One night you have a terrible nightmare. In the nightmare you've committed a heinous crime and the law is closing in on you. You awake in a sweat and decide, wow, that would make a damn good novel. The nightmare is your germinal idea. You plan to write a novel about a man who commits a murder and feels the law closing in on him.
This is not a premise. This is simply an idea for a story; so far we have no story at all.
Okay, the next day you sit down at your word processor and type "Notes" and then start throwing thoughts at your germinal idea. Who is your main character? Why does he commit the murder? And so on. What you want to write about is an average man who commits murder. He's not at all the murdering type—he does it for noble reasons, perhaps. He does it to protect his family, say.
That's good. But what is the noble reason?
You don't know. You brainstorm it, but can't come up with anything.
Then you read an article in the paper about a stalker, a man who supposedly loved woman and stalked her and when she shunned him, he killed her. The woman had gone to the police, but what could they do? They couldn't protect her twenty-four hours a day. She obtained a court order, but the stalker ignored it, and when she dragged him into court, he got a slap on the wrist.
That's good, you think. That would certainly motivate a mur der. The average man's wife is being stalked and the courts and the police can't stop it, so the hero decides he has every moral right to kill the stalker.
You now have a beginning, but you still don't have a premise. Why? Because a premise includes an ending to the story. Knowing your premise means that you know what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of the story.
Okay, so the husband commits the murder and gets rid of the body, and the police start closing in on him. Now, what aspect of human existence are we going to focus on in this story? What is our story about? Here are some possibilities:
1. This could be a detective story, where the average man could be the killer and a cop, the hero.
2. It could be an American version of Crime and Punishment, where the focus would be on the killer's remorse: in other words, a story of repentance and spiritual transformation.
3. It could be a love story, where the killer is crazy about his wife and can't live with the idea that she might be harmed, but once he kills for her and she finds out, she's horrified to be around him. The story would end with irony: He loses the love he kills for.
4. It could even be a comic story of a man who is trying to kill a stalker and keeps missing.
5. Or it could be a story of betrayal, say, where the wife makes the husband think she is being stalked to get him to murder someone so he'll be sent to prison and she'll be rid of him.
So which one do you choose? These kinds of choices are mostly subjective. If you choose number one, the protagonist would be the detective and the story would have the usual detective story premise: The determination and deductive skill of the detective hero bring justice. The focus would be on the clever and resourceful way the killer would commit the crime and the even more clever and resourceful way the hero detective would go about solving the crime.
Number two, the American Crime and Punishment story, would have another focus altogether. You'd examine the life of a killer in terms of his guilts and repentance. It would be a psycho logical novel in which the detective would probably have an easier time bringing the murderer to justice, but the novel would not end there; it would continue, focusing on the transformation of the killer's life. The premise would be something like The act ofmurdering leads to spiritual enlightenment.
In number three, the story of the man who kills for love where the act of murder destroys the very thing he kills for, the premise would be: Obsessive love leads to loss of love.
Number four, the comic story, would probably have a comic ending. The premise? Attempted murder leads to happiness, perhaps.
The last story, number five, might end with the wife going off with her lover, but the lover, knowing what a betrayer she is, betrays her. The premise of this story might be Betrayal of love leads to love betrayed.
Any of these, depending on how it is handled, can be made into a damn good novel. The one I like best is number three: Obsessive love leads to loss of love. Why, I don't know. It's subjective: I just have the feeling deep in my gut that I could make a damn good novel out of it.
So how would such a premise be proved? Easy:
THE OPENING SITUATION: Jules (our hero) comes down to breakfast. His wife, Jo Ann, is at breakfast. She came home late the night before and he wonders where she was. She says she was working late (she's a real estate broker). He's so in love with her that she placates him easily. (This shows his excessive love.)
THE INCITING INCIDENT: A friend at work (in an insurance office) tells Jules he saw his wife going into a motel the night before. Jules sticks up for his wife, but inside he's crushed. (Again showing he's nuts about her.)
FIRST COMPLICATION: Jules checks out Ted, the suspected lover, and is overcome with jealous rage. (At this point we suspect this is a story of murderous adultery, which it isn't. We're working up to a surprise.)
SECOND COMPLICATION: Jules confronts Jo Ann. She admits to going dancing with Ted and says they stopped at his motel to get another pair of shoes. She swears her fidelity to Jules. Ju les is mollified. He decides to buy Jo Ann the new house she's always wanted, hoping it will keep her happy. He's terrified of losing her.
THIRD COMPLICATION: Jo Ann tells Jules that Ted is bothering her at work, sending her flowers. Jules confronts Ted. There's a shouting match, threats.
FOURTH COMPLICATION: Ted begins following Jo Ann. Jules goes to the police: They tell him they can't do anything unless Ted does something overt. Ted continues to follow Jo Ann.
FIFTH COMPLICATION: Jules hires a private eye to check on Ted's background. The report is that Ted has been twice arrested for sexual battery on women. The private eye says that for $5,000 he will "persuade" Ted to leave town. Jules pays. The private eye vanishes. The police think he's just gone on a bender, but Jules thinks Ted has murdered him.
SIXTH COMPLICATION: Ted and Jules meet in a restaurant and Ted humiliates Jules, swearing that he will have Jo Ann one way or another and that Jules might as well get used to the idea. Jules stews. His friends tell him he has every moral right to kill the man.
SEVENTH COMPLICATION: Jo Ann comes home distressed and rumpled. She says Ted accosted her in a parking lot. Jules, furious, decides to kill Ted.
EIGHTH COMPLICATION: Jules carefully researches the perfect murder. He finds a kind of thrill in the planning of the deed.
NINTH COMPLICATION: Jules kills Ted. It's a bloody act that horrifies Jules.
TENTH COMPLICATION: Jules gets rid of the body.
ELEVENTH COMPLICATION: Jules, shaken, starts to drink heavily.
TWELFTH COMPLICATION: The police come sniffing around. The wily old investigator, Sheriff Molino, suspects
Jules; in fact, he's certain Jules is his man and lets Jules know it. Now Jules frets and can't sleep, his nerves are shot.
THIRTEENTH COMPLICATION: The private eye comes back. He was on a bender. The private eye admits that he made up Ted's arrest record in order to get Jules to give him money to get rid of him. Jules falls into abject despair, thinking Ted was not the threat he thought he was.
FOURTEENTH COMPLICATION: Jules's bizarre behavior has Jo Ann on edge. They fight.
FIFTEENTH COMPLICATION: Jules's work suffers. Rumors are spreading that he killed a man and his friends begin to avoid him.
SIXTEENTH COMPLICATION: The police search the house top to bottom looking for clues and take Jules in for questioning. He sweats under the pressure, but admits nothing.
SEVENTEENTH COMPLICATION: Jo Ann can't stand it. People are staring at her, she says. She and Jules have a fight and Jules blurts out that he killed Ted for her. For her!
EIGHTEENTH COMPLICATION: Jules and Jo Ann are living together but they hardly speak. She seems frightened of him, no matter how much he tries to allay her fears.
THE CLIMAX: Jules spies on Jo Ann and finds out she's planning to leave him. He fears she's going to testify against him. On the night she plans her getaway, he kills her.
THE RESOLUTION: The sheriff suspects Jules again, but he can prove nothing. Jules has lost his business, his house, and all of his friends. Most of all, he mourns the loss of his wife. In the last scene, the sheriff stops by to say that he's retiring and moving to Florida and he'd like Jules to confess before he quits. Jules says no. The sheriff says, "Well, it looks like you got away with murder twice." Jules says ironically, "Did I?"
Okay, now we ask the pertinent questions:
• Is the premise proved? Answer: Yes. Obsessive love does lead to loss of love.
•Are there any superfluous complications? Answer: No. It seems like a tight story: no side roads, no digressions, no alleys.
• Are there ironies and surprises? Answer: Yes. The story as a whole is ironic. There are some nice surprises, as when the private eye shows up again.
• Do the characters grow and develop? Answer: Yes. Jules grows from a successful, self-confident businessman into a depressed drunk. From a man in love to a man wallowing in bitterness and regret.
• Is the story worth writing? Answer: Yes.
And that's how writing with a premise works, from getting the germinal idea to proving it with its complications.
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