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The Premise of a Novel, or Short Story.

How to write a Novel and Short Story Part II

The Premise and Characterisation

There are, for Frey, three kinds of premise:

· The Chain Reaction Premise
· The Opposing Forces Premise
· The Situational Premise

The chain reaction premise involves the protagonist being caught up in an event, or happening, that is then followed by a chain of events that change the character; through to a resolution that proves the premise.

So in Metamorphosis, by Kafka, Gregor wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant bug. He is gradually rejected by his family, and those who knew him as human, in a series of incidents narrated from Gregor’s point of view; eventually he dies: rejected, alone and hidden. The insect is a metaphor for a deviation from a norm. So the premise could be: if you deviate too far from the socially accepted norms you will be rejected, isolated and die alone.

In a story that seeks to prove an opposing forces premise the opposing forces create or generate action that befalls the protagonist, who then overcomes various obstacles whilst changing as a person, usually for the better, in such a way as to prove the premise. “Greed destroys idealism” would be a premise of this type, “Love conquers everything but alcoholism,” would be another.

Another way of looking at it is to consider it as a formula:

X vs. Y = Z

Love of Mother vs Love of Wife = Divorce
Love of Wife vs Carnal Love of Mother-in-Law = Horrendous Divorce & Misery

A situational Premise is best suited to an Emile Zola kind of examination of human behaviour, set in extreme conditions. So in The Jungle one could argue that the premise is “Poverty and exploitation destroy families.” Another example would be Tim Obrien’s The Things They Carried in which he tells a number of war stories that each have their own premise.

In a multi-premise novel, such as Anna Karenina, or The Things They Carried it is because they have more than one story. Arguably The Things They Carried is a collection of Short Stories and Anna Karenina has two stories within it, Crime & Punishment is another example of two stories entwined. They have more than one premise because there is more than one story. So, in a story about a family you may have two brothers who are each protagonists in their own stories. They may switchback, alternating chapters, flashbacks, or whatever device the author chooses. Look at the text as being a collection of stories, each with their own premise that needs to be proved.

How to Incorporate a Premise

If you have an idea for a story, for example, you want to write a story about a man who is reunited with a long lost son after years of forced separation. It needs a premise. Or it will be boring.

· Opening Situation
Dad gets out of prison, or a coma, or just feels guilty.

· Inciting Incident
Dad’s little boy gets ill, nearly dies, he thinks of his long lost son.
He decides to look up his Son, he imagines the wonder of it when they meet and how happy they will be to be re-united, he’s missed him for years.

· Complications
His wife isn’t happy about it all – complication.
He doesn’t know where to start looking – complication.
Meets old friend who knows bent cop who’ll help – complication.
He gets the address but then the cop gets caught and has to give reason for looking for son, makes up a crime and gets son arrested – complication.
Father makes contact with son and his mother, son rejects him, ex-partner blames him, in the meantime his wife leaves him, taking his young son with her – complication.

· Climax
He has a confrontation with his ex and his wife.

· Resolution
This leads to the son agreeing to meet the Dad, the cop gets caught red-handed in another corrupt practice, Dad spills the beans, takes the rap and saves the Son. The Son loves him after all and even gets on with Dad’s latest wife who has returned and respects his paternal love.

The premise being “nothing worth having is easy to get” or “blood is thicker than water”.

How to Write a Damned Good Novel, James N Frey, 1987, St Martins Press: New York.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, James N Frey, 1994, St Martins Press: New York
Solutions for Novelists, Sol Stein, 1999, St Martins Press: New York

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