The premise is an important component because it serves as the soul of the story. It’s the point. Without it, you have what is known as a “shaggy dog story”, which is a rambling mess without a clue of where it’s going.
The premise is the destination your story needs to reach at the end. Try to think of a story as a desert highway stretching out before you. At the end of the road is home (the premise). You want to go home. If you follow the road, you make it. You validate the premise.
But…if you drive off the road and go somewhere else, you’re lost. You failed the premise and you’re out in the desert without a clue.
A premise is an argument and it’s your job to prove it. We’ll get into how that’s done in a minute, but let’s take a look at some examples of a premise.
KINGDOM COME: “Great power comes with great responsibility” The old superheroes have retired and the new superheroes are out of control. It becomes important for the old heroes to return to the fray to stop Armageddon.
THE WIZARD OF OZ: “Home is where the heart is.” Dorothy ran away from home to save her dog and ended up in a beautiful, sometimes scary place known as Oz where she met a lot of people she came to love as friends. But in the end, she knew that there was no place she’d rather be than home. To her, home was where her loved ones were, even though Oz was much nicer and more interesting than Kansas when you get down to it .
KRAMER VS KRAMER: “Family is more important than a career.” Mr. Kramer found himself becoming a father for the first time when his wife left him with his son. Until then, he was too busy to give his kid much attention. Now he had to learn all the things a parent must know, including responsibility for your family. It made him less effective at work, so he lost his job and had to get another. But in the end, his family was the most important thing to him and it also made him more fulfilled as a human being.
MY FAIR LADY: “Men and Women need each other.” In this story Henry Higgins is a middle aged bachelor with no time for women. That is, until he decides to teach Eliza Dolittle how to speak and act like an educated lady. Higgins falls in love with her. The story shows that men and women can be independent, but they still need each other to be complete human beings.
FORREST GUMP: “Don’t give up your dream and you’ll eventually be rewarded.” Forrest Gump wanted to marry Jenny, and he didn’t bother with any other women until she finally came around. He also stuck with the service until they discharged him and did all right. He stuck with the shrimp boat even though he was failing at it and eventually came out rich in the end.
JFK: “The Government is not on your side.” This film mixes fact with speculation to show how a conspiracy involving corrupt individuals in and around the government changed the course of American policy and mired us in the Vietnam war, all to make some rich people richer. The premise of this movie suggests the government serves the interests of the elite, not the common man. But it should be the other way around.
So, the premise creates an argument which you have to prove to make the story work. If you fail to make your premise convincing, your story is going to fall flat. If you lack a premise, people will come away from your story feeling they’ve wasted their time. Premises give a sense of worth to a story. The reason is…
Stories are metaphors for life
Fiction has the power to give meaning to the meaninglessness of life. Life is chaotic and hard to understand for many of us. Fiction can bring order and sense to it all. You, the writer, have the powers of a god when you craft a story. You decide what happens, when, and how. You must construct events in a logical, but unpredictable pattern that points inevitably to the conclusion raised by your premise.
Because stories are about life, understand that life means change. Every second of our existence brings us closer to new experiences. It brings us closer to love, sex, money, pain, illness, joy, fear, despair, triumph, and yes…even death. No matter how dull your personal existence may be, change is going to effect your life one way or another. But more importantly, for the Audience, change is something they need to see. Anything static is boring. Stories that don’t effect the characters or don’t make a difference are generally dull stories. There are exceptions to this rule. But we’ll explore that later.
Your story needs to effect change on the main characters whether they like it or not. And the changes need to verify the argument of the premise. This is done is by employing the power of choice.
The choices your character makes in the course of the story should further enhance the statement of your premise. This way, the Audience lives through the Hero’s experiences and witnesses the validation of the premise.
Fact is neutral. Stories are interpretations of facts. You cannot do any documentary without coloring it to your opinion or a theory. You can’t tell a story without choosing which “facts” you want to present. Reality is superior to our little paper world. We can only objectify reality through the subjective lens of our minds.
What a good writer does is create meaning from all the events of the story by confirming their premise.
REMEMBER: Until the premise is put to the test of the story’s conflicts, it’s nothing more than an theory. Your job is to prove it.
The Counter Premise
In order to make your premise believable, you have to present compelling arguments for the opposing side. Otherwise, your story becomes preachy and one sided.
This is done via the counter premise.
In most cases, the counter premise is the Villain’s agenda. In Kramer Vs Kramer, Mrs. Kramer was trying to get custody of the son. The argument she used in court was that she was a better parent because she now makes more money, she’s the mother, and that Mr. Kramer cared more about his job than his family. Her lawyer points out that Kramer lost his job and was now making a lot less, so he isn’t a good provider. In other words, “Your career is critical to your family’s well being.”
This is the counter premise. In the end, the premise wins the argument because the boy chooses his father and the wife sees he has become a better parent because of his choices. His choices validated the story’s premise!
In the graphic novel WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the counter premise is that bad deeds can have good consequences. Ozymandius, the villain of the story, teleports a huge monster into New York city, killing thousands of people. The result is an end to the cold war. However, it is revealed at the conclusion that the actions of the story’s “hero” Rorschach, could just as easily reverse everything because his notes fall into the hands of a publisher. And those notes could reveal everything about Ozymandius’ plan. Thus, the premise of the story that heroic (good) schemes are doomed to muddled results is proven by the Hero. It is actually proven in a double whammy. Rorschach, the central Hero of the story, dies. His heroic scheme to bring down the villain fails on the surface of the story. The “Villain” of the story, is a hero, whose “heroic” scheme to stop World War III may actually backfire if Rorscach’s notes get out.
Another example, JAWS. In Jaws the premise is: “Nature can be a real Mother! Adapt or die!” The counter premise is: “Man doesn’t have the right to mess with nature.” In order to get the shark, which is the force of nature in the story, they have to go to the shark’s element. The sea. It becomes clear that man does not belong out at sea. He is vulnerable, unequipped to survive in the ocean without his precious technology. Indeed, even with his technology, nature can kick his ass. The hero of the story barely survives, only with cunning. His choice is to adapt as best he can. And by making this choice, rather than giving in, he validates the premise.
The counter premise needs to be a compelling argument. Perhaps as compelling or almost more so than the premise. When the counter premise is used properly, the Audience worries about the hero. Your hero is the champion of the premise, whether he’s aware of it or not.
Finding your Premise
When you begin to formulate your story, you may not know what the premise is. That’s okay. You can find out what it is when you have more of the plot constructed. The premise isn’t something you need to have in mind from the beginning. Even if you have it in mind, you may find it changes as the story unfolds. Stories by nature are organic. As characters come alive, as scenes take shape, new meanings and insights can form. This can alter your original premise. So first, figure out who your characters are, what they want, what the Grail is, then start putting scenes together. Soon after, you’ll start to see a pattern take shape. The Premise will come into clarity. Then you can fine tune the story until your premise and counter premise battle it out with the kind of effectiveness your story needs.
Whatever you do, never tell the audience point blank what your premise is. If you need to have a character say it out loud, you’re showing how ineffective you are as a writer. The audience should be able to get the point on their own. Once you start preaching, you start boring.
Once you’ve found your premise, evaluate the scenes you’ve come up with and see if they can’t be modified to make the arguments that you need to make. In the Star Trek film GENERATIONS, the premise is explored in almost every scene. The film’s premise is:
“Life is short, so make your mark the best way you can.” Picard is always regretting the fact that he never had a family. This is echoed by Kirk, as well. To these men, a family is how they would have liked to made their mark. But by the end of the story both men realize their destiny is to save the world and bringing justice and peace to the galaxy. They recognize they’ve mattered in the scheme of things and find their peace in that.
If you study this film, you’ll notice the writers squeezed the premise into almost every scene. It gives the story more resonance.
You can also use subplots to play off the premise with themes. A subject we will delve into at length in a later chapter. Just remember that a story without a premise is a story without a soul.
REMEMBER: The story must show conflict between the Premise and the Counter Premise. A strong Counter Premise makes for a strong story.