Please note: this short intro appears prior to each of these ten installments. If you’re read it before, skip down to the next subtitle in larger font. Also, to read previous posts in this series, refer to this menu of links (be sure to return to this page to keep reading in sequence; that said, each of these stand alone, it is the assimilation the full body of information that will take you to the next level of understanding of the basic principles of fiction-writing craft, as it applies to writing a novel):
Part 1: Concept
Welcome to the 101 of writing novels.
One of the reasons writing a great novel is so challenging is that there is no obvious starting place. Is it a character? A premise? A theme? A single sentence that won’t get out of your head?
While that argument continues to rage, what remains in less dispute is this: there are a set of principles and essential elements that, before the story works, you need to get right. With that in mind, this series introduces – reintroduces, actually, since these are the foundation of this body of work, and my three writing books – ten of those essential elements.
Today’s post defines and explores the one that is in the running for that Square One focus.
“It isn’t a story until something goes wrong.”
That’s the essence of premise in a nutshell. Premise is not merely an intriguing time or place. “A story about ancient Rome,” for example, is only a partial – and therefore defective – statement of premise. A solid premise is a snapshot of what your protagonist is up against, what she/he must do (action) and accomplish (outcome), what their quest/journey is within the story (experience) – in other words, what goes wrong – and what is at stake (consequences of both success and failure).
Consider your story as a vehicle, waiting to carry your reader somewhere. To another time and place, into the throes of a relationship, smack in the middle of a mystery or a dangerous situation. That is the beginning of premise (setting), but not the entire raw grist of the story. Ever.
The heart and soul of a vehicle, any vehicle, is some sort of dramatic engine. A source of compelling draw, of narrative power. Without that engine, the whole thing just sits there. It becomes a still-frame. Perhaps pretty to look at, or sit in, but without a source of motion – a hero with a goal or a problem, taking action to achieve that goal or solve the problem, in the presence of opposition and/or antagonism, with something at stake — is is a parked car, not a race car or, if you prefer, a gilded chariot.
That dynamic proposition becomes the engine of your story. And an engine worthless until you put it into motion.
This action-driven, problem/goal orientation is called the premise, a common (and thus, too often loosely rendered) writing term, one that resides at the heart of every successful story. And I’ve just defined it for you. Here it is again: a hero with a goal or a problem, taking action to achieve that goal or solve the problem, in the presence of opposition and/or antagonism, with something at stake.
Right now, in this moment, you can use this analyze your story. If you struggle with identifying any of these elements and forces within your story, you have more work to do. Because your answer for each needs to be concise, clear, and most of all, compelling.
A functional premise, one with inherent power, is all of these things.
The absence of any one or more of these story elements renders the premise less than effective. Because it is the sum of these that puts the story vehicle into motion. Such a premise explains rejection or failure in a huge percentage of rejections (agent, publisher or readers at large), the other reason being less than compelling narrative skill.
Non-writers often ask writers what their story is “about.” This is a loaded question.
Writers almost always ask other writers what their “premise” is. So if you say, “my story is about ancient Rome,” that’s at best a partial premise (maybe you’re waiting for a response to add the rest, but if you don’t have more story than that, then you haven’t yet landed on a premise that will work). Telling someone what your story is about is a risky, nebulous proposition that can land on a character, a theme, a time or place… all of which can be conceptual and cool, but none of which comprise a fully-formed premise.
If that partial answer is delivered to an agent, then you are already toast.
“The Davinci Code,” for example, is about… what? There are easily a half dozen correct answers to that question. But the premise is perfectly aligned with the definition: a hero (Landgon) with a goal or problem (he is being framed for murder and the cops are after him, as well as a mysterious albino assassin, in addition to a potential romantic interest who may or may not be what she seems), and so he runs for cover while also seeking answers to a murder and the emergence of a bizarre proposition, one that bad guys (under the cover of being good guys) are willing to kill to protect. Not only his is life at stake, but the veracity of the most popular belief system in the Western world may be threatened by what he learns.
And that, fellow writers, is an $80 million killer answer to what a story is about.
That’s what a great premise can do. Maybe not to that scale, but when you fuel your premise with a compelling conceptual essence as its framework (which implies, accurately, that you can cover all these component bases in your premise, and it still might not be all that compelling… finding and adding the magic if your job, your challenge, and it actually the key to everything… but you need a fully-formed premise as the vehicle for that magic), you are suddenly in the hunt for readers in a way that you won’t be if you take the nature and breadth of your premise for granted.
Want more? Would you like to go deeper into the essentials of craft?
Join me (and story coach Jennifer Blanchard) in Portland April 3 through 7, to learn more – definitions and criteria included – about this and many more elements and essences of a successful story… a story so powerful it’s almost as if it’s on steroids… all presented in context to your writing process, whatever that might be.
Click HERE for a description of the workshop, and a link to the enrollment page. Or HERE for a closer look at the four-day agenda.
Or click HERE to go straight to the workshop’s website.
If you enroll before February 1, you will receive a TEN PERCENT DISCOUNT on the workshop tuition.
Next post in this series: Dramatic Arc.