Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Situation vs. Premise

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve had a significant breakthrough on my current project after a long dry spell. Part of my problem, as I mentioned previously, was that I tend to develop the characters first, then try to build a story around them.

The breakthrough came about when I boo-hooed to my agent that I was hopelessly stuck. I told him about a few situations I had in mind for the characters, but that so far they refused to do anything interesting—they were just loitering. It was then that my agent suggested that maybe my problem was that I was looking for situations, when what I really needed was a premise.

The distinction, as he explained, was very subtle yet significant. A situation was merely dropping them in a setting with a set of problems. A premise was dropping them into a situation that forced them to take action. Here’s a rough example: a situation might be that a family that doesn’t get along very well decides to go to an amusement park for the day. They argue, they eat pizza, they go on rides. They exist within the situation, but other than that, not much is going on. A premise, on the other hand, would be that this combative family gets locked in the park overnight. A premise begs the question: What are they going to do? It indicates movement, direction. This is precisely the kind of momentum needed to start a story.

Basic stuff, I know, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded now and then.

My agent then suggested I brainstorm 100 plot ideas—the more outlandish the better—to get myself rolling. First, I went through all the clich├ęs; the evil twin, mistaken identity, alien abduction. Then it became really hard, and I thought I’d never come up with 10, let alone 100 ideas. Still, I kept on. Then, I hit number 18. It was so simple and clear, I could hardly believe it. I’d found my premise.

But I wasn't quite out of the woods, yet. More tomorrow.

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