Finding Your Premise

The germinal idea for a story may be anything. A feeling. An image. A vague recollection of a heartthrob you almost danced with at your high-school prom twenty years ago. Or it might be a person you once met on a bus, or your old Uncle Wilmont who drank too much. It might be a "what if." What if a Martian were elected president? What if a bag lady found a million bucks? What if a great swimmer became a paraplegic? A germinal idea might be nothing more than a vague feeling that a story can be made out of a character, a situation, a notion. You want to write a story, so you pick the germinal idea you like best. Say it's Uncle Wilmont. That's the first step. Next, you sit down with pen and paper and begin looking for your story.

William C. Knott, in The Craft of Fiction, advises that you start not with a premise (which he calls a theme), but rather with characters "who demand to be whatever life you can create for them on the printed page. It is the characters who must galvanize you to write, insisting that you tell their story."

So you start with Uncle Wilmont, even though you may not know exactly what it is you want to say about him or have him do. All you know is that Uncle Wilmont is an interesting guy. He collects bugs. He smokes strong-smelling tobacco. He tells funny jokes. He argues loudly with his wife. He's an old socialist whose passions never cooled. Now how do you use this fascinating character in a story? You picture him in your mind and think real hard, but nothing happens. No story emerges, no matter how much you think. You're stuck. Where's the story? Something has to happen to Uncle Wilmont. What you're looking for, of course, is a dilemma. To set a forest on fire, you light a match. To set a character on fire, you put him in conflict.

One thing that has always struck you about Uncle Wilmont is that he's a skinflint. He loves money. What if, say, a swindler came by and wanted him to buy some swampland in Florida? Would he go for it? He might. Uncle Wilmont is very greedy. You decide to start a rough draft and see what happens. You don't have a premise yet, but you have the first part: "greed leads to—?"

Your next step is to think about what might happen in the end. You would like to see Uncle Wilmont taught a lesson, but that wouldn't seem real. Uncle Wilmont has always been greedy and he has never had to pay. No, somehow Uncle Wilmont would turn the situation to his advantage. He would end up winning. What does he win? Wealth? Spirituality? Love? You want to make this story something special. Say he does get swindled. He might make a big stink. He might get his picture in the paper. Time Magazine might do an article on him. Uncle Wil-mont would be great in an interview. Donahue might have him on. The country might find him refreshing. He might, in pursuit of his greed, find fame. Your premise: "greed leads to fame."

There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or a situation, give the protagonist a dilemma, and then meditate on how it might go. Let your imagination run. The possibilities are usually endless.

Okay, say you finish that story and want to work on another. Say you like the idea about the high-school prom and the girl you almost danced with.

What can be done with this? Let's say the hero of this story is a brainy but shy young man who has fallen in love with a girl, without ever once speaking to her. The love is unrequited—that's his dilemma. His name is Otto; her name is Sheila. He knows only that she's new in town and that her father is a millionaire. Seeing her, he's paralyzed with fear. He can't approach her. Do we have a premise? Not yet. It might be "great love leads to—?," but we don't know for sure.

So you let your imagination run, and here's what you come up with: During the summer following high school, Otto passes by Sheila's house and sees her sunbathing, swimming in her pool, and the like. His throat closes up. His glasses steam. He tries to walk up close to the fence to talk to her, but his knees go weak. He finally gets up the courage to phone her. Yes, she remembers seeing him around, she says. And yes, she'll go out with him. They begin dating. He is so in love with her that when he's near her he stutters. She's interested in him at first, because of what a brain he's supposed to be, but she soon becomes bored with him. He just isn't fun, and Sheila is a fun girl. So she starts making excuses why she can't go out with him. He falls into despair. He becomes morose, perhaps suicidal.

If he kills himself, your premise would be: "great love leads to suicide."

If he finds happiness with another, more sincere, girl: "unrequited love leads to acceptance of another's love."

If he buries himself in work: "unrequited love leads to work-aholism."

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