Tag Archives: Story premise

How to Write Your Moral Premise

Child writing

The Moral Premise:

Although I’ve blogged about this subject before, it’s such an important one that it warrants revisiting. Coming up with a good premise, after all, is the first step you take in creating your story. It is the seed from which your tale will sprout. Or, if you will, the essential core or meaning of the story you wish to write. It is also the chief theme of your tale. It is, therefore, as Lagos Egri informs us, wise to formulate your premise first, before you begin writing, because you must first know exactly what you want to say, why you want to say it, and how far you want to go in saying it.

Egri goes on to mention that if you intend to write a story about greed, for example, you need to know precisely what it is that you want to explore about it and what direction the story will take. Condensing your story to its premise, you have:

Greed leads to destruction, or greed leads to humiliation, or greed leads to isolation, or greed leads to loss of love.

Use the words that express your idea perfectly, knowing that it is the essence of your story. It may be brief and concise, or slightly more descriptive. Your premise should include the basic facts about the character, the conflict and its resolution.

It takes the form: Character/Subject + Conflict/Verb + Resolution/Object.

The first part of the premise should represent the dominant character trait. For example: honesty, dishonesty, selfishness, ruthlessness, false pride, etc.

The second and third parts should represent the conflict and its resolution: dishonesty leads to exposure, or, ruthless ambition leads to destruction, etc.

The premise entails a result. You, therefore, need to know the end of your story before you start to write it. This is because your premise depends on the outcome of the final conflict, typically between the protagonist and antagonist. Only then will you know if greed does indeed lead to destruction, humiliation, isolation, or loss of love in your specific story.

Finally, note that the premise encapsulates a moral aspect, which tends to dictate the kind of ending your story resolves into. In stories that resolve in an “up ending” good triumphs over evil. In a “down ending” evil tends to trump good. In the latter, your premise might well be: Greed can lead to a successful life devoid of suffering. You should be aware, however, that down endings tend to do less well in the realm of popular fiction, although there are always exceptions.

Summary

A premise contains the mortal essence or meaning of your story. It is the blueprint that informs the writing of your tale.

How to Create a Strong Dramatic Premise

Lightbulb figureA great story premise lies at the core of most successful stories. Of course, an excellent premise that is not rendered effectively through good characterisation, emotive storytelling, good pacing, a sense of verisimilitude, and the like, can’t carry the tale on its own, but it is a good place to start.

What follows below are four simple guidelines for coming up with a winning premise that maximises your chances of writing a successful story.

1. Make the premise as extraordinary and unique as you can:

Rehashing old ideas from past novels and films results in unoriginal and predictable stories. The premise of Jurassic Park was unique at the time, and the box-office receipts proved it.

2. Insure that the premise statement is clear and contains a strong set-up and pay-off:

Here’s and example: A pedantic and inflexible hospital director’s daughter is abducted by an ex-surgeon who has been struck off the register for malpractice and whose child failed to qualify for a liver transplant and died as a consequence. (Set-up)

This is intriguing, but it’s not enough to motivate the story. Here’s the pay-off:

The hospital director is told by the kidnapper to find a liver for his own daughter, who has had hers removed by the kidnapper and is being kept alive by machines, within two days, or she’ll be allowed to die.

3. The concept must evoke dramatic questions:

In this example, such questions are indeed evoked: Will the hospital director manage to find a liver for transplantation and save his child? Will the kidnapper live up to his word? Will the hospital director become a more compassionate and caring man, or will this experience fail to change him?

4. The premise evokes the entire story in its essential form:

Steven Spielberg defined high-concept as a short pithy sentence or paragraph that allows one to hold the entire movie/story in the palm of one’s hand. A strong story premise does the same sort of thing. In the above example, we know the kind of story we’re in for. That’s not to say that it is predictable and devoid of twists and surprises, only that we know the type (genre) of story we’re about to experience.

Summary

The story premise is a short description of the entire story in its essential form. Coming up with a premise that is unique, contains a strong set-up and a pay-off, and generates dramatic questions beyond itself, affords the writer a blueprint for writing a successful story.

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How to Design Your Cast

Cast Design

Cast Design

Having a well-rounded protagonist is of little value unless you surround her with other characters to react or relate to. Indeed, your choice of characters may be one of the most crucial decisions you take in writing a story. Here, it is helpful to remember that each character performs a certain function in your tale. Knowing your story premise–the problem to be solved by the protagonist, allows you to design a cast of characters who test, resist, and assist the protagonist to achieve this goal.

Four Primary Characters

In the book Screenwriting, Raymond G. Frensham suggests that there are four primary character types to choose from:

Protagonist

The job of this character is to propel the story forward. This character’s desire to achieve the goal is a crucial aspect of the story. His decisions motivate his actions and explain why the pursuit of this goal is necessary–given the character’s background, beliefs, desires, and commitments.

Antagonist

The antagonist or nemesis is the character who most opposes the protagonist as the former attempts to pursue his goal. This character is a visible and persistent generator of conflict in the story. Without him it is difficult to muster enough energy to drive events forward.

Occasionally, ambivalent antagonists, or, anti-heroes are the protagonists of the tale, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Robert de Niro).

Mirror Character

A mirror character, also known as a reflection or support character is one who is most aligned with the protagonist. This character type supports the protagonist and adds colour and resonance by helping to make her more credible through dialogue and action. Without this character as foil, it is difficult to create a protagonist who can examine herself without resorting to stilted monologues or static inwardly-reflective scenes.

Romance Character

This character is the object of your protagonist’s sexual or romantic desires–the reward delivered at the end of the journey. The romance character may also, however, support or bedevil the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal–at least initially. This is because without conflict, the relationship degrades into stasis and boredom. Ultimately, however, the protagonist and his love interest end up together to live happily (or unhappily) ever after.

Rules of Thumb

In designing your cast remember the following:

Character types should be introduced by the end of act I; certainly no later than the start of act II.

Each character should stay within his or her character type for the duration of the story. Changing types midway through the story causes confusion and weakens impact.

The antagonist/protagonist conflict is the chief driver of your story.

Exploring your protagonist’s inner motivation and conflict is requisite.

Summary

Character types are a way of interrogating your story premise by exploring it from several angles–through the eyes of each character. Although opinions differ about the ideal number of such types, the four types discussed above typically define the lower limit.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.