Why they did what they did

You pick up a book and start reading. The characters are well written, the plot believable and the strange new world you find yourself in is enticing. All in all, an enjoyable read. Not memorable, but enjoyable. You pick up another book that is similar in every respect; and in this instance you find the story riveting, why?  Two similar books with two similar sets of characters, similar plots and similar styles of writing, yet one story is memorable and the other is not.

Isn’t this the thing all writers strive for, to write a memorable story that will captivate their readers? The story that does capture and hold your imagination will, in my opinion, be the story with a unifying theme, a theme Lajos Egri calls the story’s premise. You may not have heard of premise in a story, but perhaps you’ve heard the words: theme, thesis, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving force, subject, purpose, plan, plot or basic emotion used to describe the underlying idea behind the story.


A proposition stated or assumed for after-reasoning, esp. one of the two propositions in a syllogism from which the conclusion is drawn.

Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary

Lajos Egri chose to use the word ‘premise’ in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing because, as he says, “...it contains all the elements the other words try to express and because it is less subject to misinterpretation.” But, just what is the premise of a story and why do you need one? Let me quote Lagos Egri’s opening words to his chapter on premise:

A man sits in his workshop, busy with an invention of wheels and springs. You ask him what the gadget is, what it is meant to do. He looks at you confidingly and whispers: “I really don’t know.” Another man rushes down the street, panting for breath. You intercept him and ask where he is going. He gasps: “How should I know where I’m going? I am on my way.”

Your reaction—and ours, and the world’s—is that these two men are a little mad. Every sensible invention must have a purpose, every planned sprint a destination.

Lajos Egri

The Art of Dramatic Writing: 2004 Touchstone edition

This is what a well thought out premise is supposed to do; provide you with a destination and a framework upon which you can hang all the other parts of your story—and thus create a cohesive whole. The story’s premise is right with you at the very start as you begin to create your characters and plot. It should be ever-present in the background as you work out your plot twists and character journeys.

Lajos Egri goes on to say . . .

Every good play must have a well-formulated premise. There may be more than one way to frame the premise, but, however it is phrased, the thought must be the same.

Playwrights usually get an idea, or are struck by an unusual situation, and decide to write a play around it.

The question is whether that idea, or that situation, provides sufficient basis for a play. Our answer is no, although we are aware that out of a thousand playwrights, nine hundred and ninety-nine start out this way.

No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.

Some people take exception to the last sentence in the above quote and argue that a ‘great’ idea for a story will, if well written, inevitably lead to a good story with a satisfying ending. Perhaps so, but the story could have been much better, perhaps even great, if the writer had a clear-cut premise that could guide them to that satisfying ending. The distinction is between an ending that is simply credible and one that is logically inevitable as the story reaches its climax.

However, a premise by itself will not do anything. All it is is a central, underlying structure that the story rests on. The next step, now that you have found your story’s premise, is you need to prove it! That is the premise’s purpose, to be proven by the author. However, let’s not confuse a story’s premise with reality. The premise you come up with for your story only needs to be proven in your story, not in a courtroom, or to the world at large.

Let me give you an example. You want to write a love story, but you don’t want it to be the usual, star-crossed lovers thing, you want drama and tragedy. You ‘see’ the two young characters in your minds eye and then you throw in a complication—their two families hate each other with a passion. You have your two central characters, your protagonists, you have a goal they’re striving for—to be together, and you have the problem to be overcome—the two families hatred of each other.  What you don’t have is a Premise—an idea to hold it all together.

As the author, you have a ‘gut-feeling’ of what you want—love and tragedy; what sort of premise would that be, what do I have to prove to show that love leads to tragedy, that a great love will lead to death? Ah-ha! There it is; your Premise—great love leads to death. Now, prove it!

Shakespeare did it rather nicely in his play: Romeo and Juliet.

So, how do you find the premise for your story? This is probably going to be one of the hardest writing tasks you will ever endure. Let me begin by saying that the premise of your story is not necessarily what your story is about. I have an idea for a dystopian story based on the Gaia theory which, very simply put, is that the world is a self-correcting organism that changes its environmental conditions over time to provide the optimum conditions for the greatest diversity of life. I have a milieu, a protagonist, an antagonist and a structure for the story—the quest, and even the end of the story. But all this isn’t the premise of the story. The story’s premise is: the greater our understanding of a situation, the fewer choices we have available to us. And, it took me almost a year to find it.

Right now I can imagine you sitting up, alarmed, and saying, “What! I might have to wait a year or more before I can start writing my story. What if I can’t find a premise, do I just abandon my idea?”

You can start writing your story at any time you like, and in any manner you want, without knowing that story’s premise. In my story above, I have a 90,000 word first draft filed away. I thought the ideas within it were pretty good—until I found my premise. Now, when I do the re-write, I won’t be even looking at that first draft. However, I did have to write it so I could find the premise of the story I really wanted to write. I couldn’t begin the re-write until I had the premise and, if I never found that premise, I would have had to abandon the story. Why? Because I would always be dissatisfied with its structure, plot, characters and internal consistency. My philosophy is: if I can’t love the story I’m writing, I’ll kill it.

To find that premise I had to ask myself the question: “Just what is really at the heart of my story?” Not what it is about, but what’s at its heart. My story is about a young woman who goes on a quest of self-discovery. She has to struggle with all sorts of obstacles placed in her way as she learns more about herself and her purpose. And, as she learns more and more—the number of choices she has available to her become fewer and fewer until, at the end, she really has no choice at all.

In writing this story, I have to keep in mind that I have to prove my premise and this will affect the shape of the plot, the characters and the obstacles I place in their way. The need to prove my premise will determine the structure of my story. For example, I need to begin the story showing that all the major characters have multiple options to choose from, which means I can’t start the story in medias res. As each character learns more and more about the true nature of the problem they face, the number of options they can choose from becomes fewer and fewer until, at the end, there are only two options left—to act in the only way left to them, or not to act at all.

So, how do I actually prove my premise that knowledge takes away choice? As I said, I need to show the major characters before the dramatic complication arises. I need to show that my protagonist has a lot of choices at the beginning and then, as events unfold and she learns more and more about the situation and herself, her choices become fewer and fewer with each revelation. I need to do this for my antagonist as well. The more he learns about what’s going on the fewer choices he has as well, until he too must either choose to act, or not. Ideally, the choices available to the protagonist and the antagonist at the end will be diametrically opposed. That would make for an ideal confrontation between the characters, however, that isn’t how I envision the end of the story—at the moment. Once I’ve done this for all the major characters, I need to weave the whole into one coherent story that will prove that knowledge circumscribes choice. And this is where I part company from the pantser’s and join the fraternity of outliners.

You would think that now that I have my story’s premise, I could jump right into the writing, or outlining. If you did, you’d be wrong. The story has its premise, but my characters do not have theirs. Yes, that’s right, each of your major characters, and some of your merely significant characters, each need their own premise as well. A character’s premise is their view of the world and it moulds their character. A character’s premise provides their motivations and reactions to things and events. However, unlike the story premise, a characters premise can change; in fact, if there is to be any growth in the character, their premise must change. At the beginning of your story, you need to have worked out the premise that brought your character to the starting point of your story. I will explore the character’s premise in the page about Creating Characters.

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l Reiger | Reply 02.05.2013 14.33

one way of getting your head on the internet i guess

Fi Michell | Reply 10.03.2013 11.20

I liked, re first drafts: "I did have to write it so I could find the premise of the story I really wanted to write." I find this so true!

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02.05 | 14:33

one way of getting your head on the internet i guess

10.03 | 11:20

I liked, re first drafts: "I did have to write it so I could find the premise of the story I really wanted to write." I find this so true!

06.07 | 04:53
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