Stage & Screen
Robin Catesby, Associate Editor, Stage & Screen
Issue #1: 01/01/01
Promise of Premise:
conversation with Bill Johnson on the craft of dramatic storytelling
©2001, Robin Catesby
I were to write a one-sentence premise that described Bill Johnsons
career, it might be Perseverance
leads to success. Bills
been at the screenwriting game for a long time, and now, with his new
book, A Story is a Promise (Blue
Heron Publishing, c.2000, $18.95) all that perseverance has finally paid
Johnson got his start on this particular writers journey when he was
asked to work for an agent/story analyst reading novel manuscripts.
The agent had been a student of Lajos Egri (The
Art of Dramatic Writing) and encouraged Bill to study Egris concept
of premise: Character + Conflict = Resolution.
But what Bill came to realize was that Egris concept didnt
always apply. Story is more than a main character, Its the world of the character, its the world that
all of the characters have to operate in.
broadening the scope to the characters world and defining the first
third of a premise statement as an issue of human need, Bill ended up with
an alternate equation: Dramatic Issue + Movement = Fulfillment. A dramatic issue might be a characters need for
redemption. Movement is what
they have to go through to get this redemption, like what blocks them;
what helps them. And the
fulfillment of the story is what this redemption looks like.
after a few years of teaching premise to his screenwriting students, Bill
hit upon the concept of promise.
For a long time I tried to teach people to identify the
storys core dramatic issue, he says, and a student walked into a
class one day and said: You mean a storys promise? I said, yes yes yes!
storys promise, then, is the first third of that three-part premise
statement. Think of it this
way: you promise something to your audience.
You promise them a story about redemption, a story about identity,
a story about true love. Or,
as Bill explains in his book: A
well-told story is an arrangement of words and images that re-creates
life-like characters, issues, ideas and events in a way that promises
dramatic fulfillment of our needs, and then delivers on that promise.
A story, then, is a promise.
the past number of years, Bill assembled a number of essays on the subject
of premise and promise into a self-published workbook which he sold at
writers workshops and on his website (www.storyispromise.com).
Then, in August of 1999 at the yearly Willamette Writers
conference, he pitched his collection to Blue Heron Publishing, a small
independent press. The book, A Story is a Promise, was picked up, and published in the fall of
met up with Bill at the Willamette Writers office while he was in-between
trips out of town for workshops and book signings.
One thing about Bill (and about me too): we love talking about
movies. Were the kind of
moviegoers who really want a film to be good.
We root for it to work - for the story to play out, for the premise
to reach fulfillment. Id
come with a list of prepared topics, but before I could say howd you
get your start
wed launched into a discussion of the film Pitch
Black -- a recent favorite. Theres
something especially rewarding about taut storytelling on a low budget,
especially in a genre thats become so overblown of late with senseless
big-budget extravaganzas. What
made that film work, where films like Red
Planet and Mission to Mars
failed, was focused storytelling and strong narrative tension that all
revolved around a single issue: fear of the dark.
we got too carried away by eight other recent favorites (among them such
wide-ranging fare as Chicken Run
and The Limey), I brought our
conversation back to the topic at hand: story premise.
you need to start with a premise, or can it develop later, through the
writing process? Bill says
that hes found most writers start with some core issue -- some idea of
what interests them about the storys world.
And usually I can dig out of them what that issue is.
But to start a story with a sense of a storys premise is to
start a story with a sense of purpose, with a sense of direction.
Now, its true also that some people need to write a novel or a
screenplay to see what its about, but that means that they can then
create a premise and go back and revise the story to that design. And when you have that kind of dramatic purpose to the
story that begins with the opening, it communicates to the audience that
as a storyteller, youre taking the audience on a journey and you
understand the journey; you understand how to create the journey. Otherwise what people end up with are openings that are the
absolute weakest writing because its the most unfocused and unclear
about a sense of purpose or direction.
is like a carpenters level. Is the foundation of the story level?
Is it there? Does it work? Is
it cracked? Thats what a
premise is for. Its so
someone can go back and see if the story is advancing in a way that
creates a sense of purpose to the audience.
understand premise, its important to understand the difference between story
and plot. I learned this
one the hard way. The first
time I attempted to write a film
script it was all plot and no story.
Sure, lots of entertaining and mildly suspenseful things happened
to my characters, but what did it all add up to?
What was the underlying story?
Id never asked myself that question because at the time, Id
no idea there was a difference. Plot is indeed not the same thing as story, and a premise
isnt likely to exist at all if theres no story to play it out.
is the sequence of events. If
youre writing a plot summary, it could consist of "and then he
does this, and then he does this and so on.
The story, however, is
defined by the premise and by the arcs of the lead characters. If a hero has no arc -- no promise, no conflict, no
fulfillment that describes a greater theme of human need -- then there is
no story, only plot. This
seemed confusing at first to me, but the more I watched films and searched
for story, the easier it was to discover when one was present and when one
1986 action thriller Die Hard is
a film that Bill uses frequently in his classes and workshops as an
example of a strong storyline underlying an action-packed plot.
the surface, Die Hard is about a
New York cop trapped in a building full of terrorists.
Thats the plot, but
the story is much more than
that. We learn this from the
very opening of the film:
were introduced to McClane, hes clinging desperately to the seat of
a plane because hes afraid of flying, and the reason that works so well
is because if hes afraid of
flying and hes flying --
he has a compelling reason to fly, I offer.
nods and continues, And the compelling reason to fly is that hes
trying to reconcile with his wife. So you see how just this little
situation begins this process of narrative tension.
If its so important to him, it starts to pull on us.
When he gets to where his wife is, he cant find her name because
shes taken back her old name. So
its not only that hes trying to reconcile with his wife, but also
that she is actively withdrawing from the marriage. So thats how you
introduce what the storys
this, and the terrorists havent even shown up yet.
So what then is the promise of Die
Hard? Whats the story
about? Not the terrorists.
No, its reconciliation. McClanes
need to reconcile with his wife. Again
its that deeper issue, Bill says, Everything McClane does
revolves around that. And
whats interesting in Die Hard
is, if the terrorists dont show up he doesnt get back together with
his wife. The terrorists become the device through which he comes to
understand just how much he loves her and she comes to understand just how
much she loves him. So even
though Die Hard has tons of
action, at its heart its this story about this man who wants to
reconcile with his wife, and the audience recognizes that and pulls it
how do we get from this analysis of Die
Hards story to a premise sentence?
We can get there by looking at the story question.
A story question might be defined as the question brought up
by the promise, or core dramatic issue.
In Die Hard, the issue is
McClanes need to reconcile with his wife.
The question then is Will McClane and his wife reconcile?
The story movement -- the middle part of the premise -- throws
obstacles in the path of this reconciliation, namely, the terrorists.
The movement creates adversity that McClane must face.
As the adversity increases, so must McClanes courage.
The fulfillment of the story then is the ultimate reconciliation:
the renewal of their love. So,
to sum it up in a three-part premise statement: Courage
to face adversity leads to renewal.
what happens if there is no premise?
What if a film is all plot and no story?
When you get to Die Hard 3,
Bill says, you have the bad guy (Jeremy Irons) who is the brother of
the bad guy in the first film and you think hes doing all this stuff to
torment McClane because he killed his brother. And then at some point
somebody asks him, well is that why youre doing all this? And he says,
oh, no, I dont really care that my brother died. They undercut the one
thing that would have given the script a compelling story.
Die Hard 3 with its huge action
set pieces, careening cabs and exploding subway cars, came off as a
generic action buddy pic but with McClane plunked down in the middle,
completely out of place. In
fact, thats exactly what it was; an adaptation of a script titled Simple
Simon that had nothing to do with the Die
Hard series. Thus, no
character arc for the lead, no issue of human need, no wife to rescue.
No story at all, just plot.
the problem with having plot events that dont evoke states of
feeling, Bill says, -- which is a basic problem I see in a lot of
writing; things happen but no one feels anything about it -- is it
doesnt allow the audience to feel, to share the journey.
And that comes back to that issue of narrative tension.
If you can evoke what a journey feels like through a character, in
a way thats accessible so the audience internalizes it, then the
audience feels caught up in that world.
Then they have to go to the end because they have to know how
its going to turn out. Theyve
become invested. And thats
the number one job of a storyteller, starting with the first sentence of a
story. Its how do you get
your audience invested.
had touched on the term narrative tension a few times in our conversation,
so I thought Id ask him to define it and describe how it fits into the
concept of premise.
tension increases when a character cant go forward and cant go back.
In Romeo & Juliet, Romeo has
to act on his feelings of his love for Juliet.
But to act on his feelings is to betray his clan.
Thats narrative tension. But if Romeo says Im in love with
Juliet and everyone says ok thats great, the feuds over,
I know it sounds silly, but I read a lot of scripts where a
character says I have a problem, I need something, and somebody says
OK here it is. So, the
writer comes up with this series of problems, but theres always a
series of simple solutions.
immediately think of the old tree and rocks definition of dramatic writing
and toss that his way. Force
your character up a tree and throw rocks at him.
The bigger the rocks, the greater the narrative tension.
Ideally, it should take the entire story before the character can
figure out how to dodge the rocks and get down from the tree.
always thought a tree was just a tree, but Bill adds another layer onto
this analogy: So in terms
of how I work with storytelling: What does the tree represent?
Does it represent courage? Does
it represent renewal? If they
get down from the tree will they understand who they are? So the tree itself has to represent something.
other part of narrative tension -- and this is the real heart of
storytelling -- is transferring the tension over, whether that character
gets down from the tree, to the audience.
And you do that because whatever is keeping that character up the
tree -- whether its wrestling with an issue of redemption or renewal --
is something the audience both identifies with and internalizes.
And once the audience internalizes this tension, then they have to
go to the end of the road for the relief of the tension the storys
generated in them. So
its the job of the storyteller to generate that narrative tension
absolutely as quickly as they possibly can, because at that point the
audience needs the story for the relief it offers.
now beginning to come together, like a well-constructed fortress. The promise, or core dramatic idea, poses a question of human
need, then launches the audience into a dramatic situation that has
immediate unresolved narrative tension.
The tension continues through the story movement; in fact, it just
wont let up until the end, until that final moment of fulfillment when
the last terrorist is dead and McClane and his wife can snuggle into the
back seat of Argyles limo.
how do you know if your premise will work?
I ask Bill for a few bad examples so we can learn what not to do.
an example of a bad premise, and this is what I would call a moral, he
says, flipping to a new page in his workbook.
History creates change. Now
if you change that to war leads to
senseless destruction, you see now we have a sense of what this story
is about. What are the
characters going to be caught up in and whats the fulfillment of the
story? That it leads to
destruction. So it could lead
to the destruction of a character, it could lead to the destruction of
creates change doesnt suggest any impact on a specific person, I
add, imagining one dull documentary as a result of that bad premise.
so general, yes, Bill says. Another
example of a bad premise is love is
its own reward. I mean
its nice for a fortune cookie, but it doesnt suggest movement.
It doesnt suggest that youre going somewhere.
So, if you want to do another one about war you can say the
destruction of war leads to rebirth.
So you can have a story where people get caught up in war but it
leads to rebirth.
tell Bill that I often try to figure out the premise of a film Ive just
seen, just to see if I can. Its
good practice -- a good exercise for a writer because then I can go home,
think about it, and say Okay, now I see how they put all the meat on
the bones and made it work.
Bill echoes. Because
otherwise youve got a pile of bones and a pile of meat, and how do you
get it into something that looks like a dinosaur?
in my attempt to build, or at least interpret dinosaurs, I decide to
present Bill with a couple of premises Id guessed to see if Id come
first choice, Gladiator. The premise: Courage to
face death leads to renewal. Here
is the story of Maximus, a man who has lost everything.
Yet, no matter what hardship he faces, he knows his ultimate goal
is to return home. In the
end, the only way hes able to accomplish this is by facing death, not
only in the arena, but he must also face the man who has caused death all
around him and he must face his own death. Ultimately, to find his own renewal, he must die so that he
can reunite with his wife and son in the afterlife.
his family, youre right, Bill agrees.
Its the only way home.
We talk further about how effectively the premise was woven
throughout the film, even from the opening shot of Maximus walking through
the wheat fields. And
thats an example, Bill adds, where if you understand the premise,
you understand how all these elements work together.
How they have a purpose in the story.
second film I picked was a tough one: The
Matrix. I went back and
forth on a premise for this, but finally settled on Self-realization
leads to transcendence. I
know that sounds a little odd for a film with the line we need guns,
lots of guns, but underlying the action, beneath the plot of the
film, is this incredible, almost Buddhist theme of transcendence.
make it a little more specific, Bill says in response to my premise
statement. Its about
one man waking up who wakes up humanity.
So I would almost name the transcendence.
And thats why it starts with the message on the computer screen
saying basically wake up. And
thats what I love about the Sixth
Sense and Unbreakable and The Matrix
is that they are all about waking up.
we launch into a discussion of the brilliance of M. Night Shyamalan, I
ask, So how would you redefine The
Matrixs premise in a single sentence?
mans struggle to wake up leads to the awakening of humanity.
I think. I want to write a
film with a premise like that. First
though, we have to rave about the magic of The
Sixth Sense and Unbreakable
for another half-hour. But
Ill save that conversation for Part Two.
last thing about premise, Bill says before I shut off the
mini-recorder, Premise is like a brick.
Its not meant to be creative, original, artistic, clever. Its like this is the foundation of the story and in a
sense the audience isnt going to see it -- it simply supports what the
audience does see. So its not about being clever or original, or one of
a kind. This is a story about
redemption, this is a story about renewal, this is a story about
hours later, Bills on the road again, this time heading up to Seattle
for another workshop/book signing, and Im thinking about the premise
for the next chapter of my writing life.
I like the one I picked for him: Perseverance
leads to success. I think
Ill try it out.
Bill Johnsons book, A Story is a Promise, is available through his website (www.storyispromise.com) and through various on-line retailers, including Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com.
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