I recently finished reading what I responded to as one of the most helpful commentaries encountered on the craft of writing, “A Story Is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling”, by Bill Johnson.
Johnson is a writer and writing teacher. He has a capacity, based on this book, to not only point out the importance of having a structured commitment to turning ideas into audience pleasing stories, but also uses numerous novels and films to reinforce his messages.
The initial theme, underlying throughout the text, is that a writer as storyteller makes a pledge to an audience. The author promises to create ‘lifelike characters and events and circumstances’, while ‘editing and arranging details’, ultimately ‘to move an audience toward a desirable experience of resolution’. Ideally, a story should ‘resolve some human need, or offer illuminations about life’.
Moreover, ‘only details which help a story’s world ring true should be included’. Stay on message, even in writing roles of minor characters.
Assuming the desire is to write for an audience beyond oneself, one should strive to create an engrossing story in the mind of the audience, providing characters and events which move along.
Other bits of wisdom, as part of the promise and the spirit of storytelling, include:
- A ‘hook’, or inciting incident, is a good manifestation of beginning a story with an action which raises questions
- Story threads in plot lines need to move in a common direction
- The plot must serve to make character actions compelling and dramatic
- Make visible what’s at stake in early scenes
- Characters acting to overcome obstacles comprise a story’s plot line
- A character embodying a dramatic truth suggests a purpose, a need to resolve
- The less writers try to ‘keep control over their characters’, generally the more active characters become
- The main character should act ‘from his or her own motivation’, not as a storytelling plot device
- Understanding characters and bringing them to life are the building blocks for telling a good story
- Characters should say only what needs to be said, and should have a ‘personal rhythm’ for speaking
- To create dramatic moments, understand that anticipation is the key to creating drama
- Be very careful about injecting one’s own feelings onto characters
- The more drama generated, the more an audience is engaged
Of course, in a created story, as in life, lies can have major influence on the lives of characters as well as impacting events.
Inserted near the other end of the book, perhaps almost symbolically, are references to the potential impact of lying as a character tool.
As we have likely experienced at times in our own lives, there are numerous triggers for and shades of lying: by omission, to gain advantage, to be malicious, to avoid confrontations, to protect loved ones, and so on. The motivations may be honourable, but naturally they are often not. In any event, lies can serve characters well.
Whatever the variation of lying lurking, since drama should ‘create an anticipation of an outcome’, revealing that a character is lying is itself dramatic.
And so a promise may contain a lie on purpose…