Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Mysterious and Maddening PREMISE

What the heck is a Premise FOR, anyway?

PREMISE was one of THE toughest concepts for me to wrap my brain around. I just couldn’t get what it was, and what it meant to a story, or how to use it.

Then there were all those people using the word PREMISE as a synonym for CONCEPT. Just for the Record – The story’s PREMISE is NOT the story’s CONCEPT.

The Premise is what the story is trying to SAY.
The Concept is what the story is ABOUT.

In the movie “The Matrix”, the message the story was trying to get across was: “Question REALITY”. That was the Premise.

How they Explained that Message: "What if we were all living in computer generated reality?" was the Concept of “The Matrix”. (Get it?)

We've got ISSUES...
In my opinion, Good fiction, no matter the genre, presents us with characters dealing with a basic human issue. This 'Issue' is the story's heart - the Premise.

Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, theatre - story telling - was used as Therapy. The stories were all lessons dealing with the basic drives of human nature - love, hate, jealousy, greed, abandonment... (Ahem - ISSUES.)

The old Greek plays were gut-wrenching for a reason, they were trying to make the viewer FEEL what was happening enough to laugh out loud, scream with rage, or burst into tears, experiencing a thereputic cathartic release. This is where the word 'Catharsis' comes from: Greek Theatre.

In modern fiction, when a story's core issue is addressed we feel a release, laughter, anger or tears. If the story does not wrap up the core 'issue', negatively or positively, we feel instinctively cheated - because that sense of relief or release is Missing.

THE MATRIX - Premise in Action!
THE MATRIX was one of the most Premise-heavy movies to date – and a box-office smash. (Hint-hint!)
The Issue in “The Matrix” was KNOWLEDGE verses INGNORANCE. Everything in the movie, up to and including the individual characters, addressed this core issue over, and over, and over...

Each main character was defined (tied to the premise) in their behavior and in their actions, as a type of KNOWLEDGE and their behaviors illustrated how that form of Knowledge dealt with IGNORANCE - “not knowing what was really going on”.

Interestingly enough, the Names of each of the characters actually defined what part of the Premise they illustrated.

Neo (meaning New) was the Viewpoint Character – he represented John Q Public, somebody that was curious but uninformed – total ignorance. Every crisis he faced was a CHOICE of “To Know – or Not to Know”. His crisis choices all focused on: “Do I really want to know?”

Morpheus (meaning Sleep or Dream) was the guiding father figure. His character was guided by a Dream – a dream of “The One” who would save them. Rather than basing his decisions on hard facts – actual Knowledge, he relied on FAITH - Faith in his Dream of 'The One'.

Trinity (the word refers to the Great Triple Goddess – Maiden, Mother & Crone) was the feminine creative aspect. To Neo, she was the Maiden, someone to Love, to Morpheus, she was Second in Command, representing the crew’s Mom, and to her enemies, she was the death-dealing crone. She made all her choices guided by her Feminine INTUITION.

Cypher (meaning Message or Mystery) the betrayer of Morpheus’s little group, was the information leak. Knowledge bleeding into the wrong hands - a message to the bad-guys. He rebelled against the knowledge he was given. He preferred the 'comfort' of living in ignorance.

Agent Smith and Agent Brown (a more bland pair of names does not exist,) represented the Institutionalized Establishment – enforced ignorance. “You Don’t want to Know”.

The Oracle (meaning To Tell ) knew exactly what was Actually Going On, but she never gave straight answers. The raw truth (Reality isn't Real) was too much for anyone unprepared to deal with it. The average person faced with something that does not conform to their version of reality automatically rebels. "There is no spoon."
The reason that the following two Matrix movies were dismal failures, was because lots of stuff happened, but there was no Reason for the stuff to be happening beyond the obvious, no core issue, no MEANING behind the events. The characters were just people, they didn’t represent anything.
Both sequels were missing a PREMISE - and I, as a viewer among many, felt CHEATED.
How do we Apply the Premise to Fiction?I use the Premise to define my story’s Issue. The Premise Statement is how I intend to deal with my chosen issue.
Each main character is a Representative of the Premise Issue (Negative or Positive) and illustrates a different way of Dealing with it, (Negative or Positive.) A good villain represents the story's 'issue' in the negative - what happens if that issue goes too far.
Every crisis point - the Inciting Incident, the Reversal, the Ordeal, the Climax - all involve a Premise Choice. What the characters choose to do when cornered by their crisis is defined by their personal take on the Premise. Whether the characters succeed or fail is an example of whether or not their view of the Premise is CORRECT.
The Premise gives a story meaning beyond: “Stuff Happened”. The Premise is the story’s soul – it’s reason for Being.

Morgan Hawke
www.darkerotica.net
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8 comments:

  1. >>> PREMISE was one of THE toughest concepts for me to wrap my brain around. I just couldn’t get what it was, and what it meant to a story, or how to use it.

    Great post. And me too -- I understand what it is, but I never knew, hell, still don't, why use it. At least in commercial fiction, I never ever thought of the premise, if it was a romance novel, for example. I thought 1) is this plot going to be fun to write? 2) is it marketable?
    Maybe because what I wanted to say was never something that could be executed in a commercial story, who knows.
    Or maybe because making up a premise is one thing, but weaving it into the plot so that the events and motivations would be in sync with it is damn hard work, considering the need for Formula in commercial fiction. Premise is easier in Literary fiction, you don't need to keep the formula in mind :)
    But having said it... I notice sometimes I sort of come across the in-built premise, intuitively. When you said that the Villain represents the worst issue-scenario, I've realized that's exactly what I have in BB. His ultimate driving reason is almost the same as the heroine's, but he deals with it in a different way, which brings sad repercussions.
    But really... does every story need a premise? Some exist just fine without it - -as a mindless entertainment :)
    Besides, a non-traditional premise (i.e., something most readers won't agree with) can ruin the audience response. And making a premise you, as an author, don't really believe in (yet the audience will cheer) will lead to dull writing, or painful writing.

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  2. "Great post. And me too -- I understand what it is, but I never knew, hell, still don't, why use it?" - Why use it? To give fiction Depth. That's what a Premise does, it gives a story a layer of meaning beneath the obvious.

    "...At least in commercial fiction, I never ever thought of the premise, if it was a romance novel, for example. I thought 1) is this plot going to be fun to write? 2) is it marketable? - Even comic books have a premise - a meaning under the action. Read anything by Neil Gaiman.

    "...Maybe because what I wanted to say was never something that could be executed in a commercial story, who knows. - Then perhaps commercial fiction ISN'T what you should be writing?

    "....Or maybe because making up a premise is one thing, but weaving it into the plot so that the events and motivations would be in sync with it is damn hard work, considering the need for Formula in commercial fiction. Premise is easier in Literary fiction, you don't need to keep the formula in mind :)- Am I actually hearing...? "I don't want to work that hard!"

    "...But having said it... I notice sometimes I sort of come across the in-built premise, intuitively. When you said that the Villain represents the worst issue-scenario, I've realized that's exactly what I have in BB. His ultimate driving reason is almost the same as the heroine's, but he deals with it in a different way, which brings sad repercussions. - Then instinctively, you already know that a Premise Should be there!

    "...But really... does every story need a premise? Some exist just fine without it - as a mindless entertainment :) - Let's put it this way, I personally LOATHE books that have no more depth (and flavor) than pap - Baby Food. There has to be some kind of human issue at the core, love, hate, abandonment, fear...in order for me to get any form of entertainment out of it. I write Romance, and yet there are GOBS of Romance I refuse to read, because they are meaningless - they have no premise, (or plot, or description...etc.).

    "...Besides, a non-traditional premise (i.e., something most readers won't agree with) can ruin the audience response. - Remember, the whole idea behind building a story is to Convince the reader that your view (of the premise) is viable. If you Don't convince at least some of your readers - then you did it WRONG.

    "...And making a premise you, as an author, don't really believe in (yet the audience will cheer) will lead to dull writing, or painful writing. - Build a story around a Premise that DOES have meaning to you and see what happens. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

    Morgan

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  3. thanks! I love your articles

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  4. You know Morgan. I was re-reading this article this morning and all of my stories have a premise or rather a truth that is either proved or disproved in the story. It ties all your characters together and gives the story continuity and flow. I think premise, or at least for me is the message that I want to impart to the world. It's what I believe and what I set out to prove. Like in Kiss from the Rose, the premise was that true love leads to happiness but it goes much deeper than that because really "true" love leads to sacrifice of self for the other and the story proves that true love survives no matter where our soul takes us. Great article!

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  5. You write stories I like to read!
    - Morgan Hawke

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  6. Morgan,

    I was helping my cp finish up a story recently and it occured to me that we had never even discussed the premise. Yet as we wrapped up the story, I knew what the premise was how scenes and characters had just morphed into aspects of the presmise. Mind you now, she has awesome instincts for storytelling, but I don't think even for an istant she ever thought, 'Oh gee, I'm gonna write a story that talks about trust.'

    So my question is, Do you have to start the story idea with your premise in place or could you just flesh it out after your done?

    I can see how if your started off knowing what your premise was that you could put on those layers in the crafting stage, but is that the way it usually works?

    Thanks,
    Jas

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  7. This article gave me an important eureka moment. It made me realize what my story's premise is, but more importantly, why no matter how I rewrite it, it always seems off : I was only applying the premise to the main character. Now I know how to fix it. Thank you so much!

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