumb!  Her mind, thought
	untutored, never mistook slogans for truth, and like a curious bluejay 
	she would peck relentlessly through verbiage to find the glistening, 
	hidden fact. And so the rebel cause, to her, was "dumb." It didn't make
	sense. How come? she wondered. Generation gap? That's a crock; 
	I'm thirty-two. It's just plain dumb, that's all, it's...!
	
	Cool it.  One more week.
	

Now that the story has been set into motion and its principle characters introduced, Blatty sets up a change of pace that adds some background information about Chris. The most important point about this is that he started the story moving forward first, he didn't try and start the story with backstory about Chris. If the novel had begun, page one, with the line that begins, "For a while Chris studied," and finished that passage, then begun the rapping, the story would have been skewed. The author would have been introducing Chris ahead of his story.

It is, however, important to take a look at the subtext of what Blatty offers about Chris in the material above. First, the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is about an innocent outsider coming to Washington. This echoes with the idea of a demon coming to Washington. The subplot added to the film Chris is starring in deals with an insurrection. The idea of evil in the Christian mythos is based on an insurrection by Satan. Chris is presented as someone who won't take slogans over facts. But she's about to be tested by a manifestation of evil, not the slogans one hears about evil. Note her feeling about being thirty-two, when she's about to confront a battle that has gone on a millennia. Last line, "Cool it. One more week." Not with what the author is setting up.

While the passage above seems purely background, it's still woven through what's dramatically at stake in this story. Some of the effects of the words used may only register in a dim way, but they do register as having a purpose in the story.

A few more notes about Chris, even for when this novel was written a filmed-musical of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington could be construed as some sly humor on the author's part. Filmed musicals, like religion, were considered dying at the time.

Another point, because Chris is an actress she'll have an ability to respond to the story's events with a range of thoughts and feelings. Blatty creates dynamic characters to act out his story. For example, that Chris is starring in a musical and is not the lead role also suggests that her career is either on its downside (the reference to her age), or its never quite been what she wanted. Either interpretation adds a dramatic note to Chris's character.

One last observation, Chris compares herself to a "bluejay" that pecks through things. It's a suggestive, self-made remark about her character but not as flattering as Chris might think. It's Blatty using the words a character uses to describe themselves to create a different levels of meaning.

Blatty sets his story into motion and uses details that sustain that advance. He never pauses to describe a moment just to describe it. He always has a deeper purpose in what he describes. He introduces the story and sets it into motion in a way that gives a dramatic purpose of the Jesuit father and why he's at the dig in Northern Iraq. That dramatic purpose cues us to what is special about the house. He then brings us to Chris, who presents us to Regan, coming back to Chris who thinks about Karl in a way that sets up his introduction and dramatic purpose in the story. What's happening here is that the author is setting up and setting into motion a story that revolves around this battle between good and evil in a way that his audience is aware of the purpose of the story. The elements of the story are arranged and designed so the author's audience is always aware of why he's setting before them a particular moment. And because the story has a clear purpose with an anticipated outcome around this battle between good and evil, the story's audience looks forward to the continuation of this journey to its resolution of this battle and the fulfillment it creates.

Put another way, Blatty crafts an entry into the world of his story and makes sure that the story journey is engaging, enticing and rewarding. Another author might write a story that could create a movement compared to a roller coaster ride. A third, a story that creates a movement of subtle perceptions and illuminations about life. The particular nature of the journey is created by the design of the storyteller.

Continue to The Exorcist -- Page Four Review

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