Several years ago a writer friend mentioned Bill Johnson’s A Story is a Promise, describing it as “the missing link” needed to take her work to the next level.
It’s in my nature and background—25 years as a TV news producer—to be suspicious of claims about product benefits. But I didn’t want my friend to get to the next level without me, so how could I not check out that book?
I bought a copy and plowed through it, underlining, highlighting, and making notes in the margin about the human need for stories in order for people to feel engaged by and connected to life, for them to feel that living has meaning and purpose. Readers, Johnson contends, gravitate toward stories that promise to meet their particular needs—to experience, in a fictional world, things like redemption, justice, courage, love, and honor.
If the author’s promise is kept and the reader’s need is met, he said, then readers would want to re-experience that story.
And maybe, I thought, they’d want others to experience it, too. That might create the word-of-mouth ripple effect all writers long for. That might give a book staying power.
Since I read Johnson’s book, I’ve put more effort into thinking about the core human needs of the characters I create, how they’ll seek to fulfill those needs, and the way in which those needs will be met—or not—in the course of the plot. I’ve given more thought to how story (what the novel is about on a deep thematic level) and plot (actions and events) weave together and support each other. It’s tough, because I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants writer than a planner.
Have I reached that next level? I don’t know. Maybe. The novels I’ve written since I read Johnson’s book are selling better than previous ones. And last month a reader told me she read one of my novels twice. So thank you, Bill Johnson, for writing A Story is a Promise.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of a number of novels, including recent indie titles A Place of Forgetting , An Uncertain Refuge, and No Substitute for Murder. She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor. She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.