The Unconscious Writer

Shocking as it may seem, some theorists don't believe in the concept of premise. One of them is Kenneth MacGowan who, in A Primer ofPlaywriting (1951), explains Egri's theory of premise in some detail, but then says, "I suppose it [finding your premise] is merely a harmless little exercise in the manufacture of bromides ... all it amounts to is saying a good play will have a moral message." MacGowan has come to this conclusion because of the many writers who sell fiction by the truckload but have never heard of premise. They write by instinct, and some of them have very good instincts indeed.

Jean Z. Owen tells about her days as an instinctual writer in Professional Fiction Writing (1974). She says that when she was an aspiring writer, she would, like most aspiring writers, "listen respectfully whenever anyone discussed characterization or dialogue or viewpoint, and was likely to genuflect mentally at the mere mention of plotting," but when it came to premise (which she calls "theme"), she "brushed aside the subject as being inconsequential."

One day she was discussing a proposed novel with an editor. She says she had her notes in order, a solid story idea, "an impressive dossier" on the major characters, and an over-elaborate outline.

Then the editor asked her about her premise.

Puzzled, she said she hadn't really thought about it.

Then the editor said they didn't have anything to discuss.

Stunned, Ms. Owen says she went home and thought long and hard about it. She reviewed every story she had ever written in terms of premise and came to an amazing conclusion: most of the stories she had not sold did not have a premise, and every one she had sold did have a premise!

"Since that time," she says, "I have cashed a great many checks for stories, novelettes, and novels that would never have sold without the knowledge I culled from the episode."

So how did Ms. Owen write stories with a strong premise without knowing it? Simple. She is a talented writer with a strong story sense. She was working intuitively. She had characters in conflict and usually things would come to a conclusion that felt right. And it turned out that it was right.

The resistance to the idea of having a premise, as Ms. Owen says, is often formidable. Aspiring writers often ask, "If you can write a great story without knowing your premise, why bother trying to figure it out?" Some even believe it is not only a bother, but potentially destructive as well. One such person once told me: "Look, what if a writer can tell a terrific story with living characters who grow through conflict—along with all the other elements of a good novel—without using the notion of premise? I submit to you (said in a high moral tone) that your preaching about having to have a premise could be terribly dangerous to him because he may feel that he has done something terribly wrong if his book has no easily identifiable premise—and therefore go on to impose something destructive on an otherwise fine story!"

The answer to such a charge is this: If the characters develop through conflict leading to a conclusion, then the book has a good premise; it's inescapable, even if the writer is unconscious of what it is.

Knowing your premise will simply insure that your instincts are correct. A premise is no more, Egri says, than a shorthand way of saying, "Character through conflict leads to a conclusion."

No dramatic story has ever been written that is anything other than character through conflict leading to a conclusion.

Character, conflict, and premise are the bricks, the mortar, and the form of a story. What comes next is the blueprint, the stepsheet, which makes storytelling as easy as ABC.

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