How to structure a premise for stronger stories
Before an author writes a word, or thinks of scenes or characters, an idea sparks the imagination and a story is born. Or is it?
When inspiration strikes, many writers think they have a story, when in fact they have something else. Untethered by the foundation of a real story, they risk becoming lost in the story woods, writing down blind alleys and backing themselves into literary corners. How can you know if an idea that excites you one day will have legs over the long course of developing a book or series of books?
The only way to know for sure is to master the skill of story premise development. A story’s premise is more than a quick synopsis, or a simple thesis statement defining the theme or argument of a story. It is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer.
A story premise, along with its tool, the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. When properly conceived, it expresses your whole story in one or two neat sentences. Finding this premise line is no small task; in fact, the process of premise development can be the literary equivalent of skiing the black diamond trail. But when you get it right, the payoff in saved time, money and creative blood, sweat and tears is worth the agony.
Fortunately, taking five essential steps can lessen the pain and facilitate mastery of the premise process. These steps form a repeatable and proven method for developing any story. This is a critical skill for any writer, because the premise line is a key ally in writing effective query letters to agents or publishers and pitching film production companies or studios. And the premise line is more than a pitch tool. When you find a premise line that works, then you can know with confidence that you have a story that will stand the test of development. These five steps can guide your writing process, acting as a road map to keep your narrative on track and focused.
After all, if your story is going to go off the rails, isn’t it better to discover that before you get to page 400?
STEP 1: IDENTIFY THE CORE STRUCTURE OF YOUR STORY.
For our purposes, a story is defined as a metaphor for a journey that leads to change, as played out by the dynamic interdependence of character and plot. A story is further defined because it possesses a careful structure. At this basic level, story structure is a natural force like the wind.
This first step helps you identify the seven structural components present in any story – regardless of genre.
Character Who is your protagonist?
Constriction The person at the focus of the story is constricted in some way. Some personal problem haunts, drives or motivates him or her. Try to get a sense of what your protagonist’s problem is and sense how it triggers action. The constriction is usually activated by some initiating event that forces the protagonist to move from where the story starts toward a new path of action (the adventure).
Desire The protagonist wants something tangible: the money, the romantic interest or to find the radioactive dirty bomb by the end of the story.
Focal Relationship Who is the protagonist talking with throughout the story? What relationship is the focus of the protagonist’s attention? This relationship will be the engine that drives most of the drama in your story, even in multiple point-of-view stories.
Resistance More than an internal constriction, there is also the sense of serious, external pushback. Something opposes the goal seeking of the protagonist, and this force creates dramatic friction. This is the central opposition and he or she is bent on stopping the protagonist from fulfillment. Who is this opposing force?
Adventure/Chaos Entropy is the tendency of all things to move toward disorder and chaos. This is the adventure and often comes in the middle of a story.
Change You may not see the exact end point of your story, but you can assume your protagonist will not end up where he or she began. Does your protagonist evolve or devolve?
These are the components of a story’s core structure. If they are present, then you have a story. If they are missing, vague or muddled, then you don’t have a story.
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