On Premise and Story Fundamentals

This month, I got my summer-holiday brain into gear by putting together a post on Story Fundamentals for Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

Chaos by @libby_olVine Leaves is a great journal for writers: their segment Sowing the Seeds houses some terrific posts about the craft of writing. My local writerly partner-in-crime, JJ Marsh, just wrote a couple of posts on the craft of ‘voice’. Keep your eyes out for that series.

So here’s a taster of Story Fundamentals (the part on ‘premise’).

You can head over to Vine Leaves for the full post, and discover questions you can ask yourself when you’re editing your own work.

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On Premise

There’s a spot of contention about the definition of PREMISE, though most will agree every story needs to have clarity in the sense that it can be distilled into an idea, a phrase or a sentence.

Here are three common definitions, and my advice would be to call them what you like – inspiration, Log-line, Central Dramatic Question, Controlling Idea – but be ready to answer all of them. One is about keeping the writer going … and the others are about keeping the story focused.

The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover … as they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives … 

—Robert McKee, STORY

DEFINITION 1

The idea that keeps the writer inspired to keep writing: it’s personal, and it could be anything from an open-ended ‘what if?’ question to a photograph of a place that evokes something for the writer. It could be the post-it note we stick to the computer screen to remind us why we’re writing this story … specifics To Be Decided. (Of course, I’m using creative license in the examples below, as I have no way of knowing what the writer was really thinking.)

Example 1: What if there was a way for kids to visit magical, far-away lands, but still be home in time for tea? (THE MAGIC FARAWAY TREE, Enid Blyton)

Example 2: What if a contemporary teenager fell in love with a vampire? (TWILIGHT, Stephenie Meyer)

Example 3: I’ll take hokey religions and ancient weapons over a good blaster any day, thanks. (STAR WARS, Ep.4)

DEFINITION 2

This is the larger, thematic concept, often expressed as a VALUE with a CAUSE. Like an adage or a saying. (McKee calls this the ‘Controlling Idea’ and he says it must be related to the story’s climactic scene.)

Example 1: Justice may not always prevail, but it’s a better outcome when we view others with respect. (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Harper Lee)

Example 2: There’s hope for humanity as long as there’s love. (THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy)

DEFINITION 3

This is much more specific to the story details, but it’s not just plot. It’s where ACTION meets IDEAS. Some call it a Log-Line. Some call it a Pitch.

It’s often reduce-able to a character with a desire, who faces a complication in their quest. If it contains irony … all the better. Remembering, of course, that in stories, A leads to B leads to C … and so-on. ‘Because of X, Y happens. Because of Y, Z happens.’ Everything should have a knock-on effect.

When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS], a [SPECIFIC PROTAGONIST] must [OBJECTIVE], or else [STAKES].

Example 1: DIVERGENT, Veronica Roth

When restless teenager Tris [SPECIFIC PROTAGONIST] discovers she is Divergent – unable to be classified in one social faction – [INCITING INCIDENT] she leaves her family’s faction, Abnegation, to join Dauntless, where she soon discovers she must pass initiation [OBJECTIVE] or be outcast [STAKES] … and keep her true Divergent status a secret [OBJECTIVE] or be eliminated by corrupt political powers [STAKES].

Example 2: THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, Mark Haddon

When Christopher – a highly gifted but socially challenged teenager – discovers his neighbour’s dead poodle in the front yard, his need for order and logic compels him to try and make sense of this seemingly random, horrific event … but, in doing so, he not only puts himself in the frame, but discovers his father has been lying about his mother’s whereabouts … an unquantifiable complication that threatens to throw his life into chaos.

A few reference texts:

  • Robert McKee, STORY
  • Lajos Egri, THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING
  • NaNoWriMo’s collaborative book, READY, SET, NOVEL
  • Blake Snyder, SAVE THE CAT

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