Saturday, December 5, 2020

Concrete Plot, Subtle Story Notes on The Queen's Gambit

 a review by Bill Johnson

A cornerstone of the a story is a promise concept is that a story creates movement and the movement transports an audience. Simply put, if a story isn't going somewhere from its opening lines, it fails to create the effect of a story.

Plot often operates to set a story into motion around a central question and sub questions. Each chapter in a novel can be a clearly defined step along a plot line. It's a concrete way of understanding the ground a story is covering.

A beginning of a novel also needs to set a story in motion. This can be subtle or obvious, but it needs to be done to convey meaning to the action. You resolve a plot, you fulfill a story's promise.

In The Queen's Gambit, eight year old Beth's parents die in a car accident and she ends up in an orphanage. To keep the children docile, they are given tranquilizers. Beth is afraid and alone. She hides one tranquilizer a day to help her sleep at night. Noises at night were setting her mind racing.

Then she realizes an old black janitor (this is Kentucky) in the basement is not playing checkers but a different game. He rebuffs her request to teach Beth chess but finally relents. In a short time, she is consistently beating him.

An older girl, Jolene, (twelve) tries to introduce Beth to sex play, but Beth now lives in her head, playing chess.

When the orphanage is ordered to stop giving the children tranquilizers, a desperate Beth tries to break in to a locked station to get more. Caught, she is not allowed to visit the basement for a year. No chess.

Since the author has made it clear that Beth is utterly driven to play chess, the question becomes what will happen next? To find out, readers must continue. Again, the plot creates concrete problems to be overcome.

When Beth is adopted by a woman with a husband who seems to be permanently traveling on business, Beth can now play chess and read magazines about the game. Since her adopted mother uses tranquilizers and alcohol to get through her days, Beth can sneak a supply of tranquilizers to help her sleep at night.

When the absent husband makes it official he's not coming back, Beth's adopted mother is now short on money ... until Beth wins a chess tournament and a cash prize.

As Beth plays and wins in bigger and bigger tournaments, Beth's mother introduces Beth to alcohol. The two become more like housemates than mother and adopted daughter. And Beth now has two drugs that help her sleep at night.

When Beth's adopted mother dies, Beth has to work her way through a period of heaving drinking, a plot complication that threatens her ability to play chess on a high level.

As Beth wins bigger and more prestigious competitions, she now accepts some help learning the fine points of chess from more advanced players.

Beth becomes the American chess champion, but this sets up the ultimate goal/plot destination for Beth, can she beat a Russian grand master and become a world champion?

Each section of the plot has clearly defined goals and questions.

To win against the Russians, Beth accepts the help of the best American chess players, but she quickly learns what they can teach her before she moves on. Beth is also introduced to sex, but sex to Beth is about as interesting as having tea and toast for breakfast. It barely registers in her life. It's not chess.

Beth finally meets the Russian world chess champion in competition and loses that match, her first major set back.

Beth realizes she has to give up drinking if she wants to beat that Russian. Jolene, who had graduated from the orphanage, helps Beth learn to exercise to keep her body fit so she can better focus.

Beth also comes to realize she wasn't just playing the world champion; she was up against all the former Russian world chess champions who helped him win matches by studying moves of opponents.

Beth can have a chess second funded by a religious group, but Beth refuses to issue a statement in support of Christianity. She's now going to Russia with a non-chess playing assistant supplied by the U.S. government.

Arriving in Russia, Beth begins beating the lesser players, but she also goes for a walk and discovers a park where old men play chess.

In a climactic battle, Beth fears that she can't win if she's alone playing the Russian and his helpers. At that point she gets a call from a former teacher, and he along with others help Beth plot her next moves.

This is a subtle story point, but Beth is no longer playing alone in her head. She's part of a larger community now, a first for her.

With the help of others steadying her mind, Beth beats the Russian and becomes world champion.

At the end of the novel, she returns to the Moscow park and the old men playing chess. They gather around her, showering her with love and affection.

That lonely, frightened child now feels she is part of and loved by a larger community.

Compared to the plot, this is subtle, but it is the thread that weaves the plot together and gives it a deeper meaning. Beth goes from being alone to part of a larger community.

That offers fulfillment to the story.

I recently read a science fiction novel by someone who had read Promise. Her novel had a concrete plot, with escalating complications, but I had to read to the end of the novel to find out what the story was about.

Until that final chapter, I didn't have a clue.

It's possibly the writer didn't know until she wrote that final chapter. If that was the case, it meant she needed to use that understanding to convey a story from the first page of the novel.

I've read many novels by unpublished authors that withheld what a story was about to create a big reveal. Unfortunately, it was hard to care.

Walter Tevis begins The Queen's Gambit with a frightened, lonely orphan because the fulfillment of the story is that she ultimately finds a new family.

One reason I use a breakdown of a Hollywood movie to teach story mechanics is the failure to generate a story that works with a concrete plot is often deadly. No reason to care about what happens to the main character.

In Promise, one technique I suggest is the 0-5-10 technique. Zero is obscure, five is obvious, ten is suggestive.

Struggling writers write toward zero, being obscure about what a main character seeks to fulfill.

Asking someone to be obvious about what a story is about is a path to understanding how to set in motion a powerful story.

In the latest edition of Promise, I explore how great writers create at ten on that scale.

For too many writers, that concrete wall of plot creates an illusion of storytelling in the same way movies used to use fake storefronts to suggest a town.

Walter Tevis understood the difference between story and plot.


The Queen's Gambit also airs on Netflix as a mini-series. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Creating, Pitching and Producing, Meet Lars Kenseth

Lars Kenseth will be joining Willamette Writers for the first time live from Los Angeles to discuss his varied career as a cartoonist for the New Yorker, writer for TV and show creator for a new series recently acquired by Amazon. He’s also looking forward to giving practical advice and answering members’ questions.

Lars Kenseth is a cartoonist and writer whose work has appeared in Barron’s, Playboy, MAD, Esquire and The New Yorker. A TV writer by day, his credits include Chuck Deuce (Adult Swim) and Norm Macdonald Has A Show (Netflix). Currently, Lars is developing I Hate Mondays, an animated comedy for Amazon. He’s a 2016 Sundance Institute Fellow and a long suffering acolyte of the New York Jets.

Lars wisely lives in Santa Monica with his wife Liz and their two feline slaves, Omelet and Honeybear.

Learn more about Lars at

To see some Lar's cartoons at the New Yorker, visit here

He's on Twitter @larskenseth

This meeting is on Monday, November 2nd, 7 - 8 pm, to avoid the Tuesday election.

Learn more about Willamette Writers and about becoming a member at

This Portland/Salem Chapter meeting of Willamette Writers happens on Zoom. Details about joining the meeting are below.

The meeting host is Debby Dodds.

You are now able to receive the link in advance for our Chapter meetings. Click the registration link below, and you will receive the meeting link immediately. You will also be able to add the meeting to your calendar.

Register in advance for this meeting:

This is not the meeting link, it is the registration link. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing the link to join the meeting.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Heavenly Birth Insurance (Show)

Bill Johnson's play Heavenly Birth Insurance was produced as part of the Short+Sweet Theater Festival in Dubai. The play was directed by Nikhil Mittal and produced by Emotive Productions.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Quora Answers About POV in Movies & Other Writing and Movie Questions

The question reminds me more of the movie The End of the Affair. The movie starts with a husband confiding to a friend that he thinks his wife is having an affair. The friend offers to hire a private detective to find out. This only convinces the husband that his friend had an affair with his wife in the past.

The movie goes back into the past and shows the affair from the friend’s point of view. And it shows the affair ending, from his point of view.

Then the movie shifts and shows the affair ending from the wife’s point of view, which creates an entirely different understanding of why the affair ended.

The movie Hilary and Jackie explores what can be done with switches in a point of view in a more profound way, Hilary and Jackie (1998) - IMDb

Again the shift of point of view completely changes an understanding of what happens in the film. The film even ends with an omniscient pov, where a sister as an adult sees her younger self and sister playing at a beach.

Beautiful film.

There was a TV show called Boomtown. The basic set up was to show a crime/event, then shift the POV to give a different understanding of events.

Question, 'What is the redemption in the movie, "The Shawshank Redemption"?'
Tim Robbins goes from being emotionally numb to an ability to feel. There’s a shot early in the movie when he goes to prison showing the width of the walls. That is symbolic of the internal walls that block Tim’s internal life.

Morgan Freeman’s character gains an understanding of how he ended up in prison.

Two men who appear beyond redemption are redeemed.

Originally Answered: 'How many points of view (POVs) are too many in a novel?'
The problem with a question like this (or doing a prologue) is that someone skilled at storytelling can accomplish many difficult tasks, including telling a story with multiple points of view.

Someone who lacks skills in understanding POV will screw it up.

Years ago I read a manuscript for an author with a background as a TV producer. She didn’t understand POV. She would shift POV if someone mentioned an article of clothing and she’d go off into a POV shift about what someone thought about it.

No point to the shift, served no purpose, just wrong.

I told her how to fix it. She said she did. She got an agent to read her novel, which was rejected by the agent’s reader because of POV problems. The agent’s reader refused to review the novel.

So the author asked for my help. I again explained how to fix the POV problems and she asked me to ask the agent to again look at the revised novel. The agent’s reader came upon the same POV mess and refused to read the novel.

Suggestions that inexperienced writers avoid POV shifts are for the same reason people are told to avoid doing a prologue and children are advised not to play with gasoline and matches.

More than ONE point of view shift is too many if someone doesn’t understand POV and how to use it.

Question, 'In novels, do you believe that theme is always more important than plot?'

This needs to be broken down.

To say a story has a theme is a way of saying it has a point.

A novel that doesn't have a point risks appearing to be pointless.

When I would be asked to critique pointless novels that eventually had a character dealing with redemption, the author would put the word redemption in the 2nd paragraph of the 2nd page and say, 'See, I have a theme. Everything should be okay now."

Not really. Consider Harry Potter, which is storytelling/plot 101 in terms of mechanics.

Harry wants to fit in. He's the symbol of a war about pure versus mixed blood (about allowing more people to fit in versus a smaller group of pure blood).

That issue connects every character in the novels.

Each novel is a step in Harry's journey toward fitting in.

Each chapter in a Harry Potter novel is a clearly defined step along a plot line, that large step that will resolve the issue of fitting in for Harry in that novel.

Rowling uses a process I call question, answer, question. Each short chapter starts with a question. The answer to the question at the end of the chapter raises a new plot question to resolve that gives meaning to the next chapter.

Returning to the issue of fitting in, even the Dursley's want to fit in by appearing normal. Harry Potter by his existence is a mortal threat to that desire.

See the conflict this creates? It creates what I call narrative tension, the tension an audience feels about whether Harry will be expelled from Hogwarts back to the Dursley's.

As the plot of a Harry Potter novel increases the obstacles Harry must overcome, the narrative tension increases, making each novel compelling (to its audience).

Now, compare that to a novel that appears to be pointless.

The reader has to memorize details until they have a context. By the time you get to the third character who acts to no apparent purpose, getting through that is like getting through a swamp.
Using another example from a popular novel, The Hunt for Red October. Ramius wants to be free of oppression. That's what the story is about, it's theme, if you will. Each step Ramius takes to gain his freedom increases the obstacles he must get through. Once a reader is hooked on the question of whether Ramius can gain his freedom, they have to finish the novel.

Note that any character in the novel, a Soviet pilot for example, can be in the novel for two paragraphs, but his actions clearly have a purpose within the scope of the story, trying to stop or aid Ramius in his quest.

Like in Harry Potter, every character in Hunt is on a side and their actions have meaning that advance the plot.
But these mechanics of storytelling also apply to literary fiction.

In Joyce's short story The Dead, an intellectual doctor in Ireland takes his wife to a salon, where other intellectuals debate the issues of the time. After the salon, riding home in an open sleigh in the snow, the doctor images his wife is waiting for him to explain the intellectual arguments of the evening she didn't understand and that will be a prelude to intimacy.

Instead his wife is thinking of a time when she was a young girl and a suitor came to see her in the snow just before he passed from consumption (tuberculosis).

The intellectual doctor realizes that with all his vaunted intellect, he could not recognize the mood of his wife. That all the intellectual arguments of the night are like the snow covering the earth, some frozen water vapor covering the deeper reality of the earth.

The plot and characters of The Dead revolve around ideas.

The Dead as a story is an inch wide and a mile deep.

The Hunt for Red October is a mile wide and an inch deep.

But both operate to a dramatic purpose and both have a plot.

I recently read All the Light We Cannot See, which is a novel about how war impacts ordinary people. The plot is about which of two main characters will survive a city being bombed, and then who will survive the war.

Simple story, complex plot.

Returning to the issue of theme, in general I avoid using the word and just come to an understanding of what a story is about. Typically for an unpublished novel that starts out pointlessly, that revelation can come deep in a novel.

Another way to consider this is to think of a story in terms of music. Lets say Harry Potter is told in the key of C. That means there are particular notes that work and have an effect in that key, and notes that are discordant. Struggling writers are hitting notes/words in the wrong key.

The audience can hear the difference. Coming up with different verbs for how something crosses a room - siddles, glides, dances, strides - doesn’t change anything if those words are in the wrong key.

Fixing an unpublished (or self published) novel written by someone who doesn't understand what key/theme they are playing in can mean conveying an understanding of storytelling and not thinking changes in grammar or proofreading or changing the order of opening chapters will fix the overriding problem.

Also, someone who doesn't understand what a story is about generally doesn't understand how to create a strong plot.

Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Review by Bill Johnson

Cover of Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous.
Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous is set in the Ozarks in the early 70s. The main character is Boady, a 15 year old boy raised by a poor mother. Boady attends a nearby Catholic high school on a scholarship, but has no friends in a new school. His dream in life is to save enough money to flee his small town at 16.
The initial thrust of the plot is that Boady hears the story of Lida Poe, a divorced colored woman accused of stealing money from the local manufacturing plant before disappearing. What happened is a clearly defined plot question.

That same day, Boady overhears three seniors talking about dumping some pudding on the one colored freshman girl in the school. On an impulse, Boady trips the senior with the pudding and races away, managing to avoid a beat down in the moment. But he can't avoid the bullies before summer recess, and the leader makes him an offer.

An African-American family is moving in to an old mansion across the gravel road from Boady's house. The father will be a new manager at the local plant.

If Boady spray paints a racial slur on the new home, he will avoid a beating.

Boady agrees so he can get away, but then finds his new neighbors have a son his age. The two become friends, and Boady discovers his casual use of racial language offends.

When the boys go out camping, they find a building in the woods where a racist group called CORPS meets. Close by, Boady's dog finds the hand of Lida Poe sticking out from a shallow grave.

The title of the book is revealed. It is based on part of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that there is nothing more dangerous than racists finding each other and organizing.

Boady expects the revelation that Lida Poe died and didn't flee with embezzled funds will get him on the news. Instead, the local sheriff casually destroys evidence and refuses to follow up leads on who embezzled the money if Lida Poe didn't.

It turns out a leader of CORPS initiated a relationship with Lida Poe and induced her to embezzle, and then had her killed by his son as his initiation into becoming a full member of CORPS.

To keep details of the theft from coming out, a closeted gay man who works with Boady's mother has his house burned down.

With the help of a kind neighbor who has watched out for Boady and his mother, the killer of Lida Poe pays for his crimes.

Nothing More Dangerous explores how racism can be rooted in a small community.

There is never an attempt to call attention to Boady's transformation from small town lad who accepts the racial divide in his town to someone who becomes part of breaking down that division.

Influenced by his friend, Boady decides he will go to college.

The readers of the Allen Esken's novel share Boady's journey, a journey woven into the fabric of the story.

On a personal note, when I was 40, I took a girlfriend to meet my parents. She asked a question about a woman in a family photo album. It turned out my father had been married to an African-American woman before he married my mother. I never knew until that day.

Return to Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing Home Page 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Bill Johnson Play Performed in Dubai Short + Sweet Festival

Nikhil Mittal is with Zille Rehman and 2 others at The Junction.
Putting up “Heavenly Birth Insurance” on stage has been a learning experience like no other.
Thank u
Bill Johnson
for the beautiful script. It was exciting, enriching & challenging to bring your story to stage.
Thanks a lot to my actors
Zille Rehman
Shital Adesara Gusani
for believing in my vision and having faith and patience as we worked on it as a team giving it our all. We all pushed our boundaries and worked outside our comfort zone. You guys have been just awesome #GODBless
Thanks to everyone who gave us their feedback and boosted our confidence and morale.
@shortnsweetdxb #Theatre #DubaiTheatre

Bill Johnson's play Heavenly Birth Insurance will be presented by Emotive Artz at Short + Sweet Dubai, 21st & 22nd Feb 2020 at 7:30pm at the Junction in AlSerkal Avenue. Directed by Nikhil Mittal,