Bernard DeVoto in The World of Fiction says that the best teacher of creative writing he has ever known, Miss Edith Mirrielees, always began a discussion of a student's story by asking, "What is this story about?"
This is the most important question fiction writers can ask themselves about their stories. It is the first step toward finding the premise.
Once you know what the story is about, you will be able to say, "Here is my truth: Human nature is such that, given a particular set of characters tested by a particular set of conflicts, the course of events will change human beings in this particular way."
Your premise is an abbreviation of what your story says. It is your truth, your vision; it is what you're communicating about human nature and the human condition.
As a creative writing teacher, I see new writers come into my classes with fictional material they feel very strongly about, but they just can't shape it into a story. The reason is, they don't know what their story is about.
When I was starting out, I took the advice often given to beginners—write what you know about! What I knew about was being an automobile claims adjuster, so I started hammering out a biographical literary novel called The Cockroach.
The hero (me) was working in a job he hated, surrounded by people who were hopelessly bogged down in the mundane details of life. He longed for release through artistic expression. He got involved with union organizing, consulted spiritualists, went to a marriage counselor. The guy was a mess. He kept making the same mistakes, went here, went there, got drunk, wrecked his car, got fired, got a new job, had an affair—in short, he was bobbing around like a cork adrift in a typhoon.
My mentor kept asking me what this novel was about. What was the premise? hnd I kept staring at him blankly, mumbling that it was about being a claims adjuster.
My story should have been about some aspect of human life, not all aspects. All aspects of human life is too broad a subject. In fiction, we put one or two aspects of life under our microscope, subject them to an experimental treatment called conflict, and then document what happens. h good dramatic story is a laboratory of human nature. It says something about some aspect of human life that the author believes deeply. If you're going to write a damn good novel, you have to believe deeply that what you are saying about human nature, human values, human existence is true, given the particular circumstances of the story.
You may not be as fortunate as I have been; you may not find a great mentor as I did. You will then have to do for yourself what my mentor did for me. Every time you sit down to write, ask yourself what the story is about.
Okay, say it's a story of love. The only kind of love worth writing about is some kind of powerful love, whether it's filial, brotherly, romantic, lustful, obsessive, whatever. The answer to the question of what the story is about will give you the first part of your premise. What happens to the character, as a result, will give you the rest of it. In a story of obsessive love, say, the love becomes overbearing to the protagonist's lover and the protagonist loses her in the end and kills himself. Obsessive love leads to suicide is the premise of the story.
Once you have the premise, you know everything. You know, as an example, that the conflict with the protagonist's grandmother has nothing to do with the obsessive love and doesn't contribute to the suicide. You know that the loneliness that leads to the obsessive love does belong in the story. You now know where you're going.
Don't like a suicide in the end? How about: Obsessive love leads to something else? Say, spiritual enlightenment or blissful happiness? Your premise is yours alone; it's your truth, your vision, it's the way things work out in the world you've created.
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