Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Keep Your Promises

Your story isn't just a meandering journey through the wilderness. Where have you promised to take your readers?

Your story isn’t just a meandering journey through the wilderness. Where have you promised to take your readers?

I own many books on the craft of writing, and I think the “Best Title” award goes to A Story is a Promise by Bill Johnson. And, guess what? The book lives up to its promise.

Stories have been with us since the beginning. Even before we had language we told stories, using pantomime and pictures. Stories are not just a nice-to-have form of entertainment. They are how we perceive, explain, and process our world. Stories teach, inspire, and help us find meaning to our lives. They provide emotional and spiritual sustenance in the same way that food and water provide physical sustenance. Stories help us define who we are to others, and – more importantly – to ourselves.

book story promiseIn A Story is a Promise, Johnson explains (in a very step-by-step process that’s filled with super helpful examples) how to craft engaging stories by understanding the principle of the promise. I essence, each story promises to deliver a specific moment of fulfillment.

From the book:

A story sets out its promise by offering details of life-like characters, issues, events, and circumstances, then editing and arranging those details to move an audience toward a desirable experience of resolution. For example, when a story created around the issue of courage fulfills its promise, the story’s audience experiences a fulfilling moment of courage. The story’s audience experiences the truth of the story’s promise.

I think this idea sometimes gets lost in the literary world where authors can take so long to fulfill the promise that we almost forget what it is. An easier way to wrap your head around this concept is to think about your favorite television shows and movies. Think about why you choose to watch certain shows and films. You have an expectation, and that expectation emerges from the story’s promise.

Take a couple of my latest viewing choices:

  • Leverage – This show is basically a reimagining of The A-Team. I watch it because I know it will fulfill its promise of Robin Hood-esque good guys outsmarting corporate bad guys with a healthy dose of campy style and one-liners. These are David and Goliath stories where David wins in style and Goliath crashes to the earth in a spectacular swan dive. Justice is served with a relish. I love justice.
  • Practical Magic (a perennial Halloween season favorite) – I come back to this movie each year because it fulfills a promise to show me not only good overcoming evil, but self-belief overcoming self-doubt and a group of previously estranged individuals coming together around a common cause.

Now think about the books and stories you read. What is your expectation? Why do you choose this one over that one? What unspoken promise do you hope the author will fulfill? What experience do you trust the story to deliver?

And then, flip that around and think about what experience you’re trying to deliver with your story. What promise are you making to your reader? How can you edit and arrange the details of your story to deliver the desired experience of resolution? Always keep your promise in mind. Craft your entire story around that promise. That is what your reader came for. You aren’t just describing a sequence of events, you are trying to create an emotional experience for the reader. Weigh each decision against that purpose. Make sure each element of your story serves the promise.

Keep your promises and your readers will keep coming back for more.


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit: Drew Geraets via Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Keep Your Promises

    • Exactly – as a reader, we can tell right away if someone else’s story is falling short. Now, we just need to apply that same, critical eye to our own work! 😉

  1. Practical Magic has gleaned a lot from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” except it ousted many social themes from its script aside that suspecting people arc. The presence of a something that overpowers the actuality of a person was lovely in Morrison’s story and then Practical Magic also incorporated those themes and shows how confidence and belief can win.

    • I have always wanted to read “Beloved,” but have never gotten ’round to it. I had no idea it was in any way similar to “Practical Magic.” Now I’m even more intrigued. Thanks for the tip!

      • And that, I think, is what has stopped me each time I’ve picked it up. “Sad and brutal” is not what I’m in the mood for these days. TKS for the warning!

  2. Awesome advice and great plug for this book. I had never heard of it before, but I’ve got to tell you that quote you posted was so right on that I’m inspired to check this book out. We get so bogged down by details and deadlines and writers block that we sometimes forget the promise what a great way turn it back around. Thanks for posting!

    • It’s amazing how common sense can smack you upside the head just when you least expect it, right? 😉

      So glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you like the book as much as I do.

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