A damn good novel may have more than one story. It may, as in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, have two stories. There's the Anna story and there's the Levin story. It may, as in War and Peace, have more than two stories. There's the story of Pierre's marriage, the story of Pierre going to war, the story of Prince Andre's mortal wound, and Natasha's story, among others.
In Crime and Punishment, there's the story of the crime and the story of the punishment.
In Gone with the Wind, there's the story of Scarlett's loss of Tara and the regaining of it, followed by the story of her disastrous marriage to Rhett Butler.
There is much confusion about the concept of premise when a novel has more than one. Every story has a premise. A novel can have more than one story: hence, more than one premise. In a novel with more than one story, the novel itself has no premise. Think of it as being a vessel that contains the stories.
You might want to tell a story, say, of three sisters: one, a nurse; one, an intellectual; one, a prostitute. These three stories have nothing in common except that their protagonists are related. Sisterhood is the vessel. That's good enough.
You might write a story about four patients of the same shrink, or five people who meet at graduate school. The vessel is simply a device that gives the reader a plausible reason for these stories to be published between the covers of the same book.
One way a novel with more than one story can be designed is to put the stories in a series. Each story would have its own premise, even if the stories are all about the same character or characters.
Here's an example: Say you're writing a historical novel about Sir Alec Cuthbertson, a fictional naval hero during the time of Napoleon. You might open your novel with Sir Alec as a midshipman aboard a frigate caught in a typhoon. Frightened witless, Sir Alec hides in the anchor locker while his mates battle the storm. Afterward, Sir Alec betrays a friend to cover his cowardice, his friend is punished, and Sir Alec is given high honors and a promotion. The premise: Cowardice leads to triumph.
In the next part of the novel (a new story), Sir Alec falls in love with the beautiful Lady Ashley. Unfortunately, she is betrothed to Lord Nothingham, Sir Alec's stepfather and mentor. Sir Alec figures Lord Nothingham has to be done away with. Sir Alec contrives to have his stepfather accused of cheating at cards, knowing that he would refuse to fight a duel over it, which leads to Lord Nothingham's disgrace. Lady Ashley would never marry a disgraced coward and marries Sir Alec instead. The premise of this story: Carnal love defeats filial love.
Sir Alec is called to war in the next story in the series. Here he runs from the sound of the guns into a fog bank, where he fires his cannon to look good and accidentally sinks the English flagship. The premise: Cowardice leads to disgrace.
Next we find Sir Alec in prison awaiting execution, full of remorse. What will remorse lead to? Maybe he volunteers for a suicide mission. Let's say he has a loss of courage and doesn't complete his mission and instead betrays his country and surrenders to the French and falls into psychotic despondency. The premise? Remorse leads to despondency.
As you can see, the life of Sir Alec is a series of stories, each with its own premise. His life serves as the vessel. The parts of his life that fall between the stories are skipped, such as the three years he spends in prison eating gruel and playing whist with the other prisoners.
In this design, when reading, say, the first story, the reader knows it is about cowardice; when reading the second the reader knows it's about love; and so on. So, you see, even though the cast of characters may remain the same, the stories have different premises.
Another way to design a multipremise novel is to switch back and forth between the stories. As an example, Sir Alec could have a half-brother, the bastard son of Sir Alec's father and a barmaid. Let's call him Rudolf. Rudolf is a brigand. He loathes his halfbrother and has promised to cut off his ears should their paths ever cross.
We could design the novel so that we're continually switching back and forth between the two brothers. Then whenever there is a lull in one story, we switch to the other. The episodes could go like this:
THE OPENING SEQUENCE: Sir Alec's tutor, knowing he'll be fired if Sir Alec does not show improvement, teaches Sir Alec to cheat. Sir Alec learns a valuable lesson: Cheating is good.
WE SWITCH TO RUDOLF. He is suspected of having stolen some apples and is told that if he tells the truth he won't be punished. He tells the truth and is punished. Rudolf learns a valuable lesson of quite another sort.
WE SWITCH BACK TO SIR ALEC. He's in love with a scullery maid, who lets him have his way with her. They are caught in an embarrassing situation. She is banished to the prison colony in Australia, and Alec's father warns him to be more discreet in his dalliances.
BACK TO RUDOLF. He sees his mother cheated out of her wages by the owner of the Hog's Breath Tavern. Rudolf and a halfwitted friend plan to rob the joint.
BACK TO SIR ALEC. He goes to London for a visit with his father and is told he's in for a big treat—a trip to the finest bordello in London with his dad.
BACK TO RUDOLF. The robbery goes badly. The tavern owner attacks him and Rudolf splits him open with his cutlass. He's on the run now.
BACK TO SIR ALEC. He's returning on the King's Road, half drunk, singing bawdy songs with dear old dad.
BACK TO RUDOLF. He's waiting with his friend along King's Road, on the lookout for a coach to rob. One approaches: They can hear the bawdy songs being sung.
As you can see, the switchback design can be used to compare and contrast two lives. In novels using the switchback design, the stories are usually more or less of equal importance. You can use this design with more than two stories, of course.
Another type of multipremise novel is where the stories are not equal. One is the main story and the other is the subplot. Usually, in a novel with a story and a subplot, the subplot has a major impact on the main story.
A subplot can be inserted in one chunk, be presented in sections in a switchback design, or it can be intertwined. An intertwined subplot is the most difficult subplot to handle. In effect, two stories are being told simultaneously, often sharing some of the same incidents. The intertwined subplot almost always involves love of some kind, usually romantic love.
Let's take the example of Joe, the idealistic farmer, and tell the tale of how Joe's idealism is crushed by economic necessity. Let's see what would happen if Joe meets Hannah, the daughter of a neighbor, and Joe falls in love.
Your earlier premise, Economic necessity destroys idealism, would no longer apply, because love is involved. The intertwined premise would then be, say, Economic necessity can't destroy idealism, but love does.
In our revised story, then, Joe would stand up to the forces of economic necessity and keep on fighting no matter what, but he's fallen in love with Hannah and she's in with the bad guys, so he gives in to keep her love. Don't like it?
Maybe you want Joe to keep his idealism in the end. Fine. How about Idealism brought to ruin by economicforces leads to loss of love as an intertwined premise?
Okay, in this version, our hero sticks to his idealism despite
Hannah's pressuring him. He keeps his idealism and loses his love. Let's see how we might prove it:
THE OPENING SITUATION: Joe, in Berkeley, is making an idealistic protest and gets arrested. This is the last straw for his girlfriend, who breaks up with him. (The girlfriend is added to dramatically show him single and in need of a relationship.)
THE INCITING INCIDENT: Joe is told he owns the farm. He determines to make it totally organic, a model of what farming should be.
FIRST COMPLICATION: Joe arrives at the farm and gets to work, ridding it of everything that is not organic. (Up to here, this is a story of idealism.)
THE SECOND COMPLICATION IS THE OPENING OF THE SUBPLOT: While in town to buy some nails, Joe meets Hannah, who works part time in the hardware store. (In this version she's in college studying to be a biochemist.) He asks her for a date and she says yes.
THIRD COMPLICATION: Some nasty bugs attack his sweet potatoes, but he manages to beat them back some natural way, forgetting his date with Hannah. She has heard about the bugs and shows up to help him. They work to the point of exhaustion.
FOURTH COMPLICATION: Joe and Hannah picnic in a meadow on the farm and kiss. (The reader knows this is a love subplot quite apart from the story of idealism.)
FIFTH COMPLICATION: Locusts wipe out Joe's alfalfa, but he's got enough sugar beets in still to make it. (We're back to the story of idealism being tested.)
SIXTH COMPLICATION: Joe misses a bank loan payment. The bank pressures him to use pesticides. He stands up for his principles.
SEVENTH COMPLICATION: On a moonlight hayride (exquisitely romantic) Joe proposes marriage to Hannah and she accepts. (We're back to the subplot.)
THE CLIMAX OF THE MAIN STORY: A new blight is attacking the sugar beets. Organic methods are failing. Joe and Hannah work into the night. In order to save the farm, pesticides must be used. Joe refuses. "It's our future!" cries Hannah, but Joe sticks to his principles. "If you love me, you'll save our farm," she says. Joe chooses idealism. Hannah leaves him. (Climax of the subplot.)
THE RESOLUTION OF THE MAIN STORY: The bank repossesses the farm.
THE RESOLUTION OF THE SUBPLOT: On his way back to the city, Joe stops to see Hannah at the hardware store. She tells him to have a nice life.
As you can see, the intertwined premise, Idealism brought to ruin by economic forces destroys love, has been proven.
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