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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Premise or Not to Premise

Photo by Kevin Tomasello
I have been pondering the idea of premise. Even though it is considered an essential component of fiction writing, premise continues to mystify me in many ways.

James N. Frey, in his excellent book HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL says there is no formula for finding your premise. Wait, what is a premise, you ask? Ah, good question. I had no idea what a premise was when the guys at When Words Count Writers Retreat brought it up. So, for those of you who are also lacking premise comprehension, I will attempt to explain, although Frey takes a whole chapter to define premise. Please forgive my simplified form.

A premise, as I understand it, is the root of the story. It is the reason you are writing the story. I am not talking about the piles of money you expect to make from writing your story or the years of psychotherapy you hope to purge through your story. Premise is the thing that drives your characters to do what they do. Yet, it is only true for particular characters in a particular story. It is not a universal truth. At least, that is how Mr. Frey describes it in the above mentioned book. Honestly, I still think that is a little convoluted. Merriam-Webster defines premise as "a statement of fact or a supposition made or implied as a basis of argument." A supposition is a hypothesis. So, is the premise the hypothesis of your book? Still seems clear as my salt-covered car windows.

The premise is the statement of truth for one particular character. It is always true for him or her, but not necessarily for everyone. What happens in the story has to prove the premise. The premise of my first novel was probably something like love leads to disaster, but disaster makes you stronger. The truth is, I can't start my stories with a premise. It's too academic for me. Too much like a college fiction writing class. Which for me, at least, can be paralyzing. I seem to have better luck when starting with an idea and then asking questions. I think you have to get to know your characters first. Many successful writers speak of the importance of developing their characters. For HEARTLAND, I may have asked myself some of these questions: Who is Addie? What is her background? What would happen if a little girl who is abused by her family escapes and finds a new family? Who is Lucy? What if a woman suffers a clinical depression during divorce and then finds hope when she inherits an old house? What is my character's story? It really is true that when you write your characters' backgrounds, they start acting a certain way when you write their story. It may help to outline a story and to decide on the premise, but if you know your characters well, they will tell you you are full of hooey if you try to write them into your hypothesis. They may prove your hypothesis wrong after all. So, does it help to have one? I don't know. It probably does if you can figure it out early on, but I think if it's too overwhelming, it's okay to just start writing about your characters first. Get to know them. Let them tell you their story. Worry about premise later.

That's my advice for today. Take it or throw it. Argue about it. Dismiss it. Whatever you like. What matters is that we keep writing despite our fears. Keep the fire burning. Stay warm everyone!