What is a story premise?
I thought I knew the answer to that question and that I had a solid premise for the novel I’ve been working on, that is until I read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story a couple of weeks ago. (BTW, I think it’s a fantastic writing book.) Now, I believe there are two kinds of story premises: those designed to sell a story, and those that will help a person write a story.
In both cases the premise is what the story is about in a sentence or two. But in the case of a selling premise it may be just a teaser—a fragment of a story that gives a rough sense of the protagonist along with an innovative story setup. It’s the hook; i.e., the what if that grabs a reader’s interest. And after researching the topic, I think the one that most people are referring to when they talk about what makes a good story premise.
The other kind of premise is the one that can help a person when they are writing a story (I’ll call that the writing premise). It gives the complete story: the protagonist, what the protagonist does over the course of the story (the protagonist’s action), and where the story finally ends up.
The initial premise I had for my story, though a good selling premise (in my opinion, which may be very flawed), was only the setup for a story—an enticing what if rather than a complete story. When I elaborated on that what if writing my novel’s outline, I somehow wound up changing to another premise altogether.
You see, I had a good hook for one story. A hook that I loved and still do. That was my premise. And I had a good idea for the middle and ending of a story that I also loved. But because I only wrote out a selling premise, an open-ended tag line, I didn’t realize I was thinking of two different stories when I made my outline. Instead, I stitched and wove those two stories together. And it worked. In the outline. And in my head.
But when it came to actually writing the book—not so much. Though consciously I thought everything was fine, my subconscious was having seizures when the story reached the place where the two premises collided. And now I know why. Seriously—have you ever read a book or seen a movie that seemed like one story for the first part, then segued off into a completely different direction? Yep—me too. That’s what I’ve been trying to do without realizing it. That also might explain why my novel’s word count is over 80,000 only a quarter of the way into the story. Ouch.
So here I am, going back to the premise stage, separating out the different story ideas and focusing on the real point of each story, not just the cool setup for the one and the awesome climax for the other. Though I love parts of each story, the two don’t go together, and I have to pick one. The problem is that neither one is a complete story by itself. Not yet, anyway.
Which ever one I pick, I have a lot of work to do. Seventy-six steps forward, seventy-three steps back. Maybe that’s my writing style. What a depressing thought.
But it’s the journey that’s important, right?
I’ll keep telling myself that.