Hannah’s Notes on Bill Johnson’s A Story Is A Promise: The Essential Elements of Storytelling

The author of A Story is a Promise, Bill Johnson, discussed the essential elements of storytelling this month. Through the use of popular books and movies, Johnson explained the importance of getting an audience hooked, of having characters that have a dramatic truth, and of staying on track with the story line.

According to Johnson, it is necessary to get the audience hooked on the first page. If they can’t see if a story has promise at the very beginning then they won’t read it. Usually this is through the character’s journey, a movement of the story in which the audience can join the characters in. His example was Harry Potter, a character whose dramatic truth was to fit in. From this character’s dramatic truth, every other character is created to fit in with the conflict. Creating a dramatic truth allows the reader to be transported into the story, and will keep them interested. For nonfiction writers, this is applicable as well. You need to find a way to convey that what you are writing about is also a story in which the readers can be transported, and after the first page, they will want to stay interested.

One important tip to remember is that even if a reader doesn’t know what’s going on, they can distinguish between a good story and a bad one.

Another important point that Johnson made is that you, as the author, need to know what the story is about. Every good story has a story line with a concrete plot. Also, each plot should have obstacles which – as they become larger – they strike the characters with more force and deeper levels of freedom. “People crave good stories,” Johnson said, and larger plot obstacles set on a concrete story line will fill their cravings.

What not to do as you write:

Don’t make the conflict simple enough where the character can just walk away.

Don’t introduce the story too late or there is not story line.

Don’t make the main character an extension of yourself. Personal story telling is bad and you won’t be able to handle constructive criticism is you “put your own wounds” in your characters.

Next, Johnson led us in an exercise in which he asked us to close our eyes and visualize yourself in a room with the main character of a piece of writing that you were working on. He told us to ask them what journey they were on. Here are two examples that some of the audience shared with us:

Self-acceptance and love

Finding who they are: characters who are an outcast automatically have an obstacle.

Bill Johnson concluded with asking us to use the same technique at home, but next time speak to someone who represents the audience for your story, whether it is for children, teenagers, adults, or women. If you find yourself not knowing who the audience is, the risk is that you become the audience.

Remember, as you write you have to make it accessible and the conflicts have to be universal so that the audience can be transported into your story. If you want to get more advice from Bill Johnson, order his book A Story is a Promise on Amazon.


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