Friday, February 27, 2009

In Search of a Premise

premise--an as yet undeveloped concept for a novel or story; a character confronted with a choice or placed in an intriguing or threatening situation; a hypothetical dramatic situation that cannot yet stand on its own.

Premise is like a wobbly three-legged stool or restaurant table; it needs to be stabilized with the shim of action or intent or reversal, any or all of which will elevate it toward becoming story. At some point, characters, their goals, limitations, and strengths need to be articulated, which brings dimension and nuance onto the stage, giving the writer and the characters options that will make the development seem to churn up a vacuum, drawing character, reader, and writer along in their wake.

Two men, each laid off from a promising job, wander into a neighborhood cocktail lounge for solace, where they encounter a remarkably up-beat young woman who has just been dumped by her boyfriend.

No hint of story yet, but no lack of possibilities. Premise = the potential for story; it is often the rearranging of dramatic furniture that gets the writer's imagination piqued with the curiosity to see the outcome.

When all else fails, rearrange the furniture.


quest--the search characters make for altruistic and personal reasons; the act of seeking justice, revenge, a reward, or understanding; a major component of motivation in story.

The essential defining trait of a character is goal; what does that character want? What thing above all others will satisfy that character to the point of allowing him to move on to another goal? The quest or search for the goal becomes the engine for action, which is expressed in the way(s) the character behaves. A character who is frustrated in the quest for goal will act differently than a character who has experienced success. A successful character may be modest, confident, or propelled by hubris and a sense of entitlement. A frustrated character may be resigned, angry, resentful. Putting a successful character in a scene with a frustrated character produces results--dramatic results.

Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were contemporaries and well known each to the other. Dickens was by far the more successful, but he watched with envy as Collins produced to great success The Moonstone, arguably the first mystery-suspense novel in the English language. Determined to outdo the more profligate Collins, Dickens in 1869 undertook The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which remained unfinished at his death in 1870. It is somewhat a stretch to say Dickens' quest to outshine Collins killed him, nevertheless the quest was a contributing factor.

In more recent times, Irwin Shaw and John Cheever were contemporaries, well known to each other. Although Cheever had some street cred thanks to his short stories, Shaw commanded higher prices for his work, had a larger readership. Although each had high regard for the other, Cheever's account of a particular meeting between the two demonstrates again the potential for dramatic results when a successful character is on stage with a frustrated character. Out of collegial concern, Shaw had invited Cheever to his hotel room for drinks. With barely enough money for the cab fare to Shaw's hotel, actively struggling with his raging alcoholism, Cheever became increasingly more frustrated by Shaw's generosity and concern, drinking more Scotch, growing more convinced that Shaw was patronizing him. Each man was a a devoted and ardent craftsman, each with the avowed goal of pursuing literary excellence, a goal that in this case became a subtext for dramatic behavior.

To know a character's goal is to recognize dramatic power at its most intense.

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