Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Does Your Premise Line Pass Muster?

by Jacqueline Fauni

How’s your premise? I’m a little embarrassed to admit that before I attended Jeff Lyons’s workshop, “Story Development from the Inside Out: How to Create, Build, and Test the Perfect Premise for any Story,” any attempt to explain mine was more of a rambling synopsis, tangled with oh-wait’s, but-then’s, and did-I-forget-to-mention’s. While this struggle made it only too easy to imagine how daunting a task it is to capture a story’s essence in one coherent sentence (not to mention making it sound good and pitch-worthy!), I didn’t realize until going through the 7-Step Premise Development Process just how much work goes into it and how truly useful an exercise it is, regardless of what kind of story you’re writing. Whether it’s a novel, screenplay, pilot, or work of creative nonfiction, hammering out your premise is essential, and can help you determine if *gasp* you even have a story in the first place, what exactly and how “worthy” that story is, and how that story should be structured. 

For those of you who weren’t able to make it to the workshop, here’s a sneak peek at what Jeff shared with us, skipping ahead to Step 3...

The Anatomy of a Premise

What exactly is a premise, anyway? According to Jeff, it’s “a physical construct that holds the essence of your story’s structure,” and takes on a certain format:

 [When] some event deflects a character to action...
... that [character acts] with deliberate purpose...
... [until] that purpose is opposed by a force...
... [leading to] some denouement.

Looks simple and straightforward enough, right? Surprise, surprise -- it’s a lot more difficult in practice! Let’s break it down:

(1)    When -- In this first part of the premise, we present our character with a situation that makes them break out of their comfort zone or state of inertia, and spurs them into action. Example: “When a lady-in-waiting is wrongly and publicly scorned by her princess...”
(2)    character acts -- Next, we have our character interact with other characters to purposefully act on their desire. Example: “... she instigates a dangerous game of one-upmanship, which escalates into a scheme to seduce the princess’s intended...”
(3)    until -- Here, the character’s action comes into contact with an opposing force, which generates friction and disorder. Example: “... but as he consistently fends off her advances and disarms her with his benevolent attitude...”  
(4)    leading to -- Finally, the disorder does lead somewhere, which, in most cases, is a significant change (note: you don’t need to give away the ending!). Example: “... she must decide what reigns victorious in her heart: resentment or love.”

Though my premise still needs a lot of work, I feel I’m much better equipped to figure it out now that I know what basic elements should be included. And of course, your premise (especially not your first attempt) isn’t set in stone! As your story develops, you’re encouraged to rework and refine your premise as you see fit.

Good luck with your premise, and happy writing!

For more information about Jeff Lyons’s classes and Storygeeks, his story development and consulting company, please visit the Storygeeks blog.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Craziest Thing St. Valentine Did for Love: A Modern, Anachronism-Ridden Retelling of the Legends Surrounding Valentine’s Day -- Part 2

by Jacqueline Fauni

*Author's Note: Sorry for the wait! I hope you find this well worth it, and that you had a lovely Valentine's Day. Now, without further ado, I give you Part 2 of "The Craziest Thing St. Valentine Did for Love"...

Valentine’s heart sank to the pit of his stomach as the jailer’s careless announcement of impending doom still rang in his ears. He watched helplessly as Caecilia was dragged away from the cell door and out of the dungeon, his eyes drinking in the play of emotions across her face -- dismay, longing, and compassion all seamlessly blended together with a sweet and utter openness -- as she looked back in his direction one last time. It was in that moment -- a few, quite sudden, but definitely the most intense seconds of his life -- that Valentine fell in love with her. He wasn’t sure exactly how or why, and since his Judgment Day was approaching much more quickly than he had hoped, he supposed he’d never know. But it was there all the same, clear as day. Now he’d never get the chance to tell her.

Unless, of course, he figured out a means to escape. Turning to Lucius with a renewed vigor in his bones, he declared, “We need to find a way out now.”

“No kidding,” Lucius drawled, his ever-present smirk aggravating the hell out of Valentine like never before.

“Would it kill you to be serious for once in your life? No, wait --” Valentine cut in before Lucius could open his mouth to respond, “-- that would have been too easy.”

“Well excuse me for clinging to the only coping mechanism I have in the face of terror. Geez, what’s got your loincloth in a twist?” Lucius crossed his arms.

“Hmm, let’s see... How about the fact that we’re supposed to be executed tomorrow? I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to stand here and waste my time making jokes while we still have a chance to stop that from happening!”

“I think you’ll find any attempt to escape will prove fruitless,” a silky voice drawled from outside the cell door.

Valentine whirled around. His blood ran cold as he locked eyes with Emperor Claudius II himself, flanked by an army of huge, brutish guards.

“You see, my guards are very good at what they do,” Claudius continued as he started to pace before them, like a stealthy panther relishing the seconds before he goes in for the kill. “Of course,” he paused to let out a gruesome chuckle, “they know they’d be dead otherwise.” Valentine stole a glance at the guards, and was impressed to see not one of them flinch. Claudius locked eyes with Valentine once again, two piercing blue orbs pinning him in place. An image of Caecilia’s eyes flashed in Valentine’s mind, only where there was warmth and earnestness in hers, Claudius’s held a chill that was cutting and direct.

“Nothing to say now, have you?” Claudius’s triumphant smile managed to glint menacingly in the low light of the dungeon.

Valentine swallowed back the lump of fear in his throat and clenched his jaw as a new boldness began to build in his chest. “Nothing that should be said to an emperor, Your... er... Majesty.”
Claudius chuckled. “That would be, ‘Your Imperial Majesty,’ for your information. But since I’m a reasonable fellow, I won’t impose such terms of formality on a dying man. I give you leave to call me Claudius -- unless you wish to call me your lord, which, considering your profession, may be a kind of blasphemy to you. Of course, I wouldn’t mind. In fact, I might enjoy it immensely to hear you essentially deny your god.”

Valentine gritted his teeth, biting back the fury that threatened to unleash, and let out a more composed retort. “Since I’m only accustomed to speaking on a first-name basis with friends, and since you are most certainly nothing close to Him whom I acknowledge as my Lord, perhaps I should just avoid calling you anything.”

A tense silence fell over the room before Claudius let out a booming laugh. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I like you, priest. You’ve a quick wit, and I have to admire a man who sticks to his convictions -- however misguided they may be.”

He paused and squinted off into the distance, a slow grin creeping onto his face as an idea seemed to form in his head. He looked back at Valentine and pressed his fingertips together as he came closer to the door. “Tell you what. Why don’t we work out a deal? If you can prove me wrong by summoning a miracle from your god by dawn, I’ll release you.”

“Miracles aren’t magic acts that can be conjured on a vain whim,” Valentine spat.

“Does your God consider your life a vain whim? How about the life of this young man here?” Claudius motioned to Lucius. Valentine cast a fleeting look at Lucius, who for once had no droll remarks to contribute.

“Isn’t this exactly what you wanted? A chance to escape. A chance to live.” Claudius leaned in closer, his mouth poking in through the bars. “And I’m sure a chance to prove me wrong must be a pretty glorious incentive as well.” He stepped back and shrugged as he said, “But I wouldn’t know, as it’s never happened before.”

Valentine stared wordlessly at him as he considered the possibilities. He knew Claudius was goading him, but the opportunity being presented was too great to pass up. He looked once again at Lucius, and thought of Aurelia waiting anxiously at home for news of her husband’s fate, both of them heartbroken when they should still be in their honeymoon phase. Surely Valentine had to at least try if it would give them a chance to be together. And then he thought of Caecilia -- sweet, honest Caecilia, who had believed in him before she’d even met him, and implored him to confirm her faith. He couldn’t let her down. And he couldn’t let the opportunity to tell her he loved her just pass him by.

The moment Valentine made up his mind, a satisfied smile grew on Claudius’s face. Valentine longed to smack it off.

“Do you accept my challenge?” Claudius raised an eyebrow and stuck his hand through the barred door.

“I accept,” Valentine said as he took his hand, giving it two firm pumps before quickly letting go.

“Excellent! Shall we commemorate the accord with a glass of wine?” Claudius lifted his hand in the air and snapped his fingers before Valentine could attempt to answer. One of the guards came forth and bowed. Not bothering to spare a glance at him, Claudius droned, “The red, 268, Pompeii. The special label.” The guard nodded once and instantly presented the requested bottle along with three crystal goblets. Valentine looked all around the guard’s person for some sort of satchel, but, after finding none, could only wonder where the supplies had come from. Claudius poured the wine into two goblets and handed them to Valentine and Lucius through the barred door. After Claudius poured himself a glass, he lifted it into the air and said, “Let’s make a toast. To the victor, his spoils! And by spoils, I mean the deglorified death of false martyrs.”

Refusing to raise his goblet alongside Claudius’s, Valentine drained his in one gulp. Suddenly, he heard the sound of glass shattering on his left and watched in horror as Lucius slumped to the floor. He whipped his head back to Claudius, who smiled at him above the untouched rim of his glass. “What did you d--”

But all of a sudden, the world tilted as Valentine staggered and fell to the floor next to Lucius. The last thing he heard was the awful sound of Claudius’s laughter before slipping into unconsciousness.


Valentine groaned as he stirred to life, his head too heavy with grogginess to lift more than an inch off the ground. With great effort, he looked up to find Lucius standing by the barred window, gazing at the pink and purple sky before turning to Valentine.

“Rise and shine,” Lucius said, offering him a grim smile.

Valentine sat up slowly, reality starting to sink in. “It’s almost dawn,” he whispered. He looked to his right and almost jumped with shock when he saw Caecilia sleeping next to him. “What is Caecilia doing here?” he asked incredulously.

Lucius came over from the window and sat next to him. “The guards found her going around the village and mouthing off about the injustice of your sentence, so they dosed her with that ‘special label’ sleeping draught and threw her in here. Then they had to throw her father in, too.” Lucius nodded back to the jailer, who Valentine belatedly realized had been lying beneath the window.  

Valentine turned back to Caecilia, gazing at her peaceful face. A strange, but strong impulse inspired him to bend down and gently kiss each of her eyelids. As Valentine lifted his face from hers, he was startled when her eyes suddenly opened wide -- and focused straight on his. “Caecilia? Can you... can you see me?”

She sat up and looked all around the cell before focusing back on Valentine’s face. “Yes... yes, I can see you. I can see everything!”

“It’s a miracle!” Valentine and Caecilia looked up to see the jailer bounding over to them. He picked Caecilia up and twirled her around, both of them laughing with sheer, incredulous joy.

“Impossible,” a quiet, but infuriated Claudius whispered from the cell door. “Open this door at once!” he bellowed at a guard who held the keys. Once the door swung open, Claudius strode in and stopped in front of Valentine. Claudius’s body, which had been taut with anger, quickly eased back into its usual deadly calm, his temper scrupulously held in check once again.

He paused before allowing himself to speak, “You know I cannot let you live after this. And perhaps you knew it had never been my intention to do so. But since I’m a sensible, merciful ruler, I will grant you a few bequests -- the lives of this young man, this maiden, and her father, along with a choice. You may die with honor, or you may live... if you gouge out the maiden’s eyes.”

The jailer swiftly dropped down to his knees in front of Valentine. He cried, “Don’t do it! Please don’t harm my daughter, I beg of you!” He grabbed Valentine’s ankles, but two guards pulled him back to his feet.

Claudius nonchalantly resumed his speech. “Personally, I don’t find the decision too difficult at all, especially considering she’s already used to not seeing anyway. But I have a feeling it might not be so easy for you... since you fancy the girl, don’t you?”

Caecilia clutched at Valentine’s arms and pleaded with him. “Please, Valentine, don’t listen to him! I don’t care about my sight. I don’t need it -- I need you! Please!” She threw her arms around his neck and held tight before one of the guards pulled her off and out of the cell. Valentine watched as she struggled, and etched into his memory the last desperate look she gave him before being taken out of the dungeon. He straightened and calmly turned to Claudius, who asked him the question for which they both already knew the answer.

“What’s it going to be, Valentine -- your life or her sight?”


Caecilia awoke to the dawn of a new and glorious day, only to plunge into the depths of despair as she realized she was able to see the rays of sunlight beaming through her window. As her body wracked with loud, violent sobs, her father rushed in and embraced her, whispering words of comfort in her ear. When she calmed down some, he silently handed her a scroll. However, after reading the first line, tears began to stream down her cheeks once more.

To my sweet Caecilia,

By the time you read these words, I will have perished. Please do not despair, for I have faith, as I’m sure you do as well, that I will be in God’s kingdom, summoned by Him to do his bidding in heaven. The only regret I have from my life on Earth is that we didn’t have more time together. But I thank God for the moments I was able to share with you. I would not trade them for anything.

Thank you for believing in me, and renewing my faith in the sacrifices we make for love -- for God, for mankind, and for the ones we hold dearest to our hearts. Please keep that faith alive. I wish you all the best that life can offer you, and while I look forward to the time we meet again, I fervently hope your life is a long and very happy one, filled with love, laughter, and lots of children, for you deserve no less.  

I love you, Caecilia. And I will love you always.  

Your Valentine

Filled with deep gratitude, love, and a firm determination to live her life to the fullest, Caecilia took that letter and spread copies of it all over Rome, which eventually led to the rebellion that ended Claudius’s reign. She treasured Valentine’s letter for the rest of her life, read it to all seven of her children, and, on her deathbed, bestowed it upon her eldest daughter to be passed down from generation to generation. But in her lifetime, on February 14th of every year, Caecilia would take that letter out and remember the day she was saved -- and loved -- by St. Valentine.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Craziest Thing St. Valentine Did for Love: A Modern, Anachronism-Ridden Retelling of the Legends Surrounding Valentine’s Day -- Part 1

by Jacqueline Fauni

Valentine awoke to the dawn of a new and glorious day, only to realize that the kaleidoscopic array of colors he was accustomed to admiring every morning as light shone through his church’s stained glass windows was replaced by a dim, slatted glow. He hissed as he made a slight movement, his body aching all over. Why was his back so stiff, as if he’d spent the night on a cold, stone floor?

Oh, right. He was in prison.

It was entirely Lucius’s fault. Valentine looked away from the tiny, barred window and over at the young man sleeping on the other side of the cell. He wondered, as he often did, why in the world he had decided to take the troublemaker under his wing when he’d showed up on his doorstep ten years ago. Of course, the boy was an orphan who had no one else to turn to, so Valentine felt it was his duty to take him in. But over time, he came to love the boy as a son. Yes, Lucius was a good boy, and Valentine had the blessing of watching him grow into a genuinely good man. However, though his intentions were always good, mischief seemed to follow Lucius wherever he went, whether it manifested in the urge to pluck flowers from a disgruntled neighbor’s garden or to play his lyre outside a maiden’s balcony and sing loud enough to wake the entire village.

This time, Lucius simply wished to marry the beautiful, golden-haired Aurelia (who, coincidentally, was often the unwitting motive for Lucius’s youthful indiscretions, but once she was aware of his affections, she made him the happiest man in all of Rome by consenting to marry him). The only problem with that was the absurd law that had just been passed by Emperor Claudius II, which prohibited young men from getting married so they could focus on being good little soldiers. So Lucius pleaded with Valentine to perform a secret wedding ceremony for himself and Aurelia. Valentine, who had watched his young, lovesick protégé pining away for the girl since he first laid eyes on her, had no choice but to concede.

Once they were married, however, the happy couple was much too happy to keep their wedded state of bliss to themselves, so they confided in two of their most trusted friends, who also happened to be a young couple in love who fervently wished to be married. And when a sheepish-looking Lucius showed up on Valentine’s doorstep with the young couple and begged him for his help just once more, he very well couldn’t refuse them either. But then this couple was much too happy to keep their wedded state of bliss to themselves as well, so the next day, Valentine found Lucius with two more couples at his door, who, after Valentine married them, went on to tell another two couples each. Before he knew it, Valentine had an extremely overcrowded doorstep, along with a covert reputation as the go-to guy for clandestine weddings.

It was on the occasion of such a wedding (“the last one, I swear on my honor,” Lucius had promised) that Valentine was arrested. The bride and groom had just exchanged rings, but before he could pronounce them man and wife, Valentine was suddenly seized by the Emperor’s guards. Luckily, the couple managed to escape, but Lucius just had to step in and declare that the scheme was his idea, and that he should be arrested instead. Naturally, the guards arrested them both.

“You fool,” Valentine muttered as he glanced at Lucius, still lying on the other side of the cell.

“I heard that,” Lucius called out before turning to face him with a smirk.

“You were meant to.” Valentine raised an eyebrow in a brief moment of levity before his face took on a more grim expression. “For once, I wish you’d stop to think before doing something reckless. I appreciate your valiant effort to spare me, but if you’d bothered to consult your senses, you would’ve realized you could only succeed in helping those guards meet their arrest quotas.”

“Well, someone’s got to look out for our boys in blue togas.” Lucius shrugged before adopting a more sober mien. “Valentine, you know I had to at least try. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have even been in this mess.”

“And what of your bride? Just a week ago, you and Aurelia risked your lives for a chance at happiness. Now you’ve gone and thrown it away!” Valentine threw his hands up in exasperation.

“We never would have had that chance if you hadn’t risked your life to marry us, and neither would all those other newlyweds.” Lucius looked at him solemnly for a moment, but then a playful glint (which was all too familiar to Valentine) came to his eyes. “You do realize this makes you a hero, right? You should be sainted! I can see it now -- ‘Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers.’”

Valentine scowled. “Yes, I can see it, too... engraved on my tombstone. Well, it all turned out to be for nothing. I’m sure it won’t be long before the guards find all the newlyweds and cordially invite them to join us here for a giant reception.”

“Surely you don’t mean that,” a decidedly feminine voice whispered from the cell door.

Valentine and Lucius stood up in an instant, and discovered a young woman in a black cloak, standing in the shadows outside the cell and clutching a small bundle to her chest.

“Well, I’m sure he was joking about the reception,” Lucius said after a moment of awkward silence.

Valentine threw him a sharp, disbelieving look before turning back to the girl, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“I... well, that is...” The girl stammered a bit before lifting her startlingly pale blue eyes to a level just below his, not quite meeting his gaze but still striking him with quiet dignity. “My name is Caecilia. I’ve come to bring you letters from well-wishers -- some of whom had the blessing to be married by you.” She stepped a little closer, cocking her head from side to side as if she was listening for guards, and slowly reached the bundle out to him through the barred door.

Valentine cautiously walked up to her and took the bundle, which he now saw were rolls of parchment bound together by a piece of twine. He looked up to murmur his gratitude when he was struck again by her eyes -- only this time, as he noticed she seemed to be looking straight through his chin, he belatedly realized their paleness was a mark of blindness. He tried to find the words to thank her and apologize for his ungracious greeting, but all he could do was stand there and stare at her like an idiot. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “How did you know what the letters say?”

“What my unforgivably rude cellmate meant to say was, ‘thank you,’” Lucius said as he approached them, which induced a small, hesitant smile from Caecilia.

She turned in Valentine’s general direction and paused for a moment before she spoke. “To answer your question, I don’t know exactly what they say, but when the senders themselves handed their messages to me, they shared their stories and expressed how deeply indebted to you they’ll be for the rest of their lives... which is why I was disappointed to hear you say it was all for nothing, and that they’ll probably be discovered. You don’t really believe that, do you?”

Valentine was taken aback by her candor, and found himself at a loss for words yet again. But before he could even attempt to find his voice, he saw a burly man marching towards them, who Valentine assumed was the jailer from the ring of keys he held in one of his hands.  

“Caecilia? What are you doing here? Have these prisoners been bothering you?” The jailer stood beside her, his eyes flicking suspiciously from Valentine to Lucius.

“No, Father. I was just visiting them,” she mumbled.

Just as Valentine’s head stopped reeling from the epiphany that Caecilia was the jailer’s daughter, the jailer sighed and uttered a string of words that clenched Valentine’s heart with fear: “How many times have I told you to stop getting yourself attached to the prisoners? These ones, especially... They’ll be dead by dawn tomorrow.”
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2! Also, don't forget to enter our Valentine's Story Challenge on Facebook for a chance to win an extra special Valentine's Day prize -- the deadline is TOMORROW at 4:00pm!