If you wished to make an argument, say, that "dogs make better pets than cats," how would you go about proving it? You would argue that dogs are friendlier, more trainable, more likeable, more agreeable, and so on. You would include all the good things you can think of about dogs and all the bad things about cats. Even if you knew any good things about cats, you would exclude them, because it would be contrary to your argument. The premise of an argument is the statement of the conclusion that will be reached through the argument. Each part of the argument must contribute to the premise if the argument is to be a good one.
If you were to write a polemical (argumentative) nonfiction book, you would proceed in much the same way as if you were making a simple argument. Your book would be, in effect, a lengthy argument. You would have a premise to prove; that premise would be your conclusion. Say you wished to write a nonfiction book which argues that "white-collar crime pays. " You would not have a chapter detailing the lengthy prison sentences of famous white-collar criminals. You couldn't. That would be counter to your premise. You would instead point out the hundreds of white-collar criminals who have gone off to Brazil and are living in the lap of luxury on their ill-gotten gains.
Take a look at any good polemical nonfiction book; you can easily find the author's premise. A book titled Robert E. Lee, Hero of the Confederacy will tell you all about Lee and the Civil War; it will not have a chapter on picking roses in Tibet. A book about saving wildlife will not have an appendix on poker playing. The premise holds the author to his subject.
In a nonfiction book the author's premise is a "universal" truth. The premise might be: "war is bad," "pesticides are beneficial," "Millard Fillmore was a great president. " It is "universal" because it is always and everywhere provable in the same way the author has proved it. If the reader buys the argument, he is persuaded he now holds a truth, even if another authority would attempt to persuade the reader otherwise. In support of the premise, the nonfiction writer offers evidence that is testable and arguable in the "real" universe.
The premise of a work of fiction, however, is not provable and arguable in the "real" world. The reason: the premise of a work of fiction is not a universal truth. In a novel the premise is true only for the particular situation of that novel.
You may, for example, wish to prove in your novel that "premarital sex leads to disaster." You invent two characters, Sam and Mary, who have premarital sex, as a result of which bad things befall them. Sam, because of guilt, becomes despondent and turns to drink. He loses his job and ends up a derelict. Mary, having lost her virtue, is shunned by her family. She is deserted by Sam. In the end she commits suicide. You have proved your premise, not in the "real" universe, but in the fictional world of the novel. Premarital sex has led to disaster. This premise is not a universal truth—it is not true for all couples—but it is true for Sam and Mary.
Your next novel might have as its premise: "premarital sex leads to bliss." In this novel, Harry and Beth have a little fun behind the barn and their dull lives as a tractor driver and a milkmaid are transformed: they are invigorated, leave the farm, and find rewarding careers in the city. As it is not true that premarital sex leads to bliss for everyone, this is not a universal truth, but it is true for Harry and Beth within the fictional world you have created.
The premise of a story is simply a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story. Consider these examples:
• In The Godfather, Puzo shows us a reluctant son becoming a Mafia don because he loves and respects the family. The premise: "family loyalty leads to a life of crime." Puzo proved it well.
• In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway sets out to prove the premise that "courage leads to redemption." In the case of the old man it does.
• Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, shows us a miserly old man who is confronted with his misdeeds by the spirits of Christmas, and who is transformed into a kind of Santa Claus. The premise: "forced self-examination leads to generosity."
• Le Carre, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, shows us that even the greatest of spies can be demoralized by the duplicity of his own government. The premise: "realization leads to suicide."
• Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest proves the premise that "even the most determined and ruthless psychiatric establishment cannot crush the human spirit."
• Nabokov's Lolita proves that "great love leads to death." It does in Humbert Humbert's case.
• Flaubert knew premise well. Madame Bovary proves that "illicit love leads to death."
Does every dramatic story have a premise? Yes. One and only one premise? Yes. You can't ride two bicycles at the same time and you can't prove two premises at the same time. What if Dickens in A Christmas Carol were also trying to prove that "crime doesn't pay" along with his premise that "forced self-examination leads to generosity"? He'd have Scrooge exposed as a crook and punished. Wouldn't work, would it? What if Kesey wished to prove that "love conquers all," in addition to his premise "even the most determined and ruthless psychiatric establishment cannot crush the human spirit"? He'd really have a cuckoo's nest. How could he make his statement about the uncrushable nature of the human spirit at the same time? He clearly couldn't.
Why a story can have only one premise is self-evident once you understand the nature of premise. In fiction, the premise is the conclusion of a fictive argument. You cannot prove two different premises in a nonfiction argument; the same is true for a fictive argument. Say the character ends up dead. How did it happen? He ended up dead because he tried to rob the bank. He tried to rob the bank because he needed money. He needed money because he wanted to elope. He wanted to elope because he was madly in love. Therefore, his being madly in love is what got him killed; "great love leads to death" is the premise.
If the end of the story does not have a cause-and-effect relationship with what came before, it is not a dramatic story. Aristotle said, "Of simple plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I
call a plot episodic when there is neither probability nor necessity in the sequence of its episodes." In other words, no cause-and-effect relationship. Without this relationship, incidents do not build to a climax. By definition, then, a dramatic story can have only one premise because it can have only one climax. At the climax the core conflict is resolved. To say the core conflict is resolved is simply another way of saying the premise is proved.
A novel, of course, may be made up of more than one story. The Old Man and the Sea is a single story. So is Madame Bovary. So is One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. But Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man is made up of many stories. The stories are related to one another because they all happen to members of the Jordache family. The novel as a whole has no premise, only a framework, but each story within the framework has its own premise. These are concurrent separate stories, or subplots, which are woven into the main story. These stories have premises of their own like any other.
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