Writing Advice: Premise (The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 2)

There are many ways to start the writing process. Some writers prefer to do it by breaking the story in its seven primary steps–to be explored in Chapter 3. Most begin with the shortest expression of the story as a whole, the premise line.

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. As soon as you decide to pursue one idea and codify it within your premise, you’re locked into it — so you better be happy and certain with your choice.

What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.

Premise is the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. If your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

Premise is a classical example of the dangers of a little knowledge, its inherent structural weakness is found in the fact that it offers you only two-three scene; the scenes just before and after the twist that makes your premise unique. A novel’s premise may have double-triple the number of scenes that the premise of a movie.

You have to remain flexible and open to all possibilities. This is where using an organic, creative method as guide is most important.

Developing your premise

Step 1: Write Something that may Change Your Life

If a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in your audience. When you’re done, no matter what else, you’ve changed your life.

To follow this particular step, you need to know yourself. For that, you need to explore yourself. Get some data on who you are, via these two exercises:

  • First, write down a wishlist of all the things you’d like to see in a book. That’s what you’re passionately interested in, and what entertains you. You might jut down imagined characters, cool plot twists, great lines of dialogue, themes you want to explore or care about. Write it all down without worry for organization or any considerations.
  • The second exercise is to write a premise list. Write as many premises as you want, as long as they’re one sentence each. This’ll force you to be clear about each idea. It also allows you to see all your premises together, in one place.

After that, a look at the key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. It’s your vision in its rawest form. The exercises are designed to open you up and to ingetrate what is deep within you already.

Step 2: Look for what is possible

Explore your options. The Intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one. Ask yourself “What if…?” so as to define what’s allowed in the story world, and what isn’t. Let your mind go free, and don’t censor or judge yourself. No idea is “stupid,” those often lead to creative breakthrough.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

There’ll be particular problems embedded in the story idea, and you can’t escape them. You want to confront these, and solve them if you wish to execute your story well. Most writers identify the inherent problems of their stories too late (if at all). The trick is learning to spot the big ones right at the premise line. Of course, you won’t be able to diagnose every problem this soon in the process.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle:

Problems and promises known, you now have to come up with an overall strategy for how you will tell your story. The overall story strategy, stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story.

The designing principle helps you extend the premise into a deep structure.

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.

It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original. It’s the seed of the story, in short. It tracks the fundamental process that will unfold over the course of the story.

Most stories don’t have a designing principle; it’s already abstract, the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Designing principle= Story process + original execution

It’s the “synthesizing idea,” the “shaping cause” of the story.

Be diligent in discovering this principle, and enver take your eye off it during the long writing process. Don’t do as most writers do, by picking a genre and imposing it on the premise, forcing the story to go through events associated with the genre in question; draw the designing principle out of the one-line premise.

Step 5: Determine your Best Character in the Idea.

Always tell a story about your best character.

The best character is the most fascinating and challenging character, always.

Step 6: Get a sense of the Central Conflict

Ask yourself: “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question over one succinct line. All conflict will boil down to this one issues, codified in your answer.

Step 7: Get a sense of the single Cause-and-effect Pathway

A good organic story has a single cause-and-effect pathway; this is the spine of the story and without it, the story will fall apart.

The trick to discovering this it ask yourself: “What’s my character’s basic action?” One action that your hero takes is more important than any other, and unifies every other action the hero takes, and that’s the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine your Hero’s Possible Character Change

That’s the second most important thing to gleam from your premise line: the fundamental character change of your hero. Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle.

WxA=C ( Weaknesses x Action = Change )

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

That’s the basic sequence of the human growth – what you, the writer, must express above everything else.

Write down a number of possible options for the hero’s weaknesses and change.

Remember that premise work is extremely tentative, especially concerning character change.

Step 9: Figure out the Hero’s possible Moral choice

The main theme of a story is often crystalized by a moral choice the hero must make, typically near the end of the story. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world. It is your moral vision, and it is one of the main reasons you are writing  your story.

Theme is best expressed through the structure of the story, the moral argument where you make a case for how to live, not through philosophical argument but through the actions of characters going after a goal.

To have a true choice, your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on some rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Be ruthless in answering this question of commercial appeal. Don’t fall into the either-or trap of believing that you can either write about what matters to you or what sells. Always try to write something you care about, and also think will appeal to an audience.

Coming Next: Chapter 3 – The seven Key Steps of Story Structure

Magnus Commentary: Well, wasn’t that one hell of an interesting read? While I am far from subscribing to John Truby’s idea that his is the best way of going about writing, this is certainly a fascinating look at a methodology that I’m more than willing to try.

There is also a lengthy writing exercise which calls upon us, the readers of said novel, to attempt to follow these ten steps. It’s in the book, and you should check it out; I’m currently attempting it with an idea for a novel that’s been stuck in my head for some time now, and I’ll be happy to report my progress to anyone who’s interested. Comment below!

PS I decided to go without my own thoughts on the premise, as I’m still playing around with the methodology.

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