Types Of Premises

There are three types of premises: (1) chain reaction, (2) opposing forces, and (3) situational.

The chain reaction type of premise is the simplest to under stand. Something happens to the character that sets off a series of events, leading to some kind of climax and resolution.

In this kind of story, something unexpected usually happens in the beginning. Say you have Joe Average on his way to work one day, hating his humdrum life, when he sees an armored truck careen around the corner and a bag fall out the back door. Joe picks the bag up, takes it home, and finds that it contains $3 million. His wife pressures him to turn it in; he does, and becomes a celebrity. He goes on the "Tonight Show," where he talks about his great love of dogs (which he made up because he felt he had to say something) and is picked up as a spokesman for dog food, so he becomes even more of a celebrity and a champion of animal rights.

Joe begins to get a swelled head. His wife leaves him and sues for a ton of money in the divorce. He starts living high on the hog, gets taken to the cleaners by a succession of girlfriends, and starts drinking. While staggering home one night, he encounters a dog on the street and kicks it to make it get out of his way. His mistreatment of the dog is videotaped and put on all the news shows. He's ruined. In the end Joe gets his old job back, realizes fame was not for him, remarries his ex-wife, and is perfectly happy.

Premise: Finding a bag of money leads to perfect happiness. This premise is a shorthand way of saying: This is the story of a guy who finds a bag of money, goes on the "Tonight Show," becomes a spokesman for a dog food commercial, gets famous, turns into an arrogant jerk, loses his wife, is spotted kicking a dog and loses it all, and gets his wife and old job back and is perfectly happy. Stating the premise as Finding a bag of money leads to perfect happiness is a more concise and more eloquent way of saying the same thing.

The opposing forces type premise describes a story where two forces are pitted against each other and one wins. Love defeats patriotism, as an example, might be the premise of the story of a young man in the German army who falls in love with a Czech woman and turns on his country. Perhaps it is a tragic story where Alcoholism defeats love or where Greed destroys idealism.

You could express an opposing forces premise as an equation, x vs. y = z. Love of country vs. love of God yields death, as an example. Or it could be Carnal love vs. duty to family yields suicide. Or Carnal love vs. greed yields ecstasy.

How would you prove the premise Alcoholism destroys love?

You might start by showing that Joe loves Mary. He's so crazy about her he defies his family to marry her. He wins her from a rich guy, which proves she really loves him. Then Joe starts drinking, for fun. Driving drunk, he has an accident, and Mary is hurt. She forgives him. He tries to quit drinking. Mary starts seeing another man. Joe finds out. They fight. He swears off drink forever. They move to another city and put the past behind them. Joe's new job has a lot of pressure: He just has to have a drink to calm his nerves. Mary finds his hidden bottles. She returns to her lover and Joe is left with his bottle, heading for skid row.

Okay, so it's not a great story and there aren't a lot of surprises, but it clearly shows that Alcoholism destroys love.

A situational premise is where some situation is affecting all the characters. Joseph Wambaugh's novels are often about what being a cop does to human beings. Some, it ennobles; some, it destroys. Many war novels examine the effects of war on human beings. The same pattern fits prison novels, novels of poverty, novels of the religious life, and so on.

A situational premise can get away from an author easily, because it can get out of focus. Since each character has his or her own arc (that is, they will change in different ways as a result of being in the situation), it's useful to look at a situational novel as many stories, each with its own premise, that belong between the same cover because all the stories are affected by the same situation.

Let's say we're going to write a novel about the Civil War.

In our novel, Lieutenant Smith, an innocent, tender guy, is driven insane. His premise: War drives a tender innocent insane. Sergeant Brown, a hard man, becomes a brute. His premise: War brutalizes. Private Jones, a dreamer and poet, ends up bitter. His premise: War embitters. General Fitzgibbons, a bold tactician, is crushed and killed. His premise: Foolhardiness leads to doom. This is not to say that every character ends up badly. Corporal Natz, the medic, a morose loner, becomes a hero. His premise: Heroism leads to self-satisfaction.

We have defined moral, theme, and premise, and shown the three types of premises and how they work. In the next chapter, we'll take a look at how to use a premise like a magic wand to explore the implicit possibilities of your story.

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