A Story is a Promise



Another Night in the Afterlife, poems and plays by Bill Johnson, is available from Lulu.com.
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.

Question

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?

Sharleen

Sharleen,

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.

Bill

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New Question

Please speak more directly to the issue of what a writer choses what words and images and scenes to recreate a heightened dramatic moment.

My Response:

To understand writing "in the dramatic moment," one should start with an understanding of the dramatic purpose of a story. A story, through its use of words, images and sounds creates for its audience the effect of a quality of movement toward resolution/fulfillment of a story's issues and events. To make a story's world feel/ring "true," every element in a story -- words, images, characters, events, ideas, environment -- must have a purpose that connects it with a story's overall dramatic purpose.

Starting with an understanding of a story's overall dramatic purpose, writers can begin to see down into the interior of their stories, into the particular words and images that best bring them to life. To understand the individual words and images that compose a story and make it deeply felt, then, one can follow a series of steps.

First, start with understanding the larger context of what a story's about. To understand a story's overall dramatic purpose, start with its premise. A premise identifies a story's core dramatic issue, its movement toward resolution, and what type of fulfillment that resolution sets up for the story's audience.

A story is then populated with characters who feel the pull of a story's core dramatic issue, and the issues and events that arise from this issue being acted out.

A story's events are those that best act out a story's dramatic movement from introduction to resolution/fulfillment.

A story's physical terrain arises from what dramatizes a story's action.

A story's emotional terrain arises from the emotions a story's events and issues elicit from its characters.

To engage an audience, a story's events and the goals of its characters are set up as a story and scene questions suggesting a dramatic need for action/resolution.

As characters act and react to a story's events and environment, the story's audience is led to internalize a story's movement to experience its resolution/fulfillment.

To write deeply "in the dramatic moment," one must see a story not as a series of happenings enlivened for an audience by how they are described and recreated, but a series of events that each have an interconnected dramatic purpose that arises from a particular role in acting out a story dramatically.

To understand how to write "in the dramatic moment," then, one must understand the dramatic purpose of each step/event/moment in a story, and write in a way that heightens the dramatic effect of that moment as it relates to all the "moments" in the story, and the overall sense of how that communicates a story's dramatic purpose.

For example, writing about courage "in the moment" isn't trying to set up a step/event/happening to propel characters toward a story's resolution of courage. It's setting up for the audience an experience of courage in the moment of its happening through the outcome of a dramatic situation that is given meaning by its relationship to the story's dramatic purpose.

To create this heightened dramatic effect, one must trim away all that has no dramatic purpose in the scene. In a novel, this means that one doesn't describe a situation to make it "real," i.e., a receation of what a room "looks" like. One describes a room according to the dramatic purpose of a scene. Therefore, if very little information about an environment (a particular room) is important to the dramatic purpose of a scene, one doesn't expend too many words describing it.

To understand which words to use to describe the scene, again start with an understanding of the dramatic purpose of the story itself, and the relationship of the scene to the story as a whole. Because the point is, again, not to make an environment, or character, or event "real" in life-like terms, but to make it dramatically "true" to the story's audience.

To use a concrete example, take the story scenario set on a mountain I've developed. Its foundation dramatic issue is courage.

How does one understand how to write "in the moment" in such a story's opening scene?

In this story, Mary, a distraught woman, sits in a empty nursery. Empty because her baby has died. To describe this scene according to the story's dramatic purpose is to set out:

Mary is lost in guilt, anger, shame over the death of her baby

Her appearance contrasts with the cheerfulness of the nursery and its artifacts.

When John, her husband, enters the nursery, it's clear he doesn't understand how to cross the gulf that now separates him and Mary.

This scene is written to set up the story question, can this couple and their relationship be healed, or will their marriage end?

To make that experience dramatic, the writer creates suspense - drama - around this issue and its outcome.

That's the dramatic purpose of this scene.

So how one describes Mary, John and the room ties into the underlying dramatic purpose for the scene:

Will John and Mary go, together, on a climb of a nearby mountain?

Will they find a way -- the courage -- to heal their relationship?

Writers seeking to transport an audience should always focus on the here and now of recreating the experiences of their characters.

For the novelist, this might mean contrasting the cheerfulness of the objects in the nursery with the appearance of John and Mary. To understand the dramatic purpose of the scene, then, is to understand the "why" a writer choses one particular sets of words over another to describe the room.

For the screenwriter, an understanding of the scene would guide them to focus on the dialogue that heightens the drama of the moment.

For the playwright, understanding the dramatic purpose of a scene is to have a tool to gauge what kind of dialogue these characters would have to bring this scene to life.

The writer who starts with the question, what's the dramatic purpose of this scene? And how can it best be brought to life, can begin to write scenes from the inside out. That is, they can have characters speak directly to the dramatic issues at stake in a scene, in relationship to what's at stake in the story itself.

Writers caught up in the notion that stories revolve around resolution or recreating "reality" write to make statements about a character's motives, why they respond as they do to a story's events, what they say about a story's events. Or, they describe events or places in a story as if it was the weight of description will make them ring "true" for an audience. But an environment can only be made to ring "true" to an audience to the degree that they are set up to experience its dramatic purpose. An environment without a dramatic purpose is simply dead weight, inert.

Again, it's because it's not the purpose of a story to recreate life, but to recreate a dramatic experience for a story's audience.

An example of a story that opens with writing "in the moment" is the opening page of Moby Dick, by Melville.

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the sphleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; when it is a dram, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand on me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can."

This passage is written by a master storyteller with a tremendous ability to write "in the moment." Note how clearly this passage describes Ishmael as a dramatic character, a character in movement. He is not described according to what he looks like, but anyone reading the passage above surely has some sense of how Ishmael appears as he comes down the street.

The storyteller seeking to write artistic novels, however, must do more than see the surface of this story. They must also see -- or intuit -- the deeper purpose this opening passage. Ishmael is a kind of everyman, feeling a restlessness of the soul that he assauges by going to sea. So the story opens with Ishmael on a quest to sooth a soul lust. But note all the talk about coffins and death ... and think about the larger purpose of this story. Ahab, too, is on a quest. Where Ishmael has his "November of his soul," Ahab, the story's central character, has a "november of the soul" for humanity itself. And unlike Ishmael's personnel quest, Ahab's will take a number of men to a watery grave.

This story, then, asks a deeply human question: at what point does a quest become the satisfaction of the soul, and proper to be acted on, or a journey into madness?

That's the underlying purpose of that opening paragraph. On the surface, it's a description of the character Ismael at a particular point in time. But at each moment, the story's images are tied to its larger, more concrete dramatic purpose.

The full version of this essay is available in my story workbook.

Question

I found your essay on developing premises very helpful, however your section on fulfillment is very incomplete. I successfully developed an issue and a movement, but I didn't quite get a fulfillment because I am not sure what you meant. I developed a good premise which has helped me think about my screenplay in a much clearer fashion but I would like to complete it with a fulfillment.

So my question to you is: Can you give me some other examples of a fulfillment and perhaps a slightly more extensive explanation.

My response:

Since my essay on premise came out, I have taught a workshop and a class. I found that writers could generally define the dramatic issue or idea at the heart of a story, and its movement, but most could not identify the fulfillment of their story. So I've rewritten the essay on premise to make the issue of fulfillment clearer.

To cover it again, start with the purpose of a premise. It identifies a story's dramatic issue or idea, its movement, and its fulfillment. For the storyteller, the purpose of a premise is to identify what's at stake in a story and what makes visible that being resolved in a way that creates a sense of dramatic fulfillment. By understanding the fulfillment of a story, the storyteller better understands how to make that fulfillment dramatic, and thus desirable for an audience to experience.

To understand this process, consider the premise for Romeo and Juliet:

Great love defies even death.

The dramatic issue at the heart of this story is love.

The movement of the story is defies.

Its fulfillment is generated from the storyteller setting out and proving that great love can indeed defy even death. Those who internalize the movement and drama of the story experience love in a deeply felt way. The story, then, is set up and arranges its elements deliberately to create this effect of its fulfillment. So the storyteller in this or any story has a dual vision. One, how to create this state of dramatic fulfillment based on their story's resolution. Two, through understanding what state this resolution generate for the story's audience, the storyteller perceives better how to make that fulfillment deeply felt. A story that fails to offer its audience a desirable state of fulfillment (this does not mean happy, however), fails to reward its audience for their attention and interest.

To this end, Romeo and Juliet is set up as a series of questions: can love defy all obstacles that escalate to include even death? The dramatic answer, yes.

Returning to the story's premise, what creates this escalation of the story's drama comes from the fact that the storyteller understood the deeper movement of their story, this movement of love to prove itself by defying all obstacles to its fulfillment. By understanding the movement of their story, the storyteller perceives how best to block their movement to create dramatic effect. So a story about love is best blocked by hate. A story about courage is best blocked by fear. A story about freedom overcoming oppression is best blocked by an escalating level of oppression, i.e., The Hunt For Red October.

Consider the story Rocky. What's at stake in this story is whether courage and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds has any reward. The fulfillment for the story is that by having courage in the face of overwhelming odds, Rocky gained a sense of self-esteem. That's set up very concretely in this story. That if he can just remain standing by the end of the fight, he'll have gained a sense of self-respect. This is what's at stake in this story. Whether by having courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles, one can achieve self-respect.

Because the audience for the story brings to it their own issues of desiring to believe that courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles can lead to self-respect, they desire the story have a positive ending. But not just a positive ending, but a dramatic, deeply felt one. To be deeply felt, it must be presented that Rocky literally has no chance to even make it past the first round with Apollo Creed. Yet, the audience has been led to desire that his courage have some reward even while they feel that, like in life, courage in the face of such overwhelming odds will have no positive outcome.

The story, then, is set up, made dramatic, by the very fact of how unlikely it would be for Rocky to go the distance, yet that is the dramatic outcome the audience desires to believe. They desire this because it would mean that in their own lives, courage in the face of crushing obstacles could have a reward. So while the story piles it on just how unlikely Rocky having a chance to win the fight is, it also leads us to believe that just maybe the miracle might happen if Rocky believes in himself. Because Rocky doesn't quit, his courage is rewarded. He remains standing at the end of the fight. He "wins" not the fight, but his struggle for self-esteem. Note who he wants to share that reward with: Adrian, the woman who believed in him when everyone else doubted him. When he even doubted himself. See how that has been arranged to make the story's fulfillment more deeply felt, because for most people having the courage to confront obstacles isn't enough. They desire to believe that somewhere out there is someone who believes in them, has faith in them, will stand beside them no matter what, win or lose. So a significant part of the fulfillment of Rocky revolves around Adrian and her relationship with Rocky, her belief in him.

To sum this up, note how every character in the story has a role that ties them in to the story's premise. There is Apollo Creed, who appears fearsome (because the story's issue is courage). There are his handlers, including someone who warns Apollo that Rocky will not be a pushover. Rocky, of course, is surrounded by people, including his manager and Rocky himself, who have doubts about his ability. In the opening of the story, in fact, Rocky's being kicked out of the gym where he works out because his manager has lost faith in him.

So to understand your dramatic issue and its movement is to perceive how best to begin your story: Rocky, a story about self-respect, has a scene very early where the main character is told he's a nobody and to clean out his locker.

Romeo and Juliet, a story about love, opens with the two families engaged in a street brawl. This story about love starts by showing us the extent of the hate that will keep the two young lovers apart. It is the very fact that this hate is not only entrenched, but escalates the more Romeo and Juliet attempt to be together, that makes the story dramatic and deeply felt, and thus fulfilling of its issue of love.

Scrooge, a story about renewal, opens by showing us the extent to which Scrooge has become a mean-spirited crust of a human. Therefore, the story's movement toward Scrooge reintegrating as a man capable of human feeling is fraught with obstacles that make it seem Scrooge cannot or will not be able to overcome. It is not an easy journey, which, again, makes it all the more deeply felt.

Struggling storytellers who find a way to simply "give" their characters what they seek rob their stories of drama and vitality. Scrooge, Rocky, Ramius in Red October, Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, all these characters face difficult journeys fraught with conflict and pain, but, ultimately, their efforts are rewarded. Their audiences, then, share those rewards. They experience that courage can overcome fear, that renewal can lead to understanding, that the desire to be free in the face of oppression can be rewarded, that the courage to overcome one's sense of prejudice leads to a happier life. The point is, again, that all these story journeys arrange their elements to create their very effect of fulfillment that draws an audience to a story, in the main.

To fail to understand a story's fulfillment, however, is to fail to understand the very purpose of a story, the creation of this effect of fulfillment for the story's audience.

If you're still struggling with the issue of fulfillment for your particular story, what sense of resolution do the actions of your main character create for you? You said you understood your dramatic issue and your movement. How does the actions of your main character resolve what's at stake in your story in a way that offers your audience a particular experience of fulfillment? Are you offering them an experience of courage, renewal, the rewards of faith, that good can overcome evil, that courage in the face of fear leads to peace of mind and acceptance? What, exactly, do you want your audience to experience when they read the final pages of your story? If you can answer those questions, you can begin to understand how to make the journey there dramatic and desirable.

Thanks for asking the question. You were my first story question since I've been on the web.

Question

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

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.

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