The Promise of Premise

Vision 1

The Promise of Premise:

A conversation with Bill Johnson
on the craft of dramatic storytelling


Robin Catesby

Copyright © 2001,2011, Robin Catesby, All Rights Reserved



If I were to write a one-sentence premise that described Bill Johnson's career, it might be Perseverance leads to success. Bill's 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 off.


Bill Johnson got his start on this particular writer's 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 Egri's concept of premise: Character + Conflict = Resolution. But what Bill came to realize was that Egri's concept didn't always apply. Story is more than a main character, "It's the world of the character, it's the world that all of the characters have to operate in."


By broadening the scope to the character's 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 character's 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."


Then, 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 story's core dramatic issue," he says, "and a student walked into a class one day and said: You mean a story's promise? I said, yes yes yes!"


The story's 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."


Over 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 ( 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 2000.


I 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. We're 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. I'd come with a list of prepared topics, but before I could say "how'd you get your start…" we'd launched into a discussion of the film Pitch Black -- a recent favorite. There's something especially rewarding about taut storytelling on a low budget, especially in a genre that's 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.


Before 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.


Do you need to start with a premise, or can it develop later, through the writing process? Bill says that he's found most writers start with some core issue -- some idea of what interests them about the story's world. "And usually I can dig out of them what that issue is. But to start a story with a sense of a story's premise is to start a story with a sense of purpose, with a sense of direction. Now, it's true also that some people need to write a novel or a screenplay to see what it's 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, you're 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 it's the most unfocused and unclear about a sense of purpose or direction.


"Premise is like a carpenter's level. Is the foundation of the story level? Is it there? Does it work? Is it cracked? That's what a premise is for. It's so someone can go back and see if the story is advancing in a way that creates a sense of purpose to the audience."


To understand premise, it's 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? I'd never asked myself that question because at the time, I'd no idea there was a difference. Plot is indeed not the same thing as story, and a premise isn't likely to exist at all if there's no story to play it out.


Plot is the sequence of events. If you're 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 wasn't.


The 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.


On the surface, Die Hard is about a New York cop trapped in a building full of terrorists. That's the plot, but the story is much more than that. We learn this from the very opening of the film:


"When we're introduced to McClane, he's clinging desperately to the seat of a plane because he's afraid of flying, and the reason that works so well is because if he's afraid of flying and he's flying --"


"Obviously he has a compelling reason to fly," I offer.


Bill nods and continues, " And the compelling reason to fly is that he's trying to reconcile with his wife. So you see how just this little situation begins this process of narrative tension. If it's so important to him, it starts to pull on us. When he gets to where his wife is, he can't find her name because she's taken back her old name. So it's not only that he's trying to reconcile with his wife, but also that she is actively withdrawing from the marriage. So that's how you introduce what the story's about."


All this, and the terrorists haven't even shown up yet. So what then is the promise of Die Hard? What's the story about? Not the terrorists. No, it's reconciliation. McClane's need to reconcile with his wife. "Again it's that deeper issue," Bill says, "Everything McClane does revolves around that. And what's interesting in Die Hard is, if the terrorists don't show up he doesn't 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 it's this story about this man who wants to reconcile with his wife, and the audience recognizes that and pulls it in."


So how do we get from this analysis of Die Hard's 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 McClane's 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 McClane's 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.

But 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 he's doing all this stuff to torment McClane because he killed his brother. And then at some point somebody asks him, well is that why you're doing all this? And he says, oh, no, I don't really care that my brother died. They undercut the one thing that would have given the script a compelling story."


Instead, 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, that's 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.


"So the problem with having plot events that don't 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 doesn't 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 that's 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 it's going to turn out. They've become invested. And that's the number one job of a storyteller, starting with the first sentence of a story. It's how do you get your audience invested."


Bill had touched on the term narrative tension a few times in our conversation, so I thought I'd ask him to define it and describe how it fits into the concept of premise.


"Narrative tension increases when a character can't go forward and can't 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. That's narrative tension. But if Romeo says 'I'm in love with Juliet' and everyone says 'ok that's great, the feud's over,' then… 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 there's always a series of simple solutions."


I 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.


I'd 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.


"The 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 it's 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 story's generated in them. So it's 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."


It's 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 won't 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 Argyle's limo.


So, 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.


"Here's 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 what's 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 community."


"History creates change doesn't suggest any impact on a specific person," I add, imagining one dull documentary as a result of that bad premise.


"It's so general, yes," Bill says. "Another example of a bad premise is love is its own reward. I mean it's nice for a fortune cookie, but it doesn't suggest movement. It doesn't suggest that you're 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."


I tell Bill that I often try to figure out the premise of a film I've just seen, just to see if I can. It's 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."


"Right," Bill echoes. "Because otherwise you've got a pile of bones and a pile of meat, and how do you get it into something that looks like a dinosaur?"


So, in my attempt to build, or at least interpret dinosaurs, I decide to present Bill with a couple of premises I'd guessed to see if I'd come close.


My 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 he's 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.


"With his family, you're right," Bill agrees. "It's 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 that's 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."


The 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.


"I'd make it a little more specific," Bill says in response to my premise statement. "It's about one man waking up who wakes up humanity. So I would almost name the transcendence. And that's why it starts with the message on the computer screen saying basically 'wake up.' And that's what I love about the Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and The Matrix is that they are all about waking up."


Before we launch into a discussion of the brilliance of M. Night Shyamalan, I ask, "So how would you redefine The Matrix's premise in a single sentence?"


"One man's struggle to wake up leads to the awakening of humanity."


Cool, 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 I'll save that conversation for Part Two.


"One last thing about premise," Bill says before I shut off the mini-recorder, "Premise is like a brick. It's not meant to be creative, original, artistic, clever. It's like this is the foundation of the story and in a sense the audience isn't going to see it -- it simply supports what the audience does see. So it's 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 identity."


Two hours later, Bill's on the road again, this time heading up to Seattle for another workshop/book signing, and I'm 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 I'll try it out.


Bill Johnson's book, A Story is a Promise, is available through his website ( and through various on-line retailers, including Borders, Barnes & Noble, and