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

Transcendence and Story -- A Review of L.A. Story
by Bill Johnson

The following is an abbreviated version of my review of the movie L.A. Story. The full review is available in my workbook, A Story is a Promise, available for $18.95. This workbook guides writers to an new understanding of the craft of writing dramatic stories.

A fundamental purpose of a story is to take life-like events, issues, and characters, and to recreate them in a way that they offer resolution and fulfillment. This deliberate arrangement of its elements makes a story unlike life, where experiences are:

  • Fragmented.
  • Issues are unresolved.
  • Feelings are unexplored.
  • Or, too painful to explore.
  • Issues appear unsolvable.

Thus, life experiences often fail to offer a sense of either resolution, completeness, or fulfillment.

So a story that arranges its elements to offer experiences that are designed to be complete, resolved and fulfilling can take its audience above and beyond an ordinary state of thought and feeling, to a transcendent state.

To explore how a story arranges and designs its elements to create an experience of transcendence, I will review L.A. Story. That this story is so transparent in its intent and purpose makes it a good choice to explore how one crafts an experience of transcendence using images, words, and sounds.

L.A. Story opens with a hot dog flying through the sky and a silly song sung in the background. Already we're being clued in that we're going to be offered an experience outside of our normal "reality." We're also introduced to a number of sights, many comic, that set out life in L.A.

The storyteller here is writing to the point of their story, that it will be about that which exists alongside our normal reality.

Next we meet Harris K. Telemacher, a wacky television weatherman with a degree in the Arts and Humanities. Harris, in a voice-over for the story, quotes Shakespeare, a recurring motif.

Going to lunch, Harris narrates that "life is sound and fury, signifying nothing." But he also passes a man standing at the side of the freeway looking up at a freeway sign. This background detail grows to assume large dimensions.

At lunch, Harris meets Sarah, a newcomer to L.A. During this encounter, the music and tone of every exchange featuring Sarah is serious. We're guided to "experience" that Sarah is a serious person, not a persona she projects like the others at the lunch.

After the lunch, thinking about Sarah, Harris drives off without his girlfriend. Thinking of Sarah, he's already existing outside of his normal "reality." Outwardly, he's with his girlfriend. Inwardly, he's with Sarah. In the same sense, outwardly we exist in the world. Inwardly, our lives and thoughts and needs can revolve around the way we interpret and reinvent reality to meet our needs, the stories we tell ourselves.

Later, Harris drives on the freeway and his car dies.

At that moment, the wind blows through the trees in a significant way. So even the "wind" is alive in this story. That the wind is "alive" speaks to that underlying unity of life is an idea this story addresses and develops.

As Harris stands before the freeway sign pointed out earlier, the sign asks Harris, "RUOK," i.e., "Are you okay?"

Harris assumes he's being filmed, especially when the sign asks to be hugged. But he obliges. He hugs the sign.

He has connected with the sign, and through it, through his willingness to reach out in spite of his fear of being ridiculed, he makes a deeper connection to life.

The sign tells him, "I see people in trouble and I stop them. L.A. wants to help you."

This scenes suggests that we are watched over, cared for, in ways that we cannot always comprehend. It is the story setting us up to experience this state of transcendence, to go beyond our normal state of feelings. The sign, again, "U will know what to do," and its riddle, "How Daddy is doing?"

Harris, puzzled, goes on his way.

The next day, the sun rises -- at its own speed. This is a special, magical world that operates at its own pace. Again, the story is set up to cue its audience to the magical nature of a story world.

The conclusion of the review...

Harris, narrating, "A kiss may not be the truth, but it's what we wish were true." Again, the story setting up its audience for a deeply felt moment, a moment more "true" than the events of life. In fact, it could be said, "A story may not be the truth, but it's what we wish were true."

Sarah and Harris join the freeway sign. It asks for a gift of...cable television. It wants to feel more connected to our world.

Again, that issue, that desire, to feel connected to the world. The basis of this need for the transcendent experience.

Sarah then figures out the answer to the sign's riddle, "How Daddy is Doing?"

The answer is the mystery of the ages in its simplicity.

Sign, "There are more things in heaven and earth."

Yes, and through this kind of story, we allow ourselves to experience them.

Beautiful bagpipes play "Amazing Grace."

The freeway sign itself has been transformed by Sarah and Harris's love. It creates the music it longed to play.

Lights come on all over L.A.

Another transcendent moment. We are all watched over.

Harris, narration, "Romance does exist in the heart of L.A."

The moon, symbol of love, embraces the lovers as they kiss.

Again, note how this final experience is designed to fill our senses, to flood them with visual/auditory information. And not just any visual information, but information designed to be deeply experienced and felt. Designed to craft for its audience an experience of resolution that creates a fulfillment so deeply felt it becomes transcendent.

Again, the story fills our eyes with light.

The heart with feeling, that love can find a way, that our desire to matter will ultimately be rewarded and fulfilled...if only in a story.

The ears with beautiful, meaningful music.

The story fulfills the need of its audience that logic and order not keep Harris and Sarah apart, that they find a way, through the help of the universe, to be together.

A transcendent moment.

Any story designed to create a state of intense feelings, thoughts, illuminations or sense impressions around a desirable issue in a way that suddenly elevates or floods our senses, or enlivens our inner state of feeling, can produce a transcendent experience. When this experience leads us to be able to feel our connectedness to the rest of the world, it elevates us to a state of communion. We feel not only a sense of oneness within ourselves, but with others in our world.

That great stories create this experiences for an audience is why they are so valued and revered.


A storyteller desiring to create the experience of transcendence must be aware of how to lay out the elements of their story in a way that they affect the story's readers in a particular manner. The storyteller who would create a transcendent moment must present their story elements in a way that they "light up" the interior world and senses of their story's audience. To do that, they must understand why a story's audience has a need to experience that sense of oneness and completeness. That is why a story, any story, must be of consequence if it's to engage the full attention of an audience. It must be about something that the members of an audience recognize and desire to feel and experience within themselves.

A storyteller who understands the needs of their audience, and how a story meets those needs, better understands the craft of how to create a transcendent experience using words, images, and sounds.

Copyright 1996 Bill Johnson