Friday, July 22, 2005

Promising Premises

I'm now a couple of chapters into Don Maass' book, Writing the Breakout Novel. I had intentions of writing on my observations for a few days now, but more important topics have presented themselves. The first chapter in Maass' book is on premise. In many ways, this is related to Ansen Dibell's test for a good story idea. Maass advises that you make sure your premise meets four tests:

  • Plausibility: Could the story have happened to any of us?
  • Inherent Conflict: Is there conflict inherent in the setting itself, or in the characters?
  • Originality: Does the premise explore a new perspective on an old story?
  • Gut Emotional Appeal: Does the story have a strong emotional appeal that reaches the reader at a deep level?

While Maass doesn't assign any extra weight to one of these criteria over another, I think that of these four, the idea of inherent conflict is the most important. Too often we think up interesting settings, and fascinating characters, and then try to think of some way we can put them in conflict with each other. That approach can work. But if there is conflict inherent in your situation before you even start "casting" the roles, then the conflict will drive the plot much more naturally than having that conflict superimposed upon the situation.

Plausibility is a given. While you can subject your character to a series of very unlikely events and make a decent story out of it, a lot of times the story becomes farce rather than drama. That's perfectly okay if that's what you're shooting for, but you need to be cognizant of it. If, on the other hand, you are trying for drama or serious action, you can easily shake your reader out of his "willing suspension of disbelief." As I mentioned in the entry on War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise's character has both the best and the worst luck of any character I've run across. What are the odds of escaping an alien invasion only to have an airliner drop on your head? It's just too much of a stretch, and it seriously weakens the story.

Originality is a tough one. It's a fact that pretty much every story there is to tell has already been told in one form or another. That's why Maass recommends (and I agree) that instead of looking for totally new ideas -- a probably fruitless search, but hey, you never know -- look instead for an angle on a situation that no one has explored before. There are no hard and fast rules for this; it's one of those "it comes to you or it doesn't" kind of things. There's nothing but your own creativity here, folks.

And finally, gut emotional appeal speaks to my theory that you have to exploit the connection to your readers' psychology to really tell a good story. At some point, I'm going to formalize this theory and write an essay on it, but it's still not quite to the point where I can explain it in a self-consistent way. If I can finally work through this idea, I think there might be a few small nuggets of gold for all of us there. We'll see. Of course, it could also turn out to be just like my overall impression of Maass' book so far: "Well, duh." But I don't mean that in a disparaging way. I think a lot of things that Maass points are things that we as writers instinctively know. But actually having them pointed out in a direct way is a very useful reminder, so that we make sure each story we tell is as powerful as it can be.

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