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A Story is a Promise: Good Things to Know Before Writing a Novel, Screenplay or Play Paperback – Sep 2000

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Product details

  • Paperback: 187 pages
  • Publisher: Blue Heron Publishing (Sept. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0936085614
  • ISBN-13: 978-0936085616
  • Product Dimensions: 21.7 x 14.1 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,159,932 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook. He's an award winning, produced playwright who served for many years on the board of the Northwest Playwrights Guild. He's the office manager for Willamette Writers, a non-profit writing group based in Portland, Oregon, with over 1,650 members. Bill leads workshops on writing around the United States. He reviews popular movies, novels and plays to explore principles of storytelling at his website, (www.storyispromise.com).

This book will help writers learn how to write a novel or write a screenplay and understand how to write a one page synopsis. It also offers a guide for outlining a novel before it is written or after it is written to guide a revision and creating a stronger plot and characters.

The latest Kindle version of the book includes a new essay, Storytelling and the Superconscious Mind.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 25 Aug. 2004
Format: Paperback
This is the best "how to" book I have read on writing screenplays, novels, and plays. The advice comes alive through extensive analysis of well-known stories, using a disciplined outline of story elements. The application of these points is greatly aided by questions directed at helping you write your story. Although intended for fiction writers, this book is equally applicable to nonfiction writers and can add great balance to critical reviews of literary works.
If you are like me, you learned to write by doing small exercises . . . such as short stories, scenes, and descriptions. That's all fine, and it does improve one's writing, but somehow something is left out when you sit down to the first blank sheet of paper and begin writing a longer work. It is for just that moment that this book is wonderful.
The purpose of the book is to help you create the kind of gripping stories that vividly fulfill peoples' unmet needs. The method is to give you a way to create a structure (and fill that structure) that serves that purpose. This structure features creating a promise to your readers in the first scene, creating a story (separate from the plot) that fulfills the promise, a story line to flesh out the story, a plot to support the story, a plot line to flesh out the plot, developing conflict, and employing thrusts and counterthrusts to create and sustain dramatic tension. Using this structure, you ruthlessly weed out what is extraneous, even if it is terrific writing.
You are probably nodding your head agreeably at this point. But what you haven't seen yet is Mr.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 20 reviews
38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Valuable Guidance for Writers, Story Tellers and Critics 4 Nov. 2000
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is the best "how to" book I have read on writing screenplays, novels, and plays. The advice comes alive through extensive analysis of well-known stories, using a disciplined outline of story elements. The application of these points is greatly aided by questions directed at helping you write your story. Although intended for fiction writers, this book is equally applicable to nonfiction writers and can add great balance to critical reviews of literary works.
If you are like me, you learned to write by doing small exercises . . . such as short stories, scenes, and descriptions. That's all fine, and it does improve one's writing, but somehow something is left out when you sit down to the first blank sheet of paper and begin writing a longer work. It is for just that moment that this book is wonderful.
The purpose of the book is to help you create the kind of gripping stories that vividly fulfill peoples' unmet needs. The method is to give you a way to create a structure (and fill that structure) that serves that purpose. This structure features creating a promise to your readers in the first scene, creating a story (separate from the plot) that fulfills the promise, a story line to flesh out the story, a plot to support the story, a plot line to flesh out the plot, developing conflict, and employing thrusts and counterthrusts to create and sustain dramatic tension. Using this structure, you ruthlessly weed out what is extraneous, even if it is terrific writing.
You are probably nodding your head agreeably at this point. But what you haven't seen yet is Mr. Johnson's wonderful analysis of Romeo and Juliet, The Hunt for Red October, Rocky, The Usual Suspects, Moby Dick, Die Hard, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Reservoir Dogs, The Exorcist, Pride and Prejudice, and other powerful stories to examplify these points. These examples are incredibly effective in bringing the structure to life. They also make it clearer what critics and book reviewers should be on the look-out for in reading fiction.
Section one of the book develops the key theme, a story is a promise. Section two works on helping you design the elements of your story. Section three looks at the distinctions between story line and plot line, and introduces a structured analysis to help you. Section four focuses on that dreaded moment of getting started with the writing. Section five contains detailed reviews of several popular stories to help ingrain the lessons outlined here.
One of my favorite sections deals with the mistakes most often made by new fiction writers and how to overcome them. This section is worth the price of the book alone!
Each chapter also has extensive questions and assignments, which can turn this into a workshop-like experience. The author also suggests ways for you to take your answers and assignments and get feedback on them. If you live by yourself in an isolated area with no telephone, he even gives you ideas for trying to help yourself to improve the writing as your own alter-ego.
Highly recommended for aspiring writers!
After you have finished thinking through this wonderful book, I suggest you move on to one question that Mr. Johnson did not raise. What should be the need that your story fulfills? Most stories today deal with wounds, like not having enough love, feeling low self-esteem, or being helpless. How can you pick needs that will make people stronger and start a chain-reaction of good results? For example, rather than showing people how love can conquer death (the Romeo and Juliet theme), how about showing people how giving love will help them acquire love? I suspect that we can create a much more wonderful society if we pay a bit more attention to the promises we make in our stories. We need to balance building capability with healing wounds if we are to reach our full potential as people.
Write a great story!
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Valuable Guidance for Writers, Story Tellers and Critics 25 Aug. 2004
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is the best "how to" book I have read on writing screenplays, novels, and plays. The advice comes alive through extensive analysis of well-known stories, using a disciplined outline of story elements. The application of these points is greatly aided by questions directed at helping you write your story. Although intended for fiction writers, this book is equally applicable to nonfiction writers and can add great balance to critical reviews of literary works.

If you are like me, you learned to write by doing small exercises . . . such as short stories, scenes, and descriptions. That's all fine, and it does improve one's writing, but somehow something is left out when you sit down to the first blank sheet of paper and begin writing a longer work. It is for just that moment that this book is wonderful.

The purpose of the book is to help you create the kind of gripping stories that vividly fulfill peoples' unmet needs. The method is to give you a way to create a structure (and fill that structure) that serves that purpose. This structure features creating a promise to your readers in the first scene, creating a story (separate from the plot) that fulfills the promise, a story line to flesh out the story, a plot to support the story, a plot line to flesh out the plot, developing conflict, and employing thrusts and counterthrusts to create and sustain dramatic tension. Using this structure, you ruthlessly weed out what is extraneous, even if it is terrific writing.

You are probably nodding your head agreeably at this point. But what you haven't seen yet is Mr. Johnson's wonderful analysis of Romeo and Juliet, The Hunt for Red October, Rocky, The Usual Suspects, Moby Dick, Die Hard, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Reservoir Dogs, The Exorcist, Pride and Prejudice, and other powerful stories to examplify these points. These examples are incredibly effective in bringing the structure to life. They also make it clearer what critics and book reviewers should be on the look-out for in reading fiction.

Section one of the book develops the key theme, a story is a promise. Section two works on helping you design the elements of your story. Section three looks at the distinctions between story line and plot line, and introduces a structured analysis to help you. Section four focuses on that dreaded moment of getting started with the writing. Section five contains detailed reviews of several popular stories to help ingrain the lessons outlined here.

One of my favorite sections deals with the mistakes most often made by new fiction writers and how to overcome them. This section is worth the price of the book alone!

Each chapter also has extensive questions and assignments, which can turn this into a workshop-like experience. The author also suggests ways for you to take your answers and assignments and get feedback on them. If you live by yourself in an isolated area with no telephone, he even gives you ideas for trying to help yourself to improve the writing as your own alter-ego.

Highly recommended for aspiring writers!

After you have finished thinking through this wonderful book, I suggest you move on to one question that Mr. Johnson did not raise. What should be the need that your story fulfills? Most stories today deal with wounds, like not having enough love, feeling low self-esteem, or being helpless. How can you pick needs that will make people stronger and start a chain-reaction of good results? For example, rather than showing people how love can conquer death (the Romeo and Juliet theme), how about showing people how giving love will help them acquire love? I suspect that we can create a much more wonderful society if we pay a bit more attention to the promises we make in our stories. We need to balance building capability with healing wounds if we are to reach our full potential as people.

Write a great story!
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Create compelling stories! 20 Jan. 2001
By Rebecca of Amazon - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Recently I wrote a short story for a friend and it amused her to no end, yet she said the ending was somewhat surprising to her. I wondered if I had in fact left something out of the story, which would have otherwise prepared her for such a harsh ending.

I had never written a story before, let alone developed a plot. I had also never thought about how emotionally fulfilling a story would need to be, so I was a great candidate for reading this excellent guide. I simply sat down and wrote the story one night on a whim. I saw the story playing in my head and simply wrote down what I saw. It was fascinating since I had never experienced anything like that before. I mostly write recipes and this was new territory for me.

Since I review popular novels and movies, I have noticed a deeper truth running through them. After watching "The Big Country" I noticed a theme of "pride" running through the entire movie. Everything in the movie revolved around the fight between two very selfish men. Most books which also capture my attention have a definite theme running through them.

Since I read "A Story is a Promise," I realized how true it really is. When reading "Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto, I felt cheated by the ending. Something was missing......"Had I really spent that much time reading, only to feel a sense of anger at the ending?" While I was addicted to reading the entire book, nothing prepared me for the ending, which seemed to drift off into nothing. Had the promise been broken?

That is the problem with many stories written without an underlying purpose. Bill Johnson explores this in depth. This is the best book I have read on understanding the most difficult of all arts: writing! To create a dramatic engaging story takes and understanding of the underlying principles. Authors of the most popular works have tapped into this deeper understanding. They have fulfilled the promise to the reader.

Bill Johnson knows why human's need stories. That is something many of us have most likely never really considered. Why do we love a great story? Is there something within us that wants to escape? Or do stories help us survive when we can't think of any other way to explain our lives? Do the stories we tell ourselves give us a sense of belonging?

"Take away a person's sense of place in the world, and you'll have an unhappy person." -Bill Johnson

This book is a highly intellectual look at how to fulfill the promise to your readers. It is written in a more conversational style. Bill took his nagging feeling that there was more to a story than just the plot and turned his quest for answers into a book which can help you write that next novel or screenplay.

You will discover how a story function like a promise, learn to develop dynamic characters and be more aware of the role of ideas in a story line. The role of conflict in storytelling, writing that first dramatic sentence and developing a plot are all discussed. By reading this book you will in fact be taking a fascinating journey to the heart of storytelling. This book will fulfill the promise of making you a better writer! :)

~The Rebecca Review
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
The promise of drama... but it could use a better delivery 20 May 2004
By H. Grove (errantdreams) - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Mr. Johnson spends the beginning of the book trying to explain what he means by a "story promise." He admits himself that his students often have a difficult time grasping it, and it doesn't help that his use of terminology seems somewhat fluid. Eventually I figured out that what he refers to as a "story promise" is something most writers would call a theme. To be fair, it's possible that Mr. Johnson would say "no, that isn't it at all." But even if that wasn't what he meant, he could have cut and clarified his clunky 45-page explanation drastically by comparing and contrasting the two ideas rather than starting from scratch.
In addition to those 45 convoluted pages, Mr. Johnson has a wordy and often redundant style. However, there's also a lot of good stuff in this book. If you're having trouble making your stories dramatic and attention-grabbing, this book could seriously help you. Johnson's explanation of why the"story promise" is so important to drama makes a lot of sense to me. He believes that "issues of human need" are what pull an audience in and cause readers to invest emotion in a story. He goes into plenty of detail on the how as well as the why.
He uses examples from well-known movies and books; these help to prevent you from using his suggestions to accidentally create formulaic stories. I'm not saying that his system creates formulaic novels. However, there is a type of formula that could serve as an example of what he's trying to teach, and you could easily fall into it out of sheer familiarity without even realizing it. The examples help to prevent this because he likes non-formulaic examples. However, the book could really use a section about this trap, how to notice if you're falling into it, and how to avoid it.
This book teaches a valuable enough way of thinking about writing that I feel vaguely guilty pointing out its flaws. But the truth is that while Mr. Johnson's methods are fabulous, his expository writing can be convoluted and confusing. With some changes in the writing and some extra material on formulaic writing this could easily be a five-star book, but for me it's currently a three-star book. It's well worth your time and energy, but it may cause frustrations along the way.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
helped me get published 31 May 2005
By kriserts - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
There's lots of books out there about writing and the writer's life, and while inspring, their advice is usually along the lines of "write so many number of words a day." Few books explain the mechanics of writing, what makes a plot speed along, what gives a story its soul. The first truly useful book I ever read about writing was McKee's "Story." But when my novel was returned from the first publisher I sent it to, the editor commented that it lacked plot. Lacked plot?! What was I missing? I'd tried so hard . . . a friend recommended "A Story is a Promise," and when I read it, suddenly everything became much clearer. Johnson's "Promise" is more concise than McKee's "Story," technical but not overdone. I used his book almost like a workbook, rewrote my novel, and when I resubmitted it to the same publisher a year later, they bought it. I recommend this book to everyone who writes. It's essential.
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