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.