Foundation of Storytelling
by Bill Johnson
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
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.
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
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 teens'
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
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
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
6) Understanding how writing in the moment
heightens the effect of a well-told story.
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
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
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
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
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
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
10) The Craft of
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
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
13) Understanding the role of characters in
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
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
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
15) Understanding POINT OF
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
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
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
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.
The ideas expressed in this essay are developed more
comprehensively in my workbook, A Story is a Promise, and
in my on-line classes. Each chapter of the workbook concludes with a
series of questions designed to help writers integrate this "story
as promise" concept of thinking about stories. Each class is
designed to take students from a story idea, through creating a
potent, dynamic plot, to deep into the nitty-gritty of writing
evocative, potent sentences and visual images.
©2000 Bill Johnson
Bill Johnson writes
essays that explore storytelling on his web site at www.storyispromise.com. He's the author of A Story is a
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