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.

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