Premise Prestidigitation

Let's examine a story and see how, if we change the premise, the story changes. A simple trick indeed. Here's our story:

Joe, an idealistic young man, inherits his grandfather's farm, which he is determined to make totally organic. To his horror, he finds some of his neighbors reaping huge profits by making illegal pesticides. He pretends to be one of them and in the end brings them to justice.

The premise for this story: Courageous idealism leads to victory over evildoers.

So, this is a story about courageous idealism. What happens to the protagonist as a result of his courageous idealism? He is victorious. To write the story of Joe's courageous idealism leading to victory over evildoers you might construct a stepsheet that outlines the progression of events like this:

THE OPENING SITUATION: Joe is in some sort of conflict over his idealism—say he's reading his poetry on the street and the cops want him to move on; he sticks by his rights and gets arrested. (You're showing he's idealistic and is willing to stick to his ideals.)

THE INCITING INCIDENT: Returning home from paying his fine, he learns he owns the farm.

FIRST COMPLICATION: He takes over the farm, determined to make it organic. He sweats a lot, finds a lot of satisfaction. (You're showing his idealism at work on the farm and you've proven at least to some degree his commitment.)

SECOND COMPLICATION: He's shocked to discover his neighbors making and using illegal pesticides that poison the ground-water. (You're introducing the evildoers.)

THIRD COMPLICATION: Determined to put an end to their evil ways, he gets together with the local police to infiltrate the illegal pesticide underground. (You're putting his idealism to a stronger test.)

FOURTH COMPLICATION: Joe joins his neighbors in their nefarious activities, faces dangers, and finally gets the goods on the bad guys. (You're showing him being courageous.)

FIFTH COMPLICATION: The bad guys try to kill Joe; he's terrified, but sticks to his mission. (You're putting his idealism to the ultimate test, upping the stakes.)

THE CLIMAX: The bad guys are brought to justice.

THERESOLUTION: Joe returns to his farm. The community is grateful and he feels fulfilled. (You're showing he triumphs.)

Having completed your plan for proving the premise, you need to ask yourself some hard questions:

• Is the premise proved? Answer: Yes. You've shown that idealism leads to triumph.

• Are there any superfluous complications? Answer: No.

• Are there ironies and surprises? Answer: Well, no, not really.

• Do the characters grow and develop? Answer: Gee, no, not very much.

• Is the story worth writing? Answer: Hell no!

If there are no ironies and surprises and the characters don't develop, it's obvious the story is not worth writing.

Okay then, using the same character in the same situation, how might the story statement be changed to make the story more ironic and dramatically powerful and give the character more development?

First, let's cut out the melodrama of the neighbors making illegal pesticides as part of an underground conspiracy that he infiltrates. Let's say Joe inherits the farm, but his scheme to make it organic doesn't work. Gradually, economic factors force him to first use legal pesticides, then illegal ones, then dangerously illegal ones. Okay, we get out our magic wand and try a new premise: Economic necessity destroys idealism. The sequences of events would go like this:

THE OPENING SITUATION: AS before, Joe, a young poet, has a conflict over the reading of his poetry on the street. The police want him to move on; he sticks up for his rights and is arrested. (You've shown him to be idealistic.) Because he refuses to plead guilty and pay a five dollar fine (thus again proving his idealism, and impracticality as well), he is sentenced to a weekend in jail.

THE INCITING INCIDENT: Joe inherits his grandfather's farm.

FIRST COMPLICATION: He takes over the farm, determined to make it organic. Through sweat, he finds satisfaction in converting the farm from chemical farming to organic farming. Struggling to do it right, he overcomes many obstacles to getting his crops started. Neighbors jeer him. He has some initial success—the peach crop looks good—but he worries: There are so many things that could go wrong. (His commitment is proven.)

SECOND COMPLICATION: Nasty bugs attack his crop. He manages to turn them back partially using organic means. He saves half his crop of peaches and sells the rest of it for jelly. Rains ruin his watermelons. He's discouraged. (The forces of nature are allied against him.)

THIRD COMPLICATION: Payments on loans and taxes drain his resources. The banks refuse to extend credit to a dreamer such as Joe. They're sure he's going to fail. In desperation, he uses legal pesticide to save his strawberries. (You've shown Joe's idealism starting to crack.)

FOURTH COMPLICATION: Once having used a pesticide, he finds it easier to use it again. And when pesky crickets threaten and legal pesticides fail, Joe turns to illegal ones. This endangers the groundwater, but he feels forced to take the risk, letting the illegal pesticide maker convince him of the pesticide's safety. (The crack in his idealism grows larger.)

THE CLIMACTIC CONFRONTATION: The killer bees are coming. Nothing can stop them but a dangerous illegal pesticide. It means financial ruin if he doesn't use the pesticide, and ruin for the environment if he does. He uses the pesticide.

THE RESOLUTION: Joe saves his crop, but loses his soul and falls into despair.

Now, once again, we have to ask ourselves:

• Are there any superfluous complications? Answer: No.

• Are there ironies and surprises? Answer: Yes.

• Do the characters grow and develop? Answer: Yes.

• Is the story worth writing? Answer: Let's give it a qualified yes.

Okay, we've improved the story a great deal by using the magic wand of premise.

We could complicate this story even more by getting out our magic wand once more and creating a love interest. Perhaps it's for love that he caves in to using the illegal pesticides. Then the premise would be Love destroys idealism, far more fresh and interesting.

The fictional subjects of the story, then, would be love and idealism. Farming would still be the text. This same story can be told if the idealistic young man inherits a tuna boat and economic forces drive him to use illegal gill nets. Or if he inherits a grocery store and economic factors drive him to sell alcohol to teenagers. The text would change; the premise would not.

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