Thursday, October 06, 2005

Why do I get asked what my story's premise is?

Writing fiction isn't just fiddling with imaginary characters in an imaginary world till you stop. Writing dramatic fiction, for example, is composing a narrative of consequential events involving authentic characters whose lives are affected by them. It therefore has a subtext. That subtext is . . .

Human nature is such that, with these characters
in this situation, one thing will lead to
another so that, overall, this will lead to that.

That subtext is the story's premise.

For example: Given the characters of Romeo and Juliet caught in the feud between their families, passionate love will lead to death. We usually just say Passionate love leads to death for short.

Every good story proves such a premise. Just as some enterprises do intuitively get the job done without a mission statement, some authors do intuitively write good stories without consciously aiming to prove its premise. Still, if you examine these good stories, you do find a proven premise in them. Also, you can often see how such a story could be improved to become better, tighter, and stronger if consciously tooled by its premise.

That's because we create fiction from a stream of reverie and fantasy. Unless focused on a strategic objective, the imagination wanders aimlessly, erratically propelled by the power of suggestion in words and images. Forming a premise and setting out to prove it orients your imagination, aims it at a target, and keeps it on track to produce a coherent sequence of events. A story.

So, your chances of success are much greater if you write and use that mission statement -- that is, if you methodically base your story on a premise. If you don't, you run the risk of writer's block or ending up in the middle of a narrative you can't finish, let alone hammer into a STORY.

Some writers resist this advice, saying they prefer to let their characters write the story. But, if your characters are authentic, they act in their own self interest, not yours. What they write won't amount to a story. Each has his or her own premise, which varies from moment to moment. The narrative you end up with will have no coherent premise and won't be a STORY.

You are the God of the story world, proving your premise by putting these particular characters in this particular situation to demonstrate what happens.

Indeed, writing a story is like carrying out a military operation. So, Job One is to identify the strategic objective of the operation. That is, establish the premise, or purpose. Only then can you plan the tactical steps necessary to achieve it.

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