The great pyramids in Egypt could not have been built without the invention of the chisel.
A chisel is a simple thing, nothing more than a piece of copper or bronze rod flattened at one end and sharpened. Yet the invention of this humble tool is what led to the building of those colossal monuments. Without the chisel those huge edifices would be just piles of rocks.
Premise is the fiction writer's chisel. It's the simple tool that helps shape your fictional material and create a colossal monu-ment—a damn good novel.
There is no more powerful concept in fiction writing than that of premise. If you structure your stories with a strong premise in mind, your novel will be well focused and dramatically powerful, and it will hold your readers from beginning to end.
As I explained in How to Write a Damn Good Novel, premise is a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict of the story. The "core conflict" is simply another way of saying the actions of the story. That's what a premise is. It's a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of the story. That's it. What could be simpler? Yet once you have articulated your premise, you will be able, as if by magic, to shape your fictional material the way a stonemason shapes a stone with a chisel.
Many beginning writers have a great deal of difficulty grasping this concept. Perhaps the word itself, premise, sounds like a word that would be used by mathematicians and symbolic logicians, geniuses who write brain-numbing symbols in long chains on blackboards. Perhaps it would be better if, instead of "premise," a more user-friendly term were used, like story statement, or story summary. Or writer's banana, something like that. Unfortunately, that would only make things more confusing; there's already a blizzard of terms being used and no more are needed.
When I was learning the craft, my mentor, Lester Gorn, would ask me what my premise was for every story I wrote, and for years I'd fumble and mumble and say something like "You shouldn't lie," or "Living leads to dying," or "Never trust a stranger." He'd get red in the face and tell me I wasn't in control of my work and then he'd tell me what my premise was, but even when I knew it I couldn't use it because I didn't know how.
In the classes I teach, as soon as I mention the word premise I can see many of my students' eyes glaze over. After all, they're creative people: Why should they have to have some controlling principle in their stories? Isn't it more fun just to let the characters write the story?
It may be more fun, but it's the road to disaster. As novelists, we create fiction out of what DeVoto in The World of Fiction calls "a stream of revery" and the "novelist's gift for fantasy" and the "ability to organize his fantasies in coherent sequences." Organizing the fantasy into a coherent sequence is what you do when you form a premise and set out to prove it.
Sure, it's great to go with the flow of the fantasies and the reverie, but that's exactly where the problem lies. If you don't know your premise, your characters will write the story, but what story will they write? You might get lucky—it might turn out to be a good one. But I've noticed with my students, and they are a very talented lot indeed, that the chances of coming up with a damn good story by letting the characters do what they will is about one in a hundred. Without a premise, the writer has no blueprint. Without a premise, it is as if you're starting out on a trip to Kansas from
New York, blindfolded. Without a premise, you're simply imitating life, with all its boring byways and blind alleys.
A premise is a briefstatement ofwhat happens to the characters as a result of the actions of the story. Embodied in the statement is, as Lajos Egri says in The Art ofDramatic Writing, "character, conflict and conclusion."
Once a fiction writer is able to articulate the premise, he or she can use it as a test for each complication, asking, Is this really necessary to proving the premise? When the story is finished, the writer can then ask, Is the premise proved by the actions of the story?
Gerald Brace, in The Stuff of Fiction (1969), points out that "in the ideal dramatic fiction everything is relevant, everything counts, everything leads on to what is to come ... and at the inevitable climax, all is resolved and settled for good or ill."
Nothing will help you get closer to this ideal than knowing your premise.
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