THE TYRANNY OF THE PREMISE, OR, WRITING A STORY WITHOUT A PREMISE IS LIKE ROWING A BOAT WITHOUT OARS
WHAT'S A PREMISE?
• Think of a premise as the love in a marriage.
• Think of a premise as the abracadabra that puts the rabbit into the hat.
• Think of a premise as the steel in reinforced concrete.
• Think ofa premise as the E = mc2 of novel writing.
It is all of the above and more.
• It is the reason you are writing what you are writing.
• It is the core, the heart, the center, the soul of your expression.
Still don't get it? Read on.
ORGANIC UNITY AND HOW IT'S ACHIEVED
Mary Burchard Orvis, in The Art ofWriting Fiction (1948), states:
All good fiction has form, no matter how modern or surrealistic. Indeed, the particular value of fiction over raw experience is that it imposes a pattern or a meaning upon life. Life is frustrating, chaotic, illogical, fantastic, and, more often than not, apparently meaningless; full of useless suffering, pain, tragedy. Yet man, as a rational and idealistic creature, craves order, plan, and satisfaction of individual potentialities. He may turn to religion, philosophy, poetry, or fiction for his answer to the riddle of life. If he turns to fiction, he wants some sort of organization, meaning, and pattern. . . .
Aristotle was well aware of the need to impose organization on fiction. In The Poetics, he explains "unity of action," stating that stories should be "complete and whole in themselves, with a beginning, a middle, and an end . . . with all the organic unity of a living creature."
Theorists ever since have been trying to find the underlying principle that would produce such a unity. This principle could then be used as a critical tool to determine which elements of a story, which characters, incidents, complications, developments, values, and so on belong in the story as part of its organic unity, and which do not.
For example, in Technique of the Drama, Gustav Freytag attempts to arrive at the principle underlying organic unity. After discussing in his somewhat florid style how story elements are combined in the "soul of the poet," he explains how these elements are molded and changed:
This transformation goes on to such an extent that the main element, vividly perceived, and comprehended in its entrancing, soul-stirring or terrifying significance, is separated from all that casually accompanies it, and with single supplementary, invented elements, is brought into a unifying relation of cause and effect. The new unit which thus arises is the Idea of the Drama. This is the center toward which further independent inventions are directed, like rays. This idea works with a power similar to the secret power of crystallization. . . .
Freytag's notion of the Idea of the Drama was a good attempt at describing the principle underlying unity of action.
Moses L. Malevinsky, however, in The Science of Playwriting, disagrees with Freytag's contention that the underlying principle was an "Idea" at all. He writes: "It is our contention the point of origin or initiative of a play is a basic emotion, or an element in or of a basic emotion . . . ."
William Foster-Harris, in his widely read The Basic Formulas of Fiction (1944), has yet another notion. He claims the underlying principle is a "solved illustration of a problem of moral arithmetic," such as Pride + Love = Happiness. Many beginning writers have found his formulas extremely useful in approaching the writing of a story.
Perhaps the most useful way of expressing the underlying principle is as a syllogism possibly first proposed by W. T. Price in The Analysis ofPlay Construction and Dramatic Principle (1908). He claimed that the underlying principle could best be expressed as a "proposition" which he defined as "the brief, logical statement or syllogism of that which has to be demonstrated by the complete action of the play."
Lajos Egri calls this syllogism a "premise" or "purpose," which he says is another name for "theme, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving force, subject, plan, plot, or basic emotion." Egri chooses to call it a premise "because it contains all the elements the other words try to express and because it is less subject to misinterpretation."
Egri was talking about playwriting, but this is also true if you're trying to write a damn good novel.
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