A Story is a Promise
Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling book cover
Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author

Questions and Answers

If you've read my essays and have a story question about a script you're working on, or a question about one of the movies I've reviewed, send it to me at bjscript@teleport.com. I would be happy to answer your questions on this page. It's a way we can explore together more about the craft of storytelling.


I have to say I'm not entirely sure what you mean by narrative tension.

You have, say, a character with an issue of deep human need (eg, to be forgiven); the story "promises" to resolve it -- ie, the resolution of the need for forgiveness is the story's promise.

The character is somehow blocked/can't get what (s)he needs. Not being able to satisfy the deep human need creates tension within the character. The audience (hopefully) internalizes this tension, which equals "narrative tension." Correct?

If this is correct, can you give more examples of this internalizing? For example, in the book you mentioned, Tell No Lies, or another of your choosing, what, specifically, makes the audience internalize the tension of the main character?



My Response:

Cover of Coben's novel Tell No One. In Tell No One, as the story opens, the main character has told a lie that's creating some distance between himself and his wife/soul mate. There's an immediate question of how this issue of his having lied to her will be resolved, how it will impact their relationship.

His tension comes from not knowing what to do, and fearing that his wife might be withdrawing from him while he's not sure what to do.

Everyone who's been in a situation of having done something to damage a relationship, but not sure what to do to repair the damage, will understand this situation. At that moment, the tension this man is going through can be experienced by a story's audience

What would I do in this situation? What would you do?

Before this issue can be resolved, they are attacked, and the last thing this man hears is his wife screaming his name.

When the story picks up years later, he has never been able to resolve his feelings about that night. He's stuck in his grief. His love for her defined his life. Without her, there's a void that can't be filled.

Then he gets an email from her telling him that she's alive, but to tell no one.

This eases his grief over his loss, but it increases his pain around not knowing why she's lied to him, and what happened that night.

His tension increases.

If the story's audience also feels caught up in the question, how can his wife who was murdered still be alive, the tension for the audience increases.

His situation is complicated because he's not supposed to tell anyone she's alive. But, if he doesn't tell someone, how can he find out what happened?

The tension in the story is relentless. Everything he does to discover the truth -- a truth he must seek -- puts him in greater danger, yet he can't not seek that truth.

That's narrative tension.

The main character in this story is a doctor, a very caring man. At one point in the story, he's being chased by the police when he's just been given directions on a place and time to meet his wife for the first time since her 'death.' When he's confronted by a lone, young policeman, he can either give up or go for broke and attack the policeman. He attacks, rams the young man with his head, then kicks him until he knows he can't get up. Then he flees.

The whole time he's attacking the policeman, he's horrified at what he's doing, but he can't stop, because he might miss his only chance to see his wife again.

That's narrative tension.

What brings Tell No One to life is this man who will risk everything to find out what happened to his wife, and I as a reader internalize and share that tension. I have to find out what happened to the wife as well, and I can't stop reading until I do.

A novel lacking narrative tension is just a sequence of events, a collection of details.



New Question


What is the difference between climax and fulfillment? Could you offer some more examples?

Poster of the movie Die Hard.

I associate a story's climax with the resolution of its action. In Die Hard, the action of the story is resolved when Bruce Willis's characters outwits and defeats Hans, and the black patrolman shoots the brother of the terrorist who had sworn to kill Willis's character, saving Willis. The fulfillment of the story, however, revolves around Willis's character and his character's wife, played by Bonnie Bedalia, and the patrolman. What fulfills the story is that Willis and Bedalia reunite, and that, secondarily, the black patrolman regains his ability to do his job and fire his weapon.

To see the comparison to a story with a weak fulfillment, compare Die Hard with Die Hard 3. Die Hard 3 has all the action of the original story, but it's not set up to offer any particular sense of fulfillment based on its resolution. For example, it's suggested that Jackson's character has an issue with disliking white people, but not much energy is spent developing the idea or issue in a way that generates a quality of resolution or fulfillment. Willis's character is presented as being estranged from his wife, Bedalia, but not much is set up around that issue. She's never even shown. At the end of the film, he walks toward a pay phone to call her. But it's not an act the audience has been particularly led to care about by the action of the story.

Jeremy Iron's character, the brother of Hans in the first film, is at first presented as acting to avenge his brother's death. But later in the film he says that's not it, he really has no feelings about the fact that Willis killed his brother.

Compare those story situations to Die Hard and the subplot about the terrorist out to get Willis to avenge his brother's death. It was skillfully woven into the story and figured prominently in both its climax and what it set up to be the story's fulfillment.

Each film, Die Hard and Die Hard 3, worked to achieve a sense of resolution, and built toward a climax of its action. Die Hard, however, was also very clear about generating the deeper quality of an enjoyable story, fulfillment. The most deeply felt moment of Die Hard 3, for me, doesn't even involve the main characters. It was set up around a bomb squad officer who risked his life to save some children. The story of Die Hard, by comparison, revolves around, and is fulfilled by the actions of its main characters.

Audiences in general can't be "fooled" about whether or not a story provides a "moving" experience. For example, a movie like Babe connects with its audience because it sets up a story-like quality of movement, and the action of the story resolves its issues in a way that offers a desirable state of fulfillment.


New Question

The issue of setting out narrative tension was an assignment in a class. Below is the assignment, a student's response, the material he's using in italic, and my response in bold.

1, pick a popular story and explain how a quality of narrative tension is set out in the opening scenes. Like a story's promise, this might be done in a subtle, elusive, or concrete way.

Cover of Jane Hamilton's Book of Ruth I chose to profile the set up of narrative tension in the opening scenes of The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton.

Hamilton begins by baiting the reader with some fairly intense foreshadowing / foreboding:

"What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people's hearts."

"I'm the only one who tells the story from beginning to end. It can't be Ruby. . .Neither love nor prayer can bring him back."

Obviously, something bad has happened. Something so bad that it makes one think of the worst of people and it is irreversible.

Yes, again we move from a general suggestion of a story's promise and the tension around the outcome of that promise, to a specific question. Here, what happened to Ruby? The storyteller wants to draw us forward.

If an opening sentence/first paragraph, first page doesn't compell/encourage/engage an audience to keep reading, chances are the book will be closed.

Building on this tension:

"By rights, this belongs to Justy because he inherits the earth for a short time . . He'll remember the taste of pecan balls . . . and the color and shape of Ruby's teeth."

I know from this biblical reference that Justy is likely a child, which adds to the level of terror I connect with as I imagine, through the duration of the book, all the horrible things that could happen to a child.

"But nothing much has come my way without a price."

I know the narrator has been to the other side and is making her way back, through the telling of this story.

MOST chilling is what Hamilton does next -- changing the pace -- moving from the doom and gloom voice to that of a light-hearted narrator describing a Norman Rockwell painting. In this style, she begins to describe a small town full of people poor in ways beyond a lack of money. Most of the people of Honey Creek are bankrup spiritually, economically, intelletually and financially.

This is what I mean when I say both people and a place can suggest a dramatic truth. From what you're saying, the storyteller had a very specific aim when describing these people that creates a powerful subtext to what appears on the surface.

If you understand a dramatic truth about a character or place, and you understand how that dramatic truth is rooted in the world of your story, you can then use your creative imagination to explore how best to set out that truth. I see people getting stuck on describing the literal truth of what something would look like in real life, and then wondering why their writing lacks dramatic tension, passion, or a sense of purposeful observation.

The people of Honey Creek blunder in their decision making (both large and small) and with much more dire consequences than one should have to face for being fallable, being human.

The opening of this story leads me to believe Jane Hamilton understands very well how to explore the consequences of making bad decisions.

In this context, the name of the village is quite ironic.

Bill Top of page