Guest Post by Bill Johnson
To satisfy an audience a story must ring true. One way to create a story that rings true is for the storyteller to understand the promise of a story and how to create characters and situations that act out that promise. This happens when characters embody what I call dramatic truths.
- Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wants to find her way home.
- Rocky wants to be somebody.
- The Velveteen Rabbit wants to be real.
- Harry Potter wants to fit in.
Each character embodies a truth that acts out the promise of the stories. These truths are dramatic because they are in need of resolution. Will Dorothy find her way home, Rocky become somebody, Harry fit in, the Velveteen rabbit become real?
Every story, every significant character in a story, even the environment of a story, can represent a dramatic truth.
Conversely, a character, plot event or scene description that doesn’t represent a dramatic truth can risk appearing to be literal and thus inconsequential.
That Dorothy is twelve and has black hair are literal truths. Literal truths describe, dramatic truths evoke who a character is and what he or she wants.
The point of getting across a character’s dramatic truth with their introduction isn’t to suggest that one has to ‘spill the beans’ in the first scene of a novel. But, to understand the dramatic truth of a story, of a character in a story, or even the truth of the environment of a story (Kansas as well as Oz ring true) is to have a compass to what words to use to create images that convey purpose and meaning. This is vital in writing a novel because description that doesn’t ring true becomes tedious to read.
I very often read manuscripts where characters have a role in a story’s plot, but the characters and plot events represent no dramatic truth. Such stories can offer resolution, but it’s like a bowl containing the ingredients of a cake instead of a finished cake. Such stories and characters are not fulfilling. I most often see this kind of presentation of literal truths about characters in the beginning of a story. It makes the beginning of a script the weakest part of the story.
I’ve found that many writers have been taught to never be obvious, but this leads many to become obscure. To help create a dramatic truth, I use the diagram below. I ask that writers start with an obvious statement about who a character is. I then ask that them to create an obscure sentence that suggests nothing about what’s ‘true’ for a character, then a sentence that is dramatically suggestive.
Understanding the truth of a character can help guide a writer to making choices that are dramatic and suggestive.
Start a story with something that speaks clearly and directly to me as a reader, even if it’s just a few words about a character or a story’s environment. Make me want to know more. Make me want to share that character’s journey in a story.
Then you’ll have larger-than-life characters who come off the page and embed themselves into the imagination of your script reader.
Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a workbook that explores how to create dramatic, engaging stories, available on Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace at mybook.to/storyispromise . He’s web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, a site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays at storyispromise.com.