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Archive for story

Use the power of premise to pump your stories up

Most of us start a story with an idea. You develop it into a concept. Then you build a character to turn that concept into a premise.

  • Secrets of church history hide in plain sight.
  • What if the DaVinci art held the secrets?
  • What if a professor of Renaissance art found secrets of church history that put his life in danger while they threaten leaders of the church?

Two elements work to create good stories together. That’s making a concept and then taking it to a premise. It’s all in service of making characters who can populate that premise.

“A big city cop moves to a small coastal town” is a premise. Your next step is to make a what-if, like “What if a big city cop moves to a small coastal town in South Carolina, then discovers a marijuana ring that’s illegal. The locals look the other way — can he?”

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.

That’s from a fine article by Jeff Lyons in The Writer magazine, a great craft publication.

There’s a five-step process in there to master. The essential component is a character to care about. Plot is just the plaything we use to enjoy our characters and their fates.

There’s more on using premise — and this is all character work that builds great plots — in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. The book includes exercises. We all love those, just to know we’re learning. When you work with a coach on your writing, you have an expert who looks at your exercises to help see what’s working. Get the book and do some exercises. Let premise power your book.

Give your characters agency to drive a story

Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. Agency is not a term that is common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to produce a particular result. Give them severe stakes if they make the wrong choice.