"A Story Is a Promise: Good Things to Know Before You Write That Screenplay, Novel, or Play," Bill Johnson

Pros: Wonderful information on making your writing dramatic!
Cons: Confusion of terms; some editing problems; could accidentally encourage formulaic writing
Rating: 3 out of 5


First published 1/23/2003

I have some fairly mixed feelings about this book; I hope you’ll bear with me as I sort them out. Mr. Johnson spends the beginning of the book trying to explain what he means by a “story promise,” and why “story” means a different thing than “plot.” He goes through many verbal contortions on the way there, and even admits that his students often have a difficult time grasping the difference. Certainly at times I was rather confused, because some of his terms seem to mean almost-but-not-quite the same thing. (In some cases they seem to mean exactly the same thing, which makes things even more confusing. And if that isn’t enough, it also seems like he uses the word “story” to mean slightly different things in different chapters.)

Then, somewhere between pages 45 and 50, I realized what it was that Mr. Johnson had been trying to say all that time: That you need to have what most writers would call a theme in order for your story to be dramatic. The “theme” is a concept that writers have been discussing for years; there was no need to spend the better part of 45 pages in clunky abstract discussion trying to find a clumsy way to describe something that already has a name. Once I made the connection, the book became easy to understand.

[To be fair, it’s entirely possible that Mr. Johnson would say “no, no, no, that isn’t what it is at all.” But certainly, when read that way, his book makes perfect sense and is, in fact, quite useful. So I stand by my interpretation. However, I do recommend that you read the first 45 pages anyway, as there are still plenty of useful details there to expand on and clarify his particular usage of theme.]

What Works

Okay, so there’s a lot of abstract, wordy stuff in this book that could be sliced out entirely. Firstly because of the whole clunky attempt to recreate the theme, and secondly because, well, Mr. Johnson has a wordy and often redundant style of writing. However, there’s also a lot of good stuff in this book, and I think it’s worth reading through the not-so-clear material in order to find it. If you’re having trouble making your stories dramatic and attention-grabbing, I believe this book could seriously help you. His explanation of why theme 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.

But you can’t just plop down a theme and expect it to have life, and so he goes into plenty of detail on the how as well as the why. He’ll tell you how to interleave plot and story, how to set up your theme right from the start (and why you should), how to develop a story from a theme, how to make sure your story keeps moving toward its fulfillment, what the fulfillment of a theme means, how to ensure that every element of your story reflects your theme, and much more.

He goes into the creation of dramatic moments, choosing the right words, creating premise and plot, dealing with (and escalating) conflict, writing stories that also exemplify certain ideas, writing dialogue, and so on. He provides a system of questions for you to answer (which he calls Story Director(tm)) to help you outline your work, tells you how to write a compelling story synopsis, and goes into detail on common mistakes that writers make and how to fix them. He also understands that not all writers like to write from an outline, so he explains how you can use Story Director to edit a pre-existing story. (Now that’s handy!)

Examples and Formulae

He uses plenty of examples from well-known movies and books; these are invaluable in helping you figure out what he means on those occasions when his apparently fluid use of terminology gets confusing. They also help in another way, however. See, if you don’t use a little creativity, you could end up creating a very formulaic story from his suggestions.

I’m not saying that he’s giving us a formula to use, nor that his system creates formulaic novels. But there is a certain type of popular formula which could serve as a good example of what he’s trying to teach, and if you don’t stop to think about this, you could accidentally fall into it without even realizing it. The examples help to prevent this, because in most cases he chooses very non-formulaic examples.

However, it would have been nice if the book had included a section specifically about this particular trap, how to notice if you’re falling into it, and how to avoid it. I’m guessing that he didn’t think to do so because he’s used to teaching in a workshop setting, where he can read students’ work and tell them directly if they’re falling into a formula. For the book, however, a chapter on the subject would have been very welcome. Just make sure that you’re aware of the issue and read his examples.


The editing in this book could be better. If you aren’t as nit-picky about writing as I am, though, don’t worry about it. There may be a fair number of problems, but they’re small ones.

The book includes contact info for the author, including the address for his website, which includes some essays in case you want to see his work before you decide whether to buy the book.

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. By relating his idea of “story promise” to the already-understood idea of theme he could have made the first part of the book much easier to understand. And by using terminology more consistently he would have made this book a faster, easier-to-internalize read.

With those changes and the addition of a chapter on avoiding formulaic plots, this would easily be a five-out-of-five book. As it is, it’s a three-out-of-five book. It’s well worth your time and energy, but it may cause some confusion and frustration along the way.

*Please note: I reviewed the now out-of-print version of this book (the left-hand Amazon box at the top of this page); it has been revised and re-released since then (the right-hand Amazon box at the top of this page).

Posted in Writing

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