How do you extract your story summary from your story premise?
In last week’s article I discussed ways to improve your story premise by sifting it through several story-boosting filters.
In order to hold an entire tale in the palm of your hand, however, you need to add a couple more elements to it—the ending, and a big story event that turns the fortunes of the hero, for good or ill.
Know your ending
The ending is the bullseye of the story. It gives direction to the narrative events that comprise the tale and defines the theme.
Back to our concrete example. The premise for the story is:
After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.
This says quite a lot already about the tale, but it doesn’t give me the ending. What kind of ending do I want? Well, in an up ending, the hero would triumph over his nemesis, ensuring survival for himself and his followers.
This is uplifting, but predictable.
A down ending, on the other hand, sees the hero winning the day, but having to sacrifice his life to do it. Much like in Gladiator. I like that ending more.
Know the hero’s life-altering insight
So, how would the hero defeat his nemesis? Remembering that the antagonist is a cannibal, it might be fitting that he offer up his body in exchange for the lives of his followers.
Gruesome, but powerful.
Let’s say the nemesis, who wants to humiliate the hero by having him willingly kneel before him in front of his own followers, accepts his offer.
“To expand a story premise into a story summary add an appropriate ending preceded by an event which unveils a big secret that turns the hero’s fortunes.”
Of course, our hero is altruistic, not stupid. Stupid heroes don’t make for good reading. He knows the villain will not keep his word, but in a variation of the Trojan Horse ploy, he secretly swallows poison before offering himself up for the feast, ensuring that the enemy won’t survive the night.
With this ending in mind I can turn the premise into a mini-summary, providing a blueprint for the entire story:
After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh. A series of escalating close-shaves forces our hero to negotiate a deal, whereby he willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if the cannibal leader agrees to let his followers live. The cannibal, who is obsessed with the idea of his enemy accepting a humiliating defeat, agrees. The hero, who has foreseen his own death in a prophetic dream, knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others—but he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stores, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe will be wiped out after the feast, allowing his own followers to escape.
Sure, it’s a dark, painful move to kill off the protagonist, reminiscent of ancient Greek theatre, but I like it. It has gravitas. It appropriates the enemies’ practice of cannibalism and uses it to defeat them. Additionally, it points to a synergy between narrative elements, such as the use of the secret, that draws on Aristotle’s idea of unity in dramatic structure. Finally, it provides the theme of the story: Sacrifice of the one ensures the survival of the many.
Expand your story premise into a story summary by adding an ending preceded by a fitting and powerful event that turns the hero’s fortunes.