Monday, December 24, 2018

Creating Narrative Tension in a Novel or Script

A short video by Bill Johnson about how to create and sustain narrative tension in a novel, screenplay, or play. A story that lacks narrative tension risks being episodic, a series of events that fail to have dramatic or emotional impact. Bill is available to teach a narrative tension workshop online and to review manuscripts. Originally this video was created for an online class taught by Bill Johnson for Pennwriters. 

For more information about Bill, visit his website at

Monday, August 27, 2018

David D. Levine & Wendy N. Wagner in Conversation

Join Willamette Writers for an evening with David D. Levine and Wendy N. Wagner. Levine and Wagner are respected science fiction and fantasy authors. We are honored to listen in on their conversation about writing, submitting, building your writing career, and more. Come early to socialize, drink tea, and network with other writers, and stay late to ask questions and get your books signed. Doors open at 6:30PM September 4th at the Old Church, SW 11th and Clay in Portland, Oregon.

About Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner
Wendy N. Wagner's poetry and short fiction has appeared in over forty venues. Her third novel, An Oath of Dogs, a sci-fi thriller, was released July 2017 from Angry Robot. She is the Managing/Associate Editor of both Lightspeed Magazine and Nightmare Magazine, and served as the Guest Editor of Queers Destroy Horror! She was also the Nonfiction Editor of both Women Destroy Science Fiction! and Women Destroy Fantasy! 

About David D. Levine

David D. Levine
David D. Levine is the multi-award-winning author of the Arabella of Mars series and more than fifty science fiction and fantasy stories. Arabella of Mars won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and his story "Tk'Tk'Tk" won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin's bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards.

For more information about Willamette Writers, visit 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Environment as Character, Notes on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

              by Bill Johnson

Cover of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird Just as a story's main character can be described according to their dramatic truth (the issue that drives them), a story's environment can also be described in the same way.

Harper Lee's description of the town of Maycomb in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of language that evokes the feeling of a time and place.

"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it."

To say a town is old is descriptive, but to say it is tired is evocative. It evokes what it feels like to experience the town.

"In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square."

Grass growing on a sidewalk quickly conveys a sidewalk seldom trod upon, and a courthouse that 'sags' conveys age more efficiently than several photo-like details. Even the buildings can no longer manage to stand up straight.

"Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square."

Mules pulling carts in the town square suggests a time period, and that the mules are bony suggests poverty.

"Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

Beautiful details. The description of the ladies as 'like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,' is lovely, lyrical, and evocative. A reader can feel like he or she has met these ladies.

"People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County."

A day longer than 24 hours, wonderful way of evoking a long, long day and a way of life, and so different from our time.

"But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself."

This reference to a President Roosevelt line conveys the setting as the Great Depression.

"We lived on the main residential street in town- Atticus, Jem and I, plus Calpurnia our cook. Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment."

Note how Scout saying she and her brother found their father 'satisfactory' evokes how they felt about him at the time of the story, and also leaves open that later she will have a different feeling about her father.

Next comes the description of the family servant, Calpurnia. I'm including it because Lee uses the same techniques that she used to bring the town to life.

"Calpurnia was something else again. She was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard."

Again, a rich, potent evocation of a character, not merely a description.

"She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why I couldn't behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older, and calling me home when I wasn't ready to come."

This evokes a child's view of Calpurnia's world The body of the novel will explore that world.

"Our battles were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could remember."

Details of environments that do not evoke a time and place in a novel risk being an invitation to readers to skip ahead. Like other great authors, Harper Lee knew how to dramatically evoke the world of her story and its characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Writing a Novel With a Message, Notes on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

by Bill Johnson

Some novels are written to convey a direct message to a reader. One such novel is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

In this novel, it is the job of fireman not to put out fires, but to burn books. Writing about a society that would destroy books is a commentary on life in the 20th century.

The novel opens with a sentence that meets the prime directive of a first sentence: give your reader a reason to read a second sentence.

"It was a pleasure to burn."

The immediate questions, what is a pleasure to burn; and what is 'it.'

To get answers, we must continue reading.

      "It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed."

This raises the question, what is being 'eaten' and 'changed' to create this special pleasure. Who will experience this pleasure?

"With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history."

This sentence introduces the main character and how he feels as he holds this 'great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world.' This is someone who loves his work. It also raises questions, what is this 'charcoal ruins of history? What is being burned and destroyed?

"With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flames with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black."

We know now that he is burning a house, but why? For all the intensity of the moment, he's described as having a 'stolid head.' We're learning more about the character and more about the situation, but both are still mysterious to a reader. Why is a fireman burning this house? What is the meaning of 451?

"He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmellow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house."

We now have the shocking revelation of what he is burning, books.

"While the books went up in sparking whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning."

This is the end of a first paragraph. Our fireman thinks of roasting marshmellows while burning books. This conveys who he is and a potential arc, what could change this man?

Second paragraph...

"Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame."

Now the author gives this character a name, after first conveying who this man is.

      "He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. "

Here is a man who enjoys his job.

"Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered."

The author is making the point how rooted this character is in his unexamined personality.

Double line space in the novel.

"He hung up his black beetle-colored helmet and shined it; he hung his flameproof jacket neatly; he showed luxuriously, and then, whistling, hands in his pockets, walked across the upper floor of the fire station and fell down the hole."

The subtext of 'black beetle-colored helmet' conveys how the character is insect-like.

"At the last moment, when disaster seemed positive, he pulled his hands from his pockets and broke his fall by grasping the golden pole. He slid to a squeaking halt, the heels one inch from the concrete floor."

This man's life runs on habit and routine.

     "He walked out of the fire station and along the midnight street toward the subway where the silent air-propelled train slid soundlessly down its lubricated flue in the earth and let him out with a great puff of warm air onto the cream-tiled escalator rising to the suburb."

This conveys the novel is set in the future.

     "Whistling, he let the escalator waft him into the still night air. He walked toward the corner, thinking little at all about nothing in particular. Before he reached the corner, however, he slowed as if a wind had sprung up from nowhere, as if someone had called his name."

This is a turning point, that something is happening in the life of this unconscious character.

     "The last few nights he had had the most uncertain feelings about the sidewalk just around the corner here, moving in the starlight toward his house. He had felt that a moment prior to his making the turn, someone had been there. The air seemed charged with a special calm as if someone had waited there, and only a moment before he came, simply turned to a shadow and let him through."

The author wants reader to recognize this moment.

A few moments later...

"The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward."

The description of the girl is ethereal, poetic.

Moments later...

"Her dress was white and it whispered." She "....stood regarding Montag with eyes so dark and shining and alive, that he felt that he had said something wonderful."

Again, evocative, poetic language. Montag the beetle is having feelings new to him.

Moments later...

She tells Montag she is 'seventeen and crazy.' And she lets him know that, unlike his neighbors, she is not afraid of him. This information is a revelation to him.

And then she asks, "Do you ever read any of the books you burn?"

The set up for this novel and Montag's role is in place. Will he wake up from his insect-like existence?

As she continues to speak about a life and world alien to Montag, he responds, "You think too many things," said Montag, uneasily.

Back in his home, he won't let himself think about what is hidden behind a grill, and he reflects about a clock, that it was "...moving also toward a new sun" Just as his life appears to be moving forward into a new world.

In his bedroom, Montag reflects, "He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask..."

Montag realizes his wife has taken pills to commit suicide. He makes a report and two technicians clean out her system and leave to handle the other nine calls they've received about suicides.

This conveys much about this world.

It comes out that his house has a TV that fills three walls and his wife desires a fourth wall so she can feel fully immersed in the world of TV. TVs had only been around for a year when Bradbury wrote this novel, but the novel is prescient about how people would want to use this technology to enter a cocoon.

Montag comes across Claire, who is on her way to see a psychiatrist for being anti-social.

And then Claire is gone, and Montag goes to a house to burn books, but the owner of the books, an elderly woman, refuses to leave. She not only refuses, she lights a match to set her house and books on fire, killing herself.

At home, Montag reveals to his wife what he has been hiding, books. Books that speak about a world that Montag no longer remembers.

The fireman is now at risk of being burned.

Fahrenheit 451 is a wonder example of a novel with a prescient message about what can happen when life is replaced by an artificial reality. Bradbury understood the message he wanted to convey.

Bradbury brings this world to life with a clear, evocative, poetic vision that is always in the service of the story he is telling. Bradbury is rightly revered as a storyteller.

To read more essays on the craft of writing, visit

Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson website stats program

Saturday, June 30, 2018

5 Ways to Rratchet Up the Tension in Your Fiction

What’s the secret to writing a story that grips readers? Tension. Finding ways to ratchet up the tension in your story will keep readers flipping pages because they simply have to know what comes next! As the author of four nail-biting suspense novels, Patchell shares some practical tips on how to increase the story tension and keep your readers enthralled.
Chris Patchell is the bestselling author of In the Dark and the Indie Reader Discovery Award winning novel Deadly Lies. A former tech worker turned full-time author, Chris Patchell pens gritty suspense novels set in the Pacific Northwest.

About the Meetings

The Portland Chapter holds monthly meetings for writers in the Portland metropolitan area. Members from other chapters are always welcome as are writers new to Willamette Writers.
Unless otherwise stated…

Meeting Time

The Portland Chapter meets on the first Tuesday of each month except for August when we head to the Willamette Writers Conference.

Meeting Location

Meetings are held at the historic Old Church in downtown Portland.
The Historic Old Church
1422 SW 11th Ave.
Portland, OR 97201

Meeting Format

  • 6:30-7:00 p.m., Meeting Setup, Signup, Fellowship and Refreshments
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m., News and Announcements followed by the Program
  • 8:15-8:30 p.m., Book signings, silent auctions, or other events in the back room

Meeting Cost

Monthly meetings at all the chapters are free for members of Willamette Writers. Fee for nonmembers to attend meetings at the Portland chapter meetings is $5 (suggested donation).

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Summer Workshops with Anthea Sharp and Bill Johnson

Write On The River presents



Saturday, June 23 from 9:00a.m. to 4:00p.m. at Wenatchi Hall on the Wenatchee Valley College campus

FULL DAY: $85 (only $70 for WOTR Members) Register by June 10 for a $10 discount!
Free passes available for WVC Staff and students. Interested?
Includes two 3-hour classes, an (optional) writing critique and a box lunch

Friday Night Special! Meet the presenters!

A Book For All Seasons presents a reception, book signing and Q&A at the Leavenworth Public Library at 6:30 Friday June 22.
Bill Johnson and Anthea Sharp are two past WOTR conference presenters, both highly-praised, who are eager to engage Wenatchee and north central Washington writers for a full day of “focus on fiction.”

“Nailing Narrative Tension”

“When a character is blocked from resolving a compelling issue of human need, that character will be in a state of tension. The more powerfully a character’s tension is transferred to an audience, the more that audience will be caught up in a story, and the more will be their relief at its culmination. The goal of this workshop is to guide writers to recognize narrative tension in popular novels and stories and to learn how to create that key element, typically embodied by a main character, at the beginning of their own stories.”
Bill Johnson has taught writing around the United States, and most recently an online workshop on narrative tension for Pennwriters. He has produced videos on storytelling for OregonWritersSpeak and is web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing. He is a playwright with a recent production in Brighton, England. Bill’s workbook, A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, explores principles of dramatic, engaging writing using reviews of popular movies, books and plays. Author Carolyn J Rose said, “Bill’s work made me take a longer look at what matters to readers at the emotional core. I feel my characters are deeper and more memorable because of what I learned.”

“Writing to Market – it’s not what you think!”

“As storytellers, we’re moved to write by what inspires us. But at some point, the reader enters the equation: friends and family, an agent or editor, the reading public. We all want to craft a compelling book that resonates with readers, and this workshop will give you the tools you need to take your writing to that next level. We’ll dive deeply into story arc, genre expectations (including memoir, nonfiction, and literary fiction as well as the “standard” genres), and how to engage and delight readers while staying true to your own voice and story.”

Growing up on fairy tales and computer games, Anthea Sharp has melded the two in her award-winning Feyland series. She is a USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of YA Urban Fantasy. Anthea now makes her home in sunny Southern California, where she writes, hangs out in virtual worlds, plays the fiddle with her Celtic band Fiddlehead, and spends time with her family. Her books have won or placed in the PRISM, the Maggie, the National Reader’s Choice Award, the Write Touch Reader’s Award, the Heart of Excellence, and the Book Buyer’s Best contests. She also is a RITA-nominated author of historical romance under her pen name, Anthea Lawson.

Check-in at Wenatchi Hall opens at 8:00 a.m. Feel free to step in and out of ongoing workshops
for your critique appointment. Lunch is an informal box lunch in the atrium or outside


If you would like to schedule a 20-minute personal writing critique session with either one of the presenters, please submit your manuscript directly to them by email, as an attachment. Send up to 10 pages in Times New Roman 12-point font, double spaced. Indicate whether it’s fiction or non-fiction (Johnson can also accept scripts) and whether it’s the start of a longer work or an excerpt.

Be prepared to exit the workshop and re-enter after your critique.

Send your manuscript by June 10 to:
Bill Johnson: OR Anthea Sharp:

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Willy Vlautin at Broadway Books March 7th

We are thrilled to welcome Willy Vlautin back to Broadway Books, reading from his fifth novel, Don't Skip Out on Me, on Wednesday, March 7th, at 7 pm.
The novel tells the story of Horace Hopper, of half-Paiute, half-Irish heritage, who has spent most of his life on a Nevada sheep ranch but dreams of something bigger. Mr. and Mrs. Reese, the aging ranchers who took him in after his parents abandoned him, treat him like the son they always wanted. But Horace feels as if he doesn’t truly belong on the ranch, or anywhere. Believing that he needs to make a name for himself, Horace leaves behind the only loving home he has ever known for Tucson, where he aims to prove his worth as a championship boxer.
Horace struggles to adapt to his new life in the city and grows more and more isolated, withdrawing into himself as he struggles with the pain of his boxing injuries and his loneliness. An instrumental soundtrack by Richmond Fontaine, which perfectly evokes the spirit and setting of this stunning and heartbreaking new novel, will be available for download.

Vlautin is both writer and musician. His previous books all tell stories of hard-scrabble characters presented with heart and generosity by the author.
He is the author of four previous novels: The Motel Life, Northline, Lean on Pete (which won both the Oregon Book Award for Fiction and the Reader's Choice Award) and The Free (which was a finalist for the OBA Fiction prize and won the Reader's Choice Award).
Vlautin founded the band Richmond Fontaine in 1994. Now retired, the band achieved critical acclaim at home and across the UK and Europe. In 2014 he formed The Delines with singer Amy Boone. Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, he now lives in Scappoose, Oregon.
 This event is open to the public. Broadway Books is located at 1714 NE Broadway.