Friday, May 15, 2015

Fiction Friday: Story vs. Premise

One of the things we studied at McDaniel College was the difference between a premise and a story.

A premise is an idea. defines it as "a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion." It comes from two Latin words meaning "to put before." So, basically, it's the underlying idea that supports your story--and has to come before you can build your story.

A story, according to Aristotle, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories also have characters, settings and plots.

Your premise asks the question, "What if...?" Your story answers that question.

L.M. Montgomery got the idea for Anne of Green Gables when she saw an article in her local paper about an orphanage that mistakenly sent a child of the wrong gender to a family looking for a child to help out around the house. (The adoption business was apparently pretty fast-and-loose in those days.)

Robert Louis Stevens once drew a map to pass the time on a rainy vacation. The map
inspired Treasure Island.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came to 16-year-old C.S. Lewis as a daydream.

Jules Verne got the idea for Around the World in 80 Days from a newspaper advertisement offering such a trip.

A lot of my writer friends complain that it's tough to come up with ideas, but once they have an idea they can run a marathon with it.

I'm just the opposite. Premises grow like weeds in my brain (probably thrive in all that manure). It's story that's tough for me. Figuring out what kinds of characters and plot will allow my premises to blossom into full-blown stories is like trying to make fire from flint. If all I had to do was strike rocks together and generate sparks, it would be great. But there's that whole mess with tinder and twigs and small branches and making sure there's enough oxygen and.... Okay, that metaphor's getting away from me.

Not all premises (even really cool exciting ones) turn into stories. An idea may grab me, but investigation reveals that the characters don’t have what it takes to grow and change the way they need to for a satisfying story. Or, sometimes the premise has difficulties built into it that I’m just not smart enough to get around.

Fifteen years ago I started working on a historical novel set in Minnesota lumber country in 1894. The premise was that Lucy, my young protagonist, wanted to become a photojournalist. Her dream put her at cross-purposes with the conservative young editor of the town newspaper, so I had the conflict I needed for the romance piece. The technology to print half-tone photographs on rotary presses had just been invented, so I thought I could make it work. As I did further research, though, I discovered that, for a variety of reasons, photographs didn’t replace line drawings in newspapers for nearly 40 years. I love that character, (I love Lucy!) but I’ve never figured out how to give her story a happy ending.

I could list a dozen other stories that never got off the launch pad, but you get the idea.

What’s your process for turning premises into stories? Or do you even go about it that way?

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