Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Premise

Recently, in the comments on The Kill Zone, Nancy J. Cohen stated, “In a murder mystery, [the premise] is usually who the victim is and where the body is found.” She’s actually wrong, but her statement is a premise. May sense? If so, you can stop reading now, but the rest of us are going to look at what a premise is.

Many people have the idea that the premise is what the story is about. Frankly, I may be guilty of using the word that way from time to time, but if we look at the dictionary definition of premise we find that it is “a proposition that forms the basis of an argument or from which a conclusion is drawn” (Encarta Dictionary). In more simple terms, a premise is a statement we’re trying to prove. Many novelists take issue with this because they see themselves writing to entertain rather than to make a point, but when examining story structure it’s beneficial to look at the similarities between a story and a traditional argument.

Before we go too deep, let’s look at an example. Often, the premise of a story is stated by one of the characters. The character may make the statement to the protagonist, but the protagonist won’t fully understand the truth of the statement until the end of the story. In the story of The Three Little Pigs, the momma pig says, “Whatever you do, do it the best that you can because that's the way to get along in the world.” That’s our premise, but the little pigs don’t understand until later in the story. The first two pigs don’t follow their mother’s advice and we see the opposite of the proposition when their houses fall and they are eaten up. This doesn’t prove the proposition, but it shows what the danger or not following it. But the third pig does follow his mother’s advice and builds a house of bricks. The house stands against the wolf’s huffing and puffing, so it seems to prove the proposition, but there are still arguments we must address. What if the wolf is smart and decides to enter the house another way? Or some of the other things we see the wolf doing in some versions of the story? The story shows that the pig, by following his mother’s advice is able to defeat the wolf at each turn, so by systematically eliminating the arguments against the proposition we prove that the premise is correct.

Now that you see the relationship of the premise to a story, it’s clear why the victim and location aren’t the premise to a mystery. We don’t have to prove the victim and location. As the authors, if we say the victim is dead, the victim is dead. The premise then has to be a statement about real life that we hope to prove by the story.

The premise of the story can also be called the theme of the story. While we may start writing without a clear idea of what the premise is, in time, the premise will reveal itself. Once that happens, anything in our story that doesn’t attempt to prove or disprove the premise will seem out of place. What if, for example, we told how the third pig’s brothers wouldn’t let him go to the ball and made him clean their houses? That concept fits nicely in Cinderella but is out of place in The Three Little Pigs. So once we know the premise it helps us to focus our story on the important stuff.

Stories relate to the premise something like this: We begin with a problem and someone states the premise as a means of getting rid of the problem. Next, we apply the premise to the problem in the form of a solution. Our solution seems to work, but our premise is challenged because our solution didn’t take everything into account. We adjust the solution, by again applying the premise and we’re victorious (or not) in proving our premise.