Today’s Writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “Premise.”
And the title above, “Your Story Literally Doesn’t Exist Without a Premise,” isn’t an exaggeration or a misuse of the word "literally." So Weird Al Yankovic doesn’t literally need to smack me upside the head with a crowbar.
You see, a premise is the start of a book: the initial stimulation that prompts a writer to ask, “What would a story look like if I explored this topic or question or conundrum further?” And it applies to both fiction and non-fiction. (Yes, non-fiction tells a story too, just a real one.)
As literary agency owner Donald Maas puts it in his book “The Breakout Novelist,” a premise “could be the cold bright light of a November afternoon, the feel of a black-edged telegram in a mother’s hand, the putrid smell of a week-old corpse in the trunk of a BMW, a woman’s sworn oath before God that she will never go hungry again. In short, a premise is any single image, moment, feeling, or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, and propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages.”
Essentially, it’s a basis, an inspiration, a purpose to write.
Premises are very personal motivations. They may or may not mean something to somebody else, and they may or may not show blatantly throughout your story. But they’re still the whole entire reason your story gets written.
Take my Faerietales series, for example. It’s a sci-fi/fantasy adventure about a young woman who’s figuring out how to be a Scottish faerie princess instead of the American human nobody she thought she was for her first 24 years of existence.
Knowing that, readers might speculate that the premise – the inspiration – behind Book 1: Not So Human might have been a piece of fantasy art, or a news story about a secret identity, or the frantic fluttering of a hummingbird’s wings.
But none of those even come close to capturing it.
The reason why I started Not So Human was because I was stuck at a temp position a good year after I’d graduated from college with what was looking more and more like an utterly useless degree in English. My coworkers were mind-numbingly ignorant, repeating Don Imus’ comments about the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team and regularly discussing sperm count.
One of my female colleagues would talk to everyone about shaving her legs on Friday mornings, explaining how she was going out that night and wanted to be open to the possibilities – which isn’t exactly appropriate conversation for the office. And then there was a male colleague who was married, had two young children, and yet still actively tried to flirt with me.
Pa. Thet. Ic. Both of them.
Actually, most of them were.
On top of that, I had nothing to do all day from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. outside of maybe 15 minutes worth of stuff to complete. If that sounds about as boring as artwork of a polar bear in a blizzard, that’s because it was.
It was in the middle of that dreary vacuum that I began writing the story of a recent college grad stuck in a dead-end temp job with stupid coworkers and not enough to do. I never intended it to fit into either the fantasy or sci-fi genres; it was an autobiography masquerading as modern fiction.
Essentially, my premise was the hope that there was life after boring, unfulfilling jobs.
Yet that premise didn’t change one bit when the rest of the story took a sharp dramatic turn, suddenly introducing four men in black suits and dark shades who follow Sabrina home from work one day down Route 222 in Central Pennsylvania.
It didn’t shift when she found out she had an entirely different identity than the one she’d been accepting for almost two and a half decades.
And it still didn’t vary the slightest with Book 2 or Book 3 or Book 4, no matter how distant Sabrina’s memories of her dead-end temp job became. I think she mentions it once or twice in Not So Human’s immediate sequel, and not at all after that.
While that might seem like a rather weak premise as a result, it’s just the opposite. In Sabrina’s story, life really does go on after work: so much so that she leaves work completely behind.
Oh yeah, except maybe in the not-yet-out Book 5, where she learns that her one former colleague ended up becoming an unwilling lab experiment thanks to his association with her.
Incidentally, the now very well-off Sabrina goes on to establish a fund for his wife and kids, meaning that he benefited his family a whole lot more dead than alive.
Long live life after work!