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21.06.2011 14:23    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Elements  Fiction Writing  Creative Writing  Writing Craft  Writing Theme  Writing Tips  Writing Premise      Tags: theme  premise  joann ross  

Theme & Premise: Finding Your Premise - or What's This Story All About?


Often, when you ask a writer what her story is about, she'll launch into a lengthy narrative giving detail about the characters' back stories, what's happening when the book opens, what happens next. Then next. Then next. And on and on until twenty minutes later, you've heard nearly the entire story, which may sound absolutely wonderful, but you still have no idea what it's about.

This is the way people tend to tell stories, and I've certainly done it a gazillion times myself, but when you're starting out to write your book, looking at it as a series of episodic scenes can make the writing a lot harder.

Being an instinctive writer, I've always had a reluctance to look beneath the hood if things are working. However, in recent years I've come to the conclusion that even we fly-into-the-mist writers can save ourselves a bit of turbulence on those flights if we have a little craft beneath our wings.

Craft and creativity are not mutually exclusive. To paraphrase Dona Cooper's excellent American Film Institute's Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV, using only creativity to write your book is like trying to cross the ocean depending solely on your intuition as a guide. While using only craft is like staying in your cabin, depending solely on instruments and charts. Utilizing both to double check each other will increase your chances for a safe journey.

Not all of us begin with a sixty page outline detailing every aspect of every character or scene. But it certainly helps to have a very clear sense of what's at stake in our stories. In screenwriting terms, this would be your log line - the ultimate summary, the quintessential idea behind the story you want to tell.

Much of what I'm going to tell you about finding your premise comes from John Jarvis, creature of The Jarvis Method and Storycraft software, which I've found a helpful tool in discovering what that story shimmering out there in the mists of ether I find so appealing is actually about. I also find Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure and Robert McKee's Story invaluable while plotting.

First we need our log line. For example: Batman encounters an evil person who wants to blow up Fort Knox. This log line MUST show the conflict that comes out of your premise, because that's what's going to drive your plot.

A log line stating Batman visits his friends on vacation is static, promising nothing interesting. However, if we add a few words, changing it to Batman visits his friends on vacation and discovers a mystery, we have a starting point.

The log line for Dracula would be: A vampire wants to move to London.

It's important to stick with one strong, major premise per story. More than one leads to a double story, which confuses your reader and dilutes your message. You may craft a tale with parallel storylines, but the premise remains the same on both lines, which will create even more of an impact when they finally come together.

Here's another log line: Two teenagers fall in love. That has possibilities, and certainly every reader can identify with it (which is important if you want people to buy your book) but where's the conflict that will grow out of your premise? What's going to drive that story besides typical teenage hormones?

Okay, so you go back to the drawing board and rewrite it so it now reads: Two teenagers fall in love against their parents' wishes.

That's better. And again, something your audience can identify with. Let's tweak it a bit more. Two teenagers from feuding families fall in love.

Now you can see lots of potential conflict, although here we may be getting a bit further away from reader identification, unless that reader is either a Hatfield or a McCoy. But some grand romances have come from this concept - West Side Story and Nora Roberts' Boundary Lines are two that spring to mind - so it can certainly work.

But what if we up the stakes just one more notch and decide that what we want to show is that love is more important than any potential problem it might create.

You begin to write your line Love is greater than -

What? A bad hair day? A pimple the size of Mt Everest erupting the day of the prom? Parental disapproval? Love is greater than feuding families? It's the resolution word that's going to be the most powerful part of your premise. So . . .

How about shooting for the ultimate: Love is greater than death. Five words and we now have one of the most enduring love stories every told - Romeo and Juliet.

Although readers might not realize it, they can identify with Romeo and Juliet not just because they've undoubtedly suffered the angst that being a teenager in love entails, but because most of us have, at one time, thought we might die for love.

Of course we didn't , and we might never have actually put the feeling into words, but that doesn't mean it wasn't in our hearts. Do not make the mistake of confusing fiction with real life. Fiction is an exaggeration of life. And it's that exaggeration which triggers feelings of identification within your readers.

In a perfect world, we'd absolutely, positively know our premise - and resulting conflicts - before we begin to write. In real life, unfortunately, sometimes we'll discover that what we thought was the driving issue isn't at all. I've had that happen as late as page one-hundred. That's when characters who've been a bit difficult early on balk and I realize that my story isn't exactly about what I thought it was in the beginning. The bad thing about this is you often have to throw away a lot of pages. The good thing is that your subconscious usually knows what it's doing and I've never had a case where, when I finally have that epiphany, the book didn't just take off and fly from that point on.

Our premises and conflicts should always work on an emotion or desire we all share. That's why stories about love or fear or war or greed continue to fascinate us and make people want to buy our books. Which is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.


About the Author


Visit Joann at: www.joannross.com

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WOMAN'S HEART, Mira Books, available July 2002buy B&N Amazon
RIVER ROAD, Pocket Books, available Sept 2002 buy B&N Amazon
BLUE BAYOU, Pocket Books, available now! Buy B&N Amazon
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