Premise – The Heart of Stories

From time to time I’ve said that “story” trumps all in fiction. In other words, the story is more important than the setting, the message, even the characters. It’s more important than the plot.

Say what? Isn’t “story” equal to “plot”? Not really. The story is the essence of fiction, the “what happened” stripped of all the subplots and side trips.

The plot, on the other hand, comprises the main events of the story.

Avatar, for example, is a story about a paraplegic fighting against the military/industrial complex from Earth to save the native people on a planet devoid of modern technology. The plot involves the steps the main character took to accomplish this storyline. (For a simplified, and spoof-ish, look at the plot line, see this short rendition.)

Here’s another one: A Civil-War era Southern belle fights society and her own wrong beliefs to gain the love of her life. Anyone familiar with Scarlet O’Hara will recognize that kernel as the storyline for Gone with the Wind. The plot for this thousand page story, however, would take considerably more space.

While these “what’s it about” lines don’t give details, they quickly let a reader (or an editor) know what they can expect within the pages of a novel.

Of course, an author must still write the story in an engaging way, but the first and foremost need for good fiction is a good story, or “premise.”

I’ve read work from different authors that showed a textured world or had interesting, even fun or tragic, characters. But something was missing. The story wandered, and I didn’t have the feeling that the author was taking me anywhere. The result was, I stopped caring, even about delightful, well painted, quirky characters. And if a reader stops caring, chances are he will also stop reading.

Today over at Novel Matters, guest blogger Ariel Allison Lawhead from the online book club She Reads discusses “premise.” She makes the observation that too many books are warmed over retellings of existent stories.

But some achieve a freshness that sets them apart.

How can a writer know what ideas are “fresh”? Well, it helps to read, I think. It helps to move from the first idea that presents itself to number four or fourteen. In other words, at this very beginning stage, it takes work.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 4:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. I’m inclined to think that, if truth be told, there is no such thing as “fresh”. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun. However, it is possible to seem “fresh”.

    If you can find an idea that hasn’t been used for over a hundred years and successfully update it, then you’ve really got something different. This is actually not so hard but it does means that you have to spend some time in classic literature, usually at the theoretical end. However it has the advantage that you do encounter a worldview outside this time, this place. And that can be a mind-blowing experience!



  2. Annie, you’re right—something that Ariel brought out in her article. In fact she suggested that there is in fact only one story—His story, and we are all writing versions of it.

    That was particularly interesting because it is consistent with something Brian Godawa says in Hollywood Worldviews. He says every story is about redemption: The way the world was (Eden), the problem that changed the status quo (the Fall), and the way it is restored, or not (redemption).

    He shows that simple way of looking at all kinds of stories reveals the author’s worldview because whatever they think brings “redemption” is their “god.” I’m not explaining it nearly as well as he does.

    But couple that idea—all stories are about redemption—to the idea that we are all telling God’s story, and it’s pretty interesting. I’d say, those who have a false worldview are telling God’s story from a position of rebellion.

    Anyway, what Godawa says also fits remarkably well with what John Truby says in The Anatomy of Story.

    Thanks for your feedback, Annie.



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