A Note About the P-word

Not that P-word. Sheesh.

Writers are often asked the same questions by readers. These are among the most common:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“What if your story is too big for one book?”

“Are your characters based on real people?”

 “I’ve got a fabulous idea for a novel. If I tell you about it, will you write it?”

 “Did you know how the story would end before you started writing?”

My answers to such questions, like those of many writers I know, are usually flippant. I’m fairly certain the folks asking such things don’t really care what the answers are and will usually be happy with a humorous response. So, where do I get my ideas? Bourbon.

If a story is too big for one book, I’ll write two, or three. I might make it a series.

All my characters are based on real people, but you’ll never recognize any of them, and the people they’re based on will never recognize them, either.

No, I won’t listen to your idea and write your book for you. You can pay me to edit the book YOU write, however, but you probably can’t afford me.

The P-word is Premise.

I almost always know how my stories will end when I begin writing them, and there’s a very good reason for that. When I’m contemplating a new story, and I’ve given some thought to the ground I want to cover, it helps enormously to settle on the story’s premise. A premise defines what the story is about; it condenses all the action and states its effect on the characters.

You’ve heard these before and others like them: Love conquers all; faith leads to good fortune; loyalty will be rewarded, etc. All of these are happy, positive premises, and most folks can think of many stories which “prove” them. Lassie stories, for instance, always seemed to be based on the loyalty premise. How else would Timmy ever have gotten out of the well? (And Lord knows he fell in often enough.) But Lassie was always there. Always. That’s one of the great benefits of having a premise; if you have one, you’ll instinctively know where your story is going.

But what if you wanted to write a story in which Lassie bails on Timmy? Instead of raising the alarm and leading the rescue party like she normally does, she blows Timmy timmys-an-idiotoff and runs away with the hunky Labrador retriever from next door? You can still do it, but you’ll need to revise the premise. The new one would be: loyalty isn’t rewarded.

Now, to be fair to Lassie, you may need to show in your story just why she would give up on little Timmy. Maybe ignoring him in his ultimate moment of peril is the result of too many incidents where her good deeds went unrewarded. In which case, the premise could be altered just slightly to: loyalty isn’t always rewarded.

The point is, a premise can direct the flow of action to a logical conclusion. There’s no requirement that the outcome be positive, negative, or indifferent; that’s entirely up to you (as a general rule, however, I’d avoid indifference; readers hate that). The premise is a simple statement that boils your story down to the most basic level–the actions of your characters result in a particular outcome.

Consider the animated Disney version of the Cinderella story. The premise for that couldn’t be more simple: goodness leads to happiness. Despite all the terrible things Cinderella’s stepsisters do to her, she remains good and kind. And when the time comes, i-can-make-it-fither foot fits the glass slipper perfectly which results in her marrying the handsome prince and living happily ever after. In older versions of the story, the wicked stepsisters go to bizarre lengths to cram their great, gnarly feet into the crystal footwear. One of them even chops off her toes! There’s a premise for their story, too: meanness leads to misery.

As you’re working on your tale, keep the premise in mind. If one of your characters strays too far from it, take that as a warning signal; you could be wandering off course. As I recall, Cinderella never went hunting, took flying lessons, or practiced spell-casting. None of those things would have been in line with the premise of her story. Nursing an injured forest creature, on the other hand, would fit perfectly.

I opened this discussion with some questions. Here’s another: “I know how my story begins and ends, but I don’t know what happens in the middle. Can you help me?” Sure. Just tell me what your premise is, and the story practically writes itself.

We’ll talk more about this in futures sessions, but for now, give some thought to what the premise of your story might be. Remember that premise can apply to more than one player. If you employ multiple point of view characters, you’d do well to have a premise for each of them.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Note About the P-word

  1. The thought the “P” word was President. Depending on one’s point of view, that could be a dirty word.

  2. Robin Castillo says:

    I thought it might be “Plagarism.” Sure glad it wasn’t!

  3. ray4115 says:

    So what is the difference between Premise and Theme?

    • joshlangston says:

      Theme, to me, is an even more general issue than premise. It refers to a human experience or condition on which the novel may comment or focus. To expand on the example from the post above, one possible theme of “Cinderella” would be the difficulty of life for those subjected to enforced labor. Another could be the problems of class in fairy tale society. To be completely honest, I never worry about theme when I’m writing. I leave that for lit instructors to determine as they’re generally the only ones who care. [smile]

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