Thursday, May 27, 2010

DEVELOPING A PREMISE FOR A STORY


DEVELOPING A PREMISE FOR A STORY
©Leslie H. Edgerton

 Hi folks,
Thought it was time for some "writer" stuff.

Short stories originate from many sources. Sometimes they evolve from a character, something he or she says or does. A scrap of conversation overheard. Sometimes from playing the game “what if,” where the writer takes a situation she is familiar with and asks herself “what if” the incident took a different turn. Other times a word will be the seed that leads to a completed story. My first novel began in such a way, with the word spatterdashers. I saw the word used in a Paris Review interview and became intrigued with it, eventually using it for a metaphor throughout the book. Originally, it was the title although the publisher changed it for publication to The Death of Tarpons. Actually, we had a bit of an argument over this. She claimed that she didn’t know what the word meant until I explained it (it was the original form of the word that’s been shortened over the years from usage to “spats” meaning an article of clothing men wore to “prevent spatter from dashing their trousers.”). I (reluctantly) agreed, and then, shortly after my novel came out, another novel came out titled Palimpsest by Gore Vidal. She pointed out that he was Gore Vidal… and I wasn’t… and I refrained from mentioning that as an editor she should have known what that term meant and she didn’t. She won, I lost… Some stories are almost exact representations of an actual event, changed only slightly to meet the requirements of fiction writing. There are many more sources for story ideas, almost as many as there are stories! Ideas are everywhere; indeed, the problem with most of us is insufficient time to develop all the story ideas rattling around in our brain pans!

Choose your story premise carefully, making it one you will feel comfortable staying the course with until the short story or novel is completed.

A premise is a simple thing, but the tool by which most good stories are created. As author James Frey explains in his text, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II,A premise is a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of the story. That’s it, nothing more. It isn’t the plot. The plot is basically the causal actions of the story. In the premise is included, as Lajos Egri says in The Art of Dramatic Writing, “character, conflict and conclusion

First let’s look at what a premise isn’t. It isn’t a moral. It isn’t stated as something like “Obey the Ten Commandments or Else!”. It isn’t a theme. A theme is a recurring fictional idea, expressed as things like “true love,” “duty to country,” stuff like that. A wonderful example of a premise, on the other hand, is the one expressed in the well-known story of The Three Little Pigs. That story’s premise could be stated as: Foolishness leads to death and wisdom leads to happiness. That’s it. By the way, most of these examples are taken from James Frey’s book, an excellent guide for writers. He gives another great example of a premise in the Bible story of Samson and Delilah--the premise of that tale being that Repentance leads to a glorious death. As Frey explains, the Samson story’s premise is really stating that: God’s love leads to great strength, which leads to heroism in battle, which leads to haughtiness and arrogance, which leads to temptations of the flesh, which leads to betrayal, which leads to defeat and disgrace and blindness, which lead to repentance, which leads to a restoration of superpowers, which leads to a glorious death. The premise, as stated above as “Repentance leads to a glorious death,” is just a shorthand way of saying all of that. A premise says that through a causal chain of events, one situation will lead to another and will eventually lead to a resolution. It’s merely a way of saying what the chain of events is that leads the character(s) through conflict to the conclusion. Keep in mind that a premise should be about a single aspect of human life, not multiple aspects. A short story doesn’t allow enough room for more than one aspect ordinarily.

The great thing about developing a premise early on in a story’s creation, is that you now have a frame to build your story on. Another nice thing is that if you have a premise, you can create a story out of nothing more than that. You have a roadmap to follow and when your mind takes side trips you can easily steer it back onto the main highway. Premise is one of the most powerful tools you have in your writer’s toolbox. A premise also is a useful tool once you begin editing your story. Anything that doesn’t follow the premise should be cut.

Many times, writers will argue that the way they like to write is to create a character and then let them go. Let the characters write the story. The only problem with this is that many, many times the characters won’t write a very good story. They’re drifting, rudderless. You might end up with a good story using this method, but the odds are against it. Again, there is always the exception that proves the rule. I have to confess that when I write stories, in my beginning draft, there are times when I don’t have a clearly defined premise. But...when I sit down to begin rewrites I always have one, developed from what I’d written in my first draft. And, on those occasions when I don’t have a premise, I struggle more than any other time. Once I have a premise, I can begin easily to whack out the irrelevant portions, and begin to create what Flannery O’Connor called the “unified effect”. This is the one element all great stories have in common, and it is best achieved by guiding your story by the North Star called Premise.

There are three kinds of premises. Chain reaction, opposing forces, and situational. Chain reaction premises are the easiest to understand. You have a character, something happens to him that sets off something else and so on, leading to a climax and resolution. Many of Raymond Carver’s short stories have chain reaction premises. Opposing forces premises are where two forces are set against each other and one wins. Good examples of these kinds of stories are many of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Romeo and Juliet and Robert Benchley’s Jaws. The final kind, situational, describes the kind of story in which a particular situation affects the character(s). Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage illustrates a situational kind of premise - a coward finds himself in the army during a time of war and strives to overcome his cowardice.

Another mistake many writers (including this one) make, is confusing an amusing or interesting anecdote for a story. If you apply the theory of premise to this kind of material, it becomes clear instantly that what you have is not a story at all, not in the sense that we regard stories. (Especially publishable ones!)

Let’s look at some examples of how to develop a premise from your story. Let’s say you have a protagonist named Mary who is an alcoholic. She has recently hit her “bottom” and realizes she needs help in overcoming her problem. She begins attending A.A. meetings and gets involved in a 12-step program. Things go along fairly smoothly until she meets a guy (Emory) at one of the meetings, becomes sexually interested in him and he asks her to go to a bar with him. Not to drink, he injects; just to talk and get out of the “institutional atmosphere” of the A.A. meeting. (The meetings are held in a hospital). While there, he confesses he’s a musician and has just signed a contract with a big recording company, but he feels he’s a charlatan in accepting their money; what they heard him play was technically perfect, but he was sober at the time and his music held no “soul”. His conflict is that he wants more to be a “real” musician, i.e., one with “soul” than one who is commercially successful. Therefore, he has just decided at that very moment to fall off the wagon and begin drinking. Mary, a musician herself, sees a kindred soul in Eddie, and goes home to wrestle with her own demon. Should she make the same decision as Emory, or is it more important to save her health and life? In the end, she sits in her apartment, staring at a tumblerful of whiskey she has poured. We don’t know if she will drink it or not, but we feel she will, from the way it is set up. What is the premise of this story? It could be stated this way: “Someone with a fatal weakness may fall prey to that weakness if she associates with those who cannot control their own failings, especially if they are similar in makeup.” By the way, the above is based on a short story in my collection, titled "My Idea of a Nice Thing."

Remember too, that a premise isn’t a “moral” and shouldn’t be stated as such.

Does this give you a better idea how to “see” the premise in a story? If you still have difficulty in determining the premise of your story, read Chapter Four of Frey’s book if you like. It’s on my list of writing books on this site should you wish a convenient way to order it.

Here’s a real-life analogy that may help, also. I was a hairdresser (my “day” job) for almost thirty years and my wife and I frequently had to train new stylists we'd hired. Cosmetology schools, in general, don’t do much in the way of teaching hair-cutting theory. The haircutting portion of their education usually consisted of teaching the “steps” in three or four haircuts. They are taught to follow steps 1 through 10 to achieve the cut they are learning, whether it be a version of a “layer” cut, a one-length cut or whatever. They are learning what we call “cookie-cutter” haircutting. Unless they pick up haircutting theories on their own--which some do--they are the ones we call the “born” haircutter--most of them have little but a faint idea of how the structure of the haircut provides the finished look. They don’t realize, in the main, that every haircut in the world is achieved from the various angles the hair is held and cut at. What we did in our salon is to try and teach an understanding of haircutting angles and their result when performed on various types of hair. Rather, we provided a system in which the stylist teaches herself. We asked each beginning stylist to pick out ten styles a week in a fashion magazine and to diagram the angles used to achieve that style. In other words, we asked them to articulate the “premise” for that hairstyle. Very quickly, the stylist began to understand the structure and in short order could then cut any style she sees or visualizes. She became an artist, not merely a cookie-cutter automation. This is different from many hairstylists, who progress by adding to their repertoire by learning the “steps” in each style. For instance, such a stylist, if she has lasted long enough in the trade, begins to put “Cut #13” on this person, “Cut #6B” on another client. Such a stylist has learned the mechanical steps required for a variety of cuts, but hasn’t a clue as to how these steps came about. She’s not an artist yet, and if she continues her haircutting education in this manner probably never will. (I think a lot of architects and other "design folk" fall into this category!) She can put out a serviceable style on most folks, but will never become an innovator, creating styles of her own. On the other hand, the stylist who actually learns the theory of angles and observes what cutting various types of hair at different angles achieves, is on her way to becoming a successful stylist. Once she is well-versed in angle theory, she can then begin to experiment with angles, thereby creating unique styles, at which point she can begin realistically planning nice vacations and deciding which toney restaurant she wants to dine in that evening.

Story writing is much the same process. There are many who perfect the craft of writing stories, but their product is bland and insipid and doesn’t breathe the life of greatness. In fact, the only reason their stories make it into print occasionally, is that they are technically perfect. It is a fact of reality that the way many editors select stories to be published is that they go through the stack of manuscripts awaiting them and look for reasons to reject them. This list can consist of dozens of things, from improper submission format, failure to enclose an SASE, to a misspelled word or the improper change of point of view of the narrator. When this kind of editor happens upon a manuscript that is technically “perfect”, i.e., all of the “rules” have been followed, sometimes this is the story they select. If your aim is merely to get published, learn all of the so-called rules and once in awhile you’ll see a story of yours get into print. However, if your aim is not only being published but in the creation of memorable stories, learning how to develop a premise will be of great value to you. Once you understand the concept of a premise and use it diligently in your work, you will begin to achieve what Flannery O’Connor called “a unified effect” and your work will begin to assume the kind of power all truly great stories have in common.

Harking back to the example of the beginning hairdresser asked to diagram hairstyle angles, here’s an exercise that you can use to sharpen your own skills at developing premises. From now on, whenever you finish reading a short story or a novel, write down what you believe to be its premise. Once you’ve done that a few times, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to do and you’ll find it remarkably easy to apply premises to your own work. In fact, it will become impossible to read a story thereafter without seeing its premise (or lack of one!). At first, don’t be too critical that you’ve gotten it exactly right. With but a little practice, you’ll begin to zero in on what the author intended, quicker in better stories. In fact, I’ll make a little bet, in that when you start to look for the premise in stories, the fiction you’ve judged as not that good are the stories that have a fuzzy premise or that wander from it. In quality stories, the premise is usually sharp and in focus. That’s because that writer understands the power of this tool and everything in her story that doesn’t contribute to the premise of the story ends up on the cutting room floor where it belongs.

And plot? How does plot figure into this? Well, all plot is, is a summary of activity within the story. This happens, which causes this to happen, which causes this to...and so on. My own opinion of plot is that it’s hugely overrated. There are supposedly only five (six? seven?) plots in existance and it would be difficult to find more than that. You can use plot to discover your premise by simply loosely outlining what is going to happen in the story. For example: Protagonist comes to realization she’s got a drinking problem, goes to AA meeting, meets another alcoholic who’s a musician like herself, witnesses him fall off the wagon to achieve his art, comes to a crossroad herself by pondering his example. That’s a pretty basic plot and the one I used in the aforementioned story. The premise, I’ve already stated. The problem with plot is that other ideas occur as you’re writing your story and pretty soon you’ve taken a side road away from your original plot and end up abandoning the story. If you’ve developed a premise and a detour presents itself, so long as you don’t vary from the premise the story will complete itself. Some of this I have to ask you to take on faith. As the old joke goes - “Trust me!”

Try to develop a premise for your story in one or two sentences or a paragraph. If you have already come up with a complete story idea, this shouldn’t be too hard, and if you haven’t, it may be even easier. Develop a premise on an idea that intrigues you, one that contains all the ingredients--character, conflict, and conclusion. Perhaps you’ve always been interested in the effect of opposites in relationships. Your premise might be “Given a potentially threatening personal disaster, a conservative husband takes the part of his liberal-thinking wife and makes an uncharacteristic decision, one that is personally harmful to his ego, but which proves his love for his wife.” Can you see the possibilities that articulating a premise gives a writer? You could further edit this premise down to something like, “To achieve true love, a man (or woman) has to suffer, as well as overcome personal biases.”

Once you have a premise, writing the story becomes much easier and will stay on track to its final destination.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,
Les
This is me, cutting my daughter Britney's hair. She's in her thirties now, so this was a few years ago. I think around '71 or '72. And, for those of you who know me, you'll notice that I have hair. My shaved head is a choice, not genetics... I'm using those "angles" I talked about above...   

12 comments:

Sally Clements said...

that's a really useful post, Les. I certainly see the point of developing a premise, but gawd, can I apply it to my wip? At the moment - no. I'm off to practice on someone else's book/story, and fingers crossed I'll magically be able to do it!
(brilliant tool for developing a pitch too, I'd think)

carlrbrush said...

I'm on my way for a haircut, er style. You're obviously the best.
For me, the more ways I can be reminded of the premise lesson, the better. I tend to give complicated haircuts that do less to enhance the appearance than to indulge my wandering scissors. And takes take a long time, too. Wonder why people don't tend to come back...

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally. Glad you liked it and hope it helps.

Carl, you're a stitch! Your considerable writing talent and intelligence come through even on emails and comments like this!

Good stories, like good haircuts, rely on simple engineering...

Hey, how was Louisville? Did you pick a mudder and win? I hope you didn't drink any of those godawful mint julips... When I see a man drinking one of those, I look to see if his shoes match his purse... (Kidding!)

Sapphire Trcikett said...

You know if you keep posting about what I've spent the week thinking about, sooner or later I'm going to find it creepy!

Thank you for sharing your advice and hair.

carlrbrush said...

My horse won. Of course I didn't place only one bet, and of course we don't discuss those other bets.

Glad, but not surprised, that you share my opinion of the julep. I did, however, partake considerably of the essential ingredient.

Christine Danek said...

This is very helpful. In fact, I'm bookmarking it. I really need to look hard at my premise and I think my revisions may pick up the pace.
I want to thank you for your helpful comment on my blog. I'm honored that you are a follower.
I also wanted to mention that your book Hooked has done wonders for my chapter 1. I'm embarrassed to read my first draft. I'm on revision 10 of my chapter 1 and realized that I needed to clarify the story worthy problem. I have a clear inciting incident, initial surface problem but my story worthy problem wasn't fully clear. I felt it and my critique partner also pointed it out. So I'm working on it.
Thank you again,
Christine

Tiffany said...

This kind of reminds me of an inciting incident with some extra bits thrown in.

Oh and I ran across How to Write a Damn Good Novel part one while I was organizing books last night. Will that do or does part two have more stuff?

Donna Hole said...

Hmm, I read that book cover to cover, and I don't think I got as much out of it as I did this post.

My premise for my novel came after the first draft - well, maybe after the 4th or so - and did help focus the revisions. It's situational, and keeps my main character from writing her own story. Works for the entire trilogy too.

Thanks for the very concrete examples.

Have a great weekend Les.

.......dhole

Mary said...

This post ROCKS, Les!! Thanks so much. Now all I have to do is train my brain to think that way. I have a few stories that are fizzling out and I hope if I can go back and find the premise I can resuscitate them! You are an incredible teacher. Please keep these posts coming!!!!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I always start with a premise. I'm not of those people who keep new stories secret. I don't go into detail, but I force myself to do the one line sales job on a story to people. Out loud.

Yes, it leads to awkward moments. It also makes me THINK about what I'm writing.

I sold a book today. Good day. :)

Les Edgerton said...

Sex Scenes--you SOLD A BOOK??!!

Wow! CONGRATULATIONS! Let us know when it comes out so we can buy copies!

I also agree with your point about "not keeping stories secret." What would be the point of that, anyway? Fear that someone is going to steal it? Like that's ever happened... I think you can leave the doors unlocked on that one...

Let us know what your book is about, okay?

Thanks to everyone for great comments.

Jane Andrews said...

Peter Benchley wrote JAWS. Robert Benchley was his grandfather.