A Story is a Promise

Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise & 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 for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle.

This edition offers new, unique tools for creating vibrant story characters, how to outline a novel, and a guide to writing a novel, screenplay, or play, how to evaluate a manuscript, review a screenplay, and tools to revise a novel; and my new essay, Storytelling and the Superconscious Mind.

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

Characters and Premise
by Bill Johnson

edited by Lawrence Booth

This essay reviews Last Action Hero. This film is an example of a story violating its premise. Because a story's premise lays out a story's dramatic idea, movement and what constitutes the fulfillment of the story's dramatic idea, when Last Action Hero moved away from fulfilling its premise through the action of the story, the story's movement weakened. Because an audience needs to internalize a story's movement to experience the fulfillment of the its events and character issues, by violating its movement, Last Action Hero struggled to engage and satisfy its audience.

Last Action Hero opens by filling a movie screen with a movie screen. We are quickly introduced to detective/hero Jack Slater. Jack goes up against the Ripper, a maniac with an ax holding Jack's son. Jack shoots the Ripper and...something happens to Jack's son that we can't quite see. This scene evokes powerful feelings about a father trying to protect his son. The scene is very clear and evocative about establishing what will be at stake for Jack Slater in the world of this story, resolving his grief at the loss of his son.

Then we go to Danny, and realize we are watching an action adventure movie. That's why Jack has a boss who shouts like a fog horn and is the recipient of Jack's badge as Jack goes to face the Ripper against his boss's orders; it's a convention of action adventure movies.

Because the movie has gone out of focus, Danny goes to tell Nick, the projectionist. Nick is a kind, loving grandfather type-figure to Danny. They talk about an upcoming Jack Slater movie. Danny seems happy, with nothing particularly at stake, and there isn't much that we, as viewers, are asked to feel about him.

Danny goes home to an idealized, loving mother. The only conflict developed is that she doesn't want him going out when she leaves. When Danny does tries to go out, a mugger breaks in. He taunts Danny to go for his knife when his back is turned. The scene seems only to be about Danny living in a world dangerous for kids, and that's why he spends so much time living in a movie world. On a deeper level the scene is vital for understanding the movement of Danny's character, and how it ties his character's action into the story's premise, but it doesn't register at the time as that. Its true purpose is to establish what's at stake for Danny, that his issue revolves around overcoming a fear to act.

Danny next is at the police station, a drab place. He then goes to meet Nick, who is dressed in an usher's uniform from his youth. The old style uniform is symbolic of Nick's inner character and state of feeling, of a time when Nick could have made a choice and reached out to life, but didn't. Like Danny's scene, Nick's scene doesn't particularly evoke much feeling, or suggest what is truly at stake for Nick in the story.

Nick presents Danny with a "magic" movie ticket Nick never used. Danny goes into the theatre. When the movie starts, we are introduced to Benedict and his mob boss. This scene develops conflict between the boss and Benedict, his hired killer. It also leads to Jack finding his second cousin at death's door and his miraculous escape from an explosion (where one dying cop is only two days from retirement). Last Action Hero plays out many clever, funny riffs on action movie conventions. Many are enjoyable and fun to watch.

Leaving the scene, Jack is chased by the mob boss's henchmen in a pickup. Massed automatic weapon's fire aimed at Jack from close range is unable to even hit his car; even sticks of dynamite exploding close by don't phase Jack or his car. One of those packages of dynamite lands in Danny's world, and Danny is transported into this new world via the explosion and his magic movie ticket.

Story note: Danny does not consciously make a choice to enter this world. He's simply tossed there, so the scene asks us to feel nothing in particular about this event; or consider it a goal of Danny's life he's worked to achieve.

Danny and Jack go through a series of spectacular chase scenes. It's not made clear what's at stake for Danny being in Jack's world, such as, how will he get back, what are we being asked to feel about it, etc. Danny appears to be having the time of his life, all without effort on his part. He's even paired with Jack as a partner.

Through several scenes, the movie is about Danny convincing Jack he's really only an action hero in a movie. It's funny material, and clever. Jack and Danny meet Benedict again, and his interest in Danny develops some suspense over what will happen next in the "movie" world of the story. Benedict is a deeply realized, well characterized, over the top movie villain. He brings conviction and life to the movie with his presence.

Next we meet Whitney, Jack's daughter. We are asked to feel something when it's obvious Danny is enamored of her. Also, we get a scene that evokes feelings about Jack's dramatic situation from the beginning of the movie. We see that his son died that night on the roof. It is a powerful and strongly evocative scene. We are asked to feel engaged in Jack's life and his need to experience his grief in a way that he can move on in his life.

Then Benedict shows up, and we are again allowed to share Danny's emotions for Whitney, and to feel his courage when he stands up to Benedict to protect her. Benedict takes possession of the magic movie ticket, but before that can be developed, we go back to the parody of the mayhem that never touches Jack. Danny realizes that, as the sidekick, he needs to fear for his life. Another explosion, and Jack turns in his badge in the aftermath.

Jack and Danny go to a rundown apartment, Jack's exile. Jack talks about his life, his real feelings behind the image of being a heroic figure. We are being asked to feel something about Jack's life. The material is very skillfully presented, and evokes feelings about how Jack "feels" about his world and his place in it. The scene asks questions that draw us deeper into the story. What action of the story will force Jack to learn the truth about why such deadly action going on around him never seems to touch him?

Jack realizes what Benedict and his mob boss are really up to, and he must operate under a deadline to avert many deaths. He and Danny go to the hotel and are sidetracked by Jack's false friend, the killer of Mo Zart. In a series of reversals, Jack gets the upper hand. Danny, a young boy without a driver's license, figures out how to use a crane. Jack again escapes massed weapon's fire that would punch a hole in Jupiter. There is suspense, however, and beautifully staged action.

Next, Benedict, who by this time understands the power of the magic ticket, kills his boss. Jack shows up spectacularly, but Benedict escapes into "our" world. Finally, Jack believes Danny, and Jack must make a choice. Will he pursue Benedict into this other dimension? This place that is foreign to him? He makes the choice and follows.

Again, this scene asks a question that draws the viewer deeper into the story. What will happen when a "movie" character like Jack enters "our" world.

In our world, the tempo of the story picks up dramatically. Jack meets Nick and we are finally clearly told the premise of the story: "Overcoming fear leads to growth."

Because it's so late in the movie that the premise is clearly established, it is only now that the action of the story's characters, and the drama their actions create over its outcome, comes clearly into focus. It's now clear what those earlier scenes about Danny, Nick and the death of Jack's son meant in terms of the premise of the story. Its clear what's at stake emotionally for Danny, Nick and Jack. And now that the premise is clear, the audience can internalize what drives these characters and how what they do or not do, accomplish, or not accomplish, will shape the outcome of the story. Now the movie's viewers can clearly understand the emotional states the movie asks them to experience through investing emotionally in the actions of its characters.

Nick, in wearing the usher's uniform at the beginning of the movie, symbolically pointed out how, because of his fear, he'd quit growing when he was young, and had lived a life of regret for the chances he'd never followed.

Danny has lived in fear, and needed to go to movies to feel a state of courage, unlike living in the real world where his fear overwhelmed him.

Jack begins to grow, because in our world being a hero is not something that simply happens without effort on his part. He must live and suffer pain. Through this suffering he has a chance to process his grief over his son's death and grow, unlike his movie life, that simply assigned him a role and certain character traits that never vary.

Increasing the pressure of what's at stake in the now fully dynamic world of the story, Benedict plans to bring in other film characters who will threaten our world. Scary guy, scary stuff.

Jack's fondness for Danny's mother raises a host of other questions. What would happen if they fell in love? Could Jack stay in our world? Be a father to Danny? We have that basic plot question now in action: how will this story be resolved? Now, the clever ideas serve the story, instead of just entertaining us.

With the story premise clearly stated and individual character premise's being acted out in a way that moves the story forward, the movie moves forcefully and quickly toward its climax/fulfillment. Jack saves Danny from the Ripper, gaining some healing from the loss of his son, and we in the audience share in this. When Benedict returns to the scene, Jack must stop Benedict or he will unleash unthinkable horror upon our world. Jack dispatches Benedict with Danny's help, but Jack is mortally wounded. Danny gets Jack back to the movie theater, where Death arrives in a beautifully developed scene. Danny now has the courage to face down even Death. He has become a hero in his own right.

Jack, returning to his world, takes with him a deeper sense of his true self. He is now more than just an action adventure hero; unlike all the other action adventure heroes, he's a fully dimensional character. He lives, feels pain, is in charge of his own destiny.

Nick sees that he can move on in life now, do the things he was afraid to do when young.

Unfortunately, the movement of these characters to act out and fulfill their individual character goals has not been developed through much of the story, even though what these characters want/feel/desire/are willing to fight for should power the movement of the story toward its fulfillment.

This is important because even an average action adventure movie, when well done, is more than conflict between the good and the bad. It is also a movement toward a fulfillment of what's at stake in the world of the story through the actions of the characters. If viewers decide to internalize the story, it allows them to share in the outcome of scenes and the story itself. But the viewer internalize this story journey only if the story is true to its movement. Stories that feel false, or of no particular consequence, or moving toward no desirable outcome, offer their viewers no reason to internalize the story's movement. Because Last Action Hero did not make clear what it's story was asking its audience to feel, or make clear what was at stake in a way the audience could feel a sense of the drama over its outcome, viewers did not fully become engaged by the movie.

Inexperienced writers often struggle because they can impose/overlay on their stories their own feelings/responses to the actions of their characters. Because they feel strongly the emotions they wish the action of the story and its characters to evoke, they can imagine the action of their stories generates the same intense feelings to their readers. But the reader of such a story only picks up what the writer actually evokes by their writing, not the writer's states of emotion.

Another problem here comes from introducing ideas to create a sense of story movement. Last Action Hero's dramatic movement toward its fulfillment was overshadowed by clever ideas and action scenes that didn't tie tightly enough into the underlying emotional states of the main characters; or establish a clear purpose toward a goal that the viewers could identify with as revolving around the story's premise.

When you set out to tell a story, consider, what is the dramatic idea at the heart of your story? In Last Action Hero, it's about the courage to face fear and move forward in life. The story of Last Action Hero is a separate, if intertwined issue, from its characters and their goals. Through understanding the goals and states of emotions of the characters in your story, you can learn to create characters who actively, forcefully, purposefully act in the world of your story. And when you've learned how to create such a world where something is clearly at stake, with characters who feel driven to make that something their, set them in that world and watch them move!

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