Get on board the story train with our ‘Beginnings‘ blog series! Here’s the latest offering from Birmingham writing retreat rep Karen Elizabeth Miller:
Have you ever had a story fall on its arse? I have. When I started writing plays, it happened all the time. I might have created a compelling and interesting character but I had nothing for her to do. I may have brilliantly evoked a setting but I couldn’t pin down what might happen there. My passion for an exciting new idea convinced me there had to be a story in it – I guess I thought that if I began writing my story, then I’d find the inspiration I needed along the way – but I never did. And so, many of my stories fell on their arses…
Then I came across The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri and everything changed. In Chapter 1, Mr Egri describes what he defines as ‘Premise’ and I discovered a new way to begin my plays. (Before all you novel and short story writers jump ship, stay with this – using a premise might just help you too!)
The premise is the purpose of your story. It is the point of it, the goal, the aim, the driving force, the motivation and also the destination. Everything in life has a premise. When someone decides to cross a room, they have a reason for doing so. We breathe because there’s a very important premise in staying alive! Establishing a premise for your story will enable you to discover where you are going with your plot and what you want to say with it; your premise should therefore be something that you believe in passionately.
Scrawled across the pages of most of my notebooks is the following ‘calculation’ that I devised using Lajos Egri’s wisdom:
Premise = Character + Conflict + Resolution
In The Art of Dramatic Writing, the premise of Romeo & Juliet is described as: Great love defies even death.
Here the great love obviously refers to that between Romeo and Juliet. It is a great love because the two youngsters are determined enough to defy family tradition and years of hate – which provides the conflict in the story. Then, as we know, the play ends with them sacrificing their lives in order to unite in death.
Character = Two lovers capable of great love.
Conflict = Romeo and Juliet defying the battle lines drawn between their families.
Resolution = Romeo and Juliet killing themselves to unite in death.
Of course, premises are vital to novels too. Take The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, for example – here’s what I think the premise is (NB: Spoilers ahead):
Loyalty trumps love when it comes to achieving family status.
The story begins with Nella marrying into a wealthy family. Over the course of the story, however, Nella discovers that she will never enjoy a romantic relationship with her new husband. Her quest to discover the reasons for this and uncover the secrets that shroud his entire household, heightened by the involvement of the mysterious miniaturist, provides the story’s conflict. When the Brandts run into serious trouble, Nella’s loyalty to them is rewarded with her taking up the position of head of the family.
Character = A fiercely loyal young woman.
Conflict = The struggle to stay loyal to someone who can’t love you romantically and is surrounded by secrets.
Resolution = Nella’s loyalty results in her becoming head of the family.
The novel is more complex than this, with additional characters negotiating their own subplots and premises, but this is the central premise, I think. This may not have been Jessie Burton’s starting point but I believe that it is such a great story partly because it has such an identifiable premise at its core.
Later on in his book, Egri writes about how you should develop characters that are capable of proving your premise. This provides an ideal place to begin to your story. The Miniaturist begins with Nella agreeing to marry a rich stranger to save her mother and siblings from poverty: an action motivated by her strong sense of family loyalty. This is the character trait that will later lead her on the journey to proving the ultimate premise of the story.
If you are a playwright or a novelist, I would definitely recommend beginning by establishing your premise before you begin. And if you write short fiction, the Writers’ HQ short fiction blog series talks about much the same thing when we explore the ‘fundamental human truth’ of a short story…
And you don’t always have to define your premise at the beginning. If you’ve already started a story but you find that the plot is stalling, pinning down your premise when you’ve hit a block might help tighten your narrative and get you back on track.
Remember all those stories that fell on their arse?
Maybe now’s the time to see if you can establish a premise and set them on their way again…
Want MOAR advice on getting past the Big Bad Beginning stage? Check out the whole blog series here.
Karen Elizabeth Miller writes for the stage but experiments with short stories and poetry on the side. Her writing is currently fuelled by red wine, tea, chocolate and 80’s pop music. She discovered WHQ whilst living in Brighton and taking part in New Writing South’s Advanced Dramatic Course. Now she’s back home in Brum, she’s spreading the gold-star-love to the Midlands with Birmingham Writers’ Retreat.