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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