Screenwriter, playright and novelist Bill Johnson has a substantial background in the literary arts. He’s worked in a literary agency, written scripts for film and video, edited scripts for Columbia, and is a development executive. He teaches screenwriting and writing workshops.
He is the author of the book A Story Is A Promise, published by Blue Heron Press, and The Combat Poets of Maya, a humorous science fiction novel in the vein of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
When many people consider how to tell a story, they think in terms of plot and character. While these are often the most visible aspects of a story, there is an underlying foundation of principles that support a well-told story. These principles could be compared to a house foundation. Without a solid foundation, the other effects of a house — its character and design — cannot be fully enjoyed. In the same fashion, these principles of storytelling are also mostly out of sight, but a badly laid story foundation has effects just as damaging as a badly constructed house foundation.
While these story principles are presented in a particular order, a storyteller can come at these issues from any direction. There is no inherently right or wrong way to understand them.
1. Understanding the human need for stories.
A story is a world where every character, every action, every story element has meaning and purpose. This makes a story fundamentally different from life, which offers facts and ideas that don’t necessarily have a clear meaning; events that generate emotional states that have no clear resolution; or, events engage the senses, but not in a meaningful, fulfilling way.
Real life, then, can be chaotic, or appear to lack a desirable purpose and meaning. We don’t marry the love of our life…or we do, and things go terribly wrong. Or, the one we love is taken from us by a freak accident. Or, we work hard but don’t get the rewards we desire. Worse, they appear to go to someone who appears to be completely undeserving of the reward and honor we have worked to attain.
So real life can be painful, unpredictable, or even wildly rewarding. But in spite of our best laid plans or efforts, we can never predict the outcome of any action or series of actions.
Most people, then, have a need for something that assigns a desirable, discernible meaning and purpose to life. This is what a story does. A story promises its audience a dramatic journey that offers resolution and fulfillment of life-like issues, events and human needs.
2. How stories meet the needs the human need for resolution and fulfillment.
Because stories promise experiences of life having meaning, a story fills a basic human need that life have purpose. All stories, then, from the simple to the complex, revolve around some issue that arises from the human need to experience that life have a discernible meaning and purpose. That allows us to experience states of love, honor, courage. Fear, doubt, revenge. To feel a part of a world, even an imaginary one. To feel the freedom to explore new worlds. Or, to experience a desirable state of the movement of the senses, intellect, or feelings to an engaging, desirable outcome. To experience insights into life we might not see on our own, or see deeply. Only when a story engages the attention of its audience via what a story is about at this deeper, foundation level does a story promise something of value to its audience.
Romeo and Juliet, as an example, is a story not about its title characters, but about the power of love. When readers enter its world, they are led to experience something deep and potent and dramatically satisfying about love. This makes the story Romeo and Juliet totally unlike a life-like, factual telling of the courtship and deaths of Romeo and Juliet. To be told that two teenagers committed suicide because their families kept them apart, and to go over the true, factual events that led up to their deaths, is not the same as to create a story around those same events. The story Romeo and Juliet uses the deaths of Romeo and Juliet to create a deeply felt, fulfilling story about the power of great love.
3. Creating a story premise that sets out a story’s dramatic idea, movement, and fulfillment.
A tool to write a powerfully affecting story is creating a story premise. To be able to verbalize, in the case of Romeo and Juliet, that, This story is about the nature of a great love that proves itself by defying even death.
Any story, then, at its heart, must have some dramatic issue of consequence to its audience, and the storyteller should be able to verbalize that issue. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, it’s a story about love.
The second part of creating a story premise revolves around describing a story’s movement. In Romeo and Juliet, the story advances by its main characters defying the obstacles that separate them.
The third part of the premise describes the fulfillment the story offers its audience, in this case, the potent, if tragic, experience of love offered through the teen’s deaths.
4. Perceiving how a well-written story is true to its purpose.
While a story premise sets out the overall scope of a story’s world, every element within that world must be true to it. To visualize this, consider a race with several runners. It has a beginning, middle and end. The varied actions of the different runners makes the action of the race from its start to finish — its movement to resolution — visible and concrete. So far, the same could be said of a factual accounting of the race.
In a story, however, the events of the race and its outcome are arranged by the storyteller to create a particular state of fulfillment for the story’s audience, in the same way Romeo and Juliet is shaped so readers can experience a deep sense of the nature of love. So the storyteller understands the why a race matters enough that an audience internalizes its movement to resolution. To be story-like in its movement, then, the outcome of a race would revolve around the nature of courage, or faith and determination defeating overwhelming odds, heroism, victory achieved even in defeat, hard work its own reward, some issue of human need being acted out to fulfillment.
When a story’s movement — on this deeper foundation level — comes across as unclear, a story’s audience can struggle to internalize and assign meaning to the actions of the story’s characters and its plot. Such characters and plot events can appear to be life-like, i.e., unclear and unfocused, and not story-like, i.e., acted with meaning and purpose. The result of faulty movement is that the story’s audience turns aside. Even when the members of an audience can’t consciously identify why a story feels false, false movement jars them out of a state of being able to internalize a story’s movement. This is comparable to out-of-tune notes in a song detracting from the experience of listening to the song (unless the out-of-tune notes serve some purpose that satisfies the song’s audience).
In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the story is true to its movement because every action and expression of Romeo and Juliet moves this story about the nature of love toward its fulfillment. They become the embodiments of the story. But it is what the story itself is about that gives birth to these characters and assigns meaning to their actions.
5. Perceiving how story elements are arranged in a particular way.
A storyteller arranges the elements of a story to create the effect of dramatic movement toward the fulfillment a story promises its audience. Referring again to Romeo and Juliet, this is a story about the nature of love, but its opening scenes play out the hatred of the Capulets and the Montagues via a confrontation on a street in Verona.
Because Romeo and Juliet is about the nature of love proving itself, it is clear what kind of action generates opposition to that: Hate. In Romeo and Juliet, then, the story starts out by demonstrating the hatred of the Montagues and Capulets, because that shows the depth of hatred the power of love must overcome to prove itself. So the story, in its arrangement of its elements, immediately sets out what’s at stake in the story; what is at stake for the story’s characters, AND, by extension, its audience; and what love must overcome to fulfill the story.
Again, keep in mind that the opening lines of the story refer to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, so the story’s drama is not over the outcome of its plot, but in the arrangement of its dramatic elements in a way that creates a powerful experience of the nature of love for its audience.
Because a story’s arrangement of its elements also creates questions about the outcome of events and character issues, a story generates a continuous pull on the attention and interest of its audience.
6. Understanding how writing in the moment heightens the effect of a well-told story.
Writing that is true to expressing a story’s movement creates a compelling sense of being in the moment for a story’s audience. When a story’s audience has been led to feel invested in the outcome of a story’s moments, the attention of that audience is drawn inside those moments. But without the effect of movement, a story’s moments risk becoming inert descriptions of things that fail to create or sustain drama for a story’s audience, offering no reason to be engaged by its moments.
Because for many people life is not something they can, or are able, to feel deeply, when a writer is able to create a story with moments shaped to be deeply and powerfully affecting, such writing is innately pleasurable. But this potency and vibrancy doesn’t arise from a story’s details, but the dramatic movement that a well-told story’s details make vivid and potent.
7. Understanding story structure.
Many story elements can be arranged in particular structures that generate the qualities of a story, i.e., a question around the outcome of a story’s plot, for example. In a detective story, a crime is generally committed early in the story, setting out what’s at stake in the story’s world and a question its resolution. The roles and purpose of the story’s characters are thus clearly defined, as well as how their actions will resolve what’s at stake in the story. And the story’s resolution — good avenging evil, injustice being overturned, etc. — promise fulfilling story experiences.
In a horror story, characters must act — move — or die. But the deeper issue might be the penalty humans might pay for trying to control nature in God-like ways. Or, a character seeking knowledge opening a pandora’s box and suffering the consequences.
In a Western, the story’s hero generally has no choice but to act, no matter the obstacles he or she faces. And when those obstacles are framed around resolving issues of human need — finding love, courage, renewal, redemption — the hero’s journey transports the audience.
In a romantic novel, the audience may know very well how the story will eventually turn out, but it’s the process of dramatic movement toward that fulfilling experience of love and romance that the story’s audience enjoys.
In literary fiction, characters grapple with issues that speak deeply to the human condition, offering desirable experiences of illumination for an audience.
By reading well told stories, an inexperienced storyteller can incorporate the principles of how they are structured and arranged. A writer desiring to write mysteries can study and learn the structure of a particular kind of mystery and recreate it. Learn how to structure sentences in a dramatic way, how to introduce characters in a dramatic context, plot events, introduce story ideas, etc. The fact that the writer starts with a structure that creates an outline for how to present a story and its plot, allows a writer to use their own voice as a storyteller while telling a story.
9. A writer’s experiences of life.
Because a writer has experienced states of love, grief, loss, hate, the desire to matter, they have some of the most essential tools to be a storyteller: an understanding of the needs that draw readers to stories. Because storytellers experience fulfillment through others’ stories, they can learn to perceive how to create that effect in their stories for their intended audience.
10. The Craft of Storytelling.
Part of the craft of being a storyteller means learning to create images with words. That requires a willingness to learn the craft of language, how to use words to create metaphors, evocative descriptions of scenery, strong dialogue, just as being a qualified carpenter or mechanic means a mastery in the use of the tools of that trade. The storyteller must have a mastery of words, or be willing to study and master that craft.
11. Technical knowledge.
To set a story on a ship, one must have some knowledge of ships. To set a story on an airplane, one must have some knowledge of planes.
This is not a call that to set a scene on a ship one must be a ship’s captain, but the writer must be clear about what they describe. Otherwise, by lying to the reader in some detail, they give readers a reason to set aside their stories, to question whether the storyteller understands how to fulfill a story’s promise in a way that rings true.
12. The desire to be a storyteller.
In the main, one does not become a storyteller out of a desire for wealth, or fame, or prestige, although some do…and a few even succeed for those reasons. People more often write stories because they feel moved to do so. A storyteller’s first audience is themselves. The trap for many inexperienced writers is mistaking their feelings about their stories for the craft of writing stories that evoke potent experiences of fulfillment for their audiences.
13. Understanding the role of characters in a story.
Characters in a story operate to make a story’s movement visible and concrete. But a storyteller needs to make the subtle distinction between what a story is about on a deeper, foundation level, from what’s at stake for its characters.
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is hot blooded and impulsive. He will not be denied the woman he loves…even if death is an obstacle that must be overcome. So Romeo is a character of great strength of will. All characters in well told stories must have this strength of purpose. Whether the issue is love, greed, revenge, compassion, hate, jealousy, characters must be willing to confront and overcome whatever obstacles the story places in their path. Weak characters often fail to offer readers/viewers a reason to internalize their actions because their actions fail to generate a quality of movement. No movement, no drama. No drama, no fulfillment. No fulfillment, no audience.
14. Perceiving how a plot operates to make a story’s movement concrete and dramatic.
This issue — understanding what a plot is — is easily the most misunderstood in writing.
The purpose of a plot is to make visible and concrete the dramatic movement of a story. A plot serves to make the movement of a story dramatic and potent by taking character concerns and intertwining them with what’s at stake in the story itself, then compelling characters to act to resolve what’s at stake in the story while plot-generated events block their actions. As characters face increasing obstacles, they must strive with greater purpose to shape the outcome of a story. This generates the effect of a story’s plot, a heightening of a story’s movement to fulfillment.
To illustrate, consider the novel The Hunt For Red October. On the surface, this story might appear to be a plot driven thriller about a Lithuanian-descended commander of a Russian nuclear submarine attempting to flee to America and freedom. But on a story level, this story is about a clash between freedom and authoritarianism. Because many people desire to experience that state where the values of freedom win out over oppression — which many times doesn’t happen in real life — the story’s audience readily internalizes this story’s movement. Because the story, in its every action, proves that freedom can, indeed, overcome oppression, it drew in readers and rewarded their interest.
To describe a story’s plot is not the same as describing what a story is about on its foundation level, but to understand a story’s movement is to see what gives rise to a story’s plot.
15. Understanding POINT OF VIEW.
Having a strong grasp of how best to present a story’s point of view can be a struggle for inexperienced writers. Like understanding how a story’s plot operates to create drama over a story’s movement, seeing POV as an issue of storytelling related to a story’s movement can help writers untangle this thorny issue. The core issue that underlies all POV questions is this: how does telling the story through the POV of one character over another make the story’s movement to fulfillment more dramatic and concrete for the story’s readers/viewers?
Many inexperienced writers struggle with POV issues because they shift their POV to make a story seem fresh and engaging. But it should be kept in mind that a reader/viewer needs to be able to internalize a story’s movement. If abrupt changes in POV keep a reader from being able to internalize a story’s movement, changes in POV have the effect of jarring a reader/viewer out of a story.
Inexperienced writers often believe that changing their POV among a variety of characters keeps their story fresh because they have already internalized the deeper level of their story and its movement. What they then can fail to realize is that what they’re putting on paper isn’t recreating that dramatic movement toward fulfillment for their readers. So a POV that doesn’t serve to make a story’s movement dramatic and potent is weak, no matter how it can be justified when examined in isolation.
To answer the question, what POV character will best tell a story? Think of it in these terms: does making this character, or using this POV device, help my reader/viewer internalize a sense of tension over the course and outcome of my story in a stronger, deeper way?
In most instances, clever, unusual uses of POV devices weaken a story, not strengthen it, unless the writer has mastered all the other elements of the craft of storytelling. Such a writer is free to chose how best to tell their story.
A storyteller should to be able to perceive what a story is about at its deepest level, and how to move that to a resolution that offers fulfillment to a story’s audience. Understand what about the movement of a story engages the interest, the needs of an audience. Such a writer can better perceive how characters, plot devices and POV work to create a dramatic movement of a story toward its fulfillment. How every element of a story works together in its characters, plot, environment and ideas to make vivid and potent a story’s world.
That’s why I say that at its heart, a story must have an issue at stake that is of consequence to the story’s audience. Something the members of the audience will desire to experience in a state of resolution and fulfillment. Love. Courage. Redemption. Renewal. Some issue that revolves around the aching need of humans to feel they matter, that they have a place in the world.
Even though I assign character, plot and point of view as the last of these principles, it is not to suggest that most writers don’t come to a story through some insight or interest in a character, scene, or plot. Some issue that pulls at them. That won’t let them sleep at night. But the underlying issue I’ve sought to explore and illuminate here is the why an audience desires stories, the how a story meets those needs of its audience. From that foundation of understanding, a writer can more easily perceive how words create vivid, potent images that move audiences..