I know I told many of you I’d be discussing the indie script I’m working on today, but with all my illusions of grandeur I’ve decided I’d be more comfortable discussing the importance premise holds for storytellers.
This term is thrown around a lot in literature and screen-writing circles. If somebody asks you what the premise of your story is, they’re basically saying “What’s it all about?”
I remember when I spent a year working on a book series that never saw the light of day. I knew nothing about plot, 3-act structure, or even what makes for good conflict. I knew I had a brilliant idea that I was obsessed with, and that’s it… No wonder the books sucked.
I attended a writers conference eager to pitch my first book to agents and publishers. Enlightenment struck when I sat down to explain my story. All I could do was discuss the interesting events and characters, while maintaining the confidence of a reality star interviewing for a position as a brain surgeon.
When you understand premise, you’ll understand the concept of your story and be better able to explain it. A premise should include:
- The protagonist
- The antagonist
- The inciting incident
- The obstacles faced by the protagonist
- The stakes of the quest.
Here is a cliche premise I’ll make off the top of my head to give you an idea. I’ll link each subject with its corresponding number from the list above.
A chiseled ice-cream driver’s(1) ride is turned upside down when Harry(2) and his cronies bust into the back of his truck(3) with axes. If he doesn’t defy the laws of rush hour traffic(4) and get the ruthless pre-teens to Disneyland within 30 minutes(5), his understanding of a banana-split will take on a whole new meaning(5 again).
Ok, that wasn’t exactly cliche. Weirdly horrific would be more apropos. But when you can condense these elements of your story into one paragraph, you’ll be making leaps and bounds of progress. For one thing, this is what agents and publishers are looking for when you query them. Secondly, understanding how much these elements impact your story as a whole will help you put something together that readers will enjoy before you even set pen to paper. To make a premise stronger, and a story more appealing, turn up the degrees of each element.
- chiseled ice-cream driver – sounds like a strong, capable man. A good story features an antagonist who is more capable than our hero. So let’s make this a sixteen year-old girl with braces (regardless of your opinion of stereotyping, readers will always assume qualities about your characters from the moment they are introduced. You may not like it, but you’re better off accepting it)
- Harry – Any kid with an axe scares the shit out of me. Why don’t we give throw in a free black-eye with some bruises. Sounds like his dad beats his ass and he’s probably got some psychological issues that make him more dynamic than before. Also, let’s upgrade his axe to a chainsaw.
- Bust into the truck – Nah, how bout they planned this shit? At a red light they come sprinting from all corners of the neighborhood and make a tactical play at breaking into that ice-cream mobile.
- Rush hour traffic – Well, this is an easy one. How bout we have her driving on the wrong side of the highway, just for the hell of it?
- The banana split joke is out, and we might as well kick the random 30 minute thing to the curb. How bout the gas tank is on low, and Harry tells our protagonist she’s dead if she can’t get them there before… the Peter Pan ride closes.
And here’s the new story description:
Lacey ‘the brace-face’s summer job takes a horrific turn when a black-eyed bully and his loser friends use chainsaws to infiltrate her ice-cream truck. If she doesn’t get them to Disneyland before gas runs out and the Peter Pan ride closes, she’ll die before ever telling Brad how she feels. But demanding she drive on the wrong side of the highway is a tell-tale sign that Harry is in the mood for murder.
Wow, that would be the most brutal YA novel I ever heard of. Anyway, I hope you get the idea (and noticed the added romance that is ALWAYS a benefit).
One big takeaway from this experiment should be that the most effective alteration I made between premises was giving Harry a black-eye. This doesn’t make him any more menacing, but does suggests he has some internal conflicts of his own, making him dynamic and more than just a standard ‘bad guy’. This story could then be made quite effective by reflecting his abusive upbringing with similar struggles that Lacy has experienced… Or contrasting them with the ones she hasn’t. An effective resolution to this story would demonstrate how Lacy overcame her childhood trauma through ‘X’, which a good writer would use as the overarching theme throughout the entirety of the story.
I brought up a lot here, and wouldn’t dare elaborate on the more complex subjects in this post. Just remember that when you know the premise of your story, not only can improve it exponentially, but you will be capable of describing it to others without feeling like a drunk explaining the meaning of life to a sober person.
- Thomas M. Watt