Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Where Do I Begin...

By Marcella Kampman © 2003

Let’s start at the very beginning. A good story starts with an idea, a flash of inspiration, that will take your readers on a journey you hope they’ll never forget. That flash, if developed fully, is your premise. But a premise on its own is nothing, you must build up that premise, enhance it until it becomes an exciting, gripping, awe-inspiring tale of… whatever it is you long to tell.
As a writer, a storyteller, that’s exactly what you must do. Nurture that spark and build up your premise.

But let’s back up a bit before you charge off and start enhancing your basic premise. What you need to understand is why you are writing this particular story in the first place. The first and foremost question you must answer is not what but who is this story about?

If people want to read about cataclysmic events and jaw-dropping catastrophes and daring, action-packed escapades, they’ll read the news. But unless the news is about people, more specifically about a person with whom they can identify, the event or catastrophe or escapade isn’t going to hold their attention for very long. People enjoy reading about people.

Let’s use an example to show you what a premise is and how to build it into something else, something better. I’m going to use “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum because it’s a classic fairytale that most people know. If you don’t know this story, then I strongly recommend you either read the book or watch the movie because this story has all the elements of great fiction: a sympathetic heroine, a great cast of supporting characters, exciting events, a menacing adversary, a particularly dark moment, clear character growth, and a satisfactory resolution to an unexpected ending (which, by the way, are all the elements for a great plot).

The basic premise of “The Wizard of Oz” is this – a teenage girl gets lost in a storm and wants to find her way home. Sounds pretty simple, boring actually, doesn’t it? At least it gives us the who of the story, what happens to her, and what she’s going to try to achieve by the end of it.
Now let’s build up the premise – an angst ridden teenage girl gets blown far away from home in a tornado to a strange new land where she must overcome several obstacles before she learns the true value of family in order to return home. Much more interesting now, isn’t it?

Take your own story. Write down who it’s about and what’s going to happen to your protagonist before s/he can achieve whatever it is s/he needs to resolve by the story’s end. Keep this initial premise simple. Think of your premise as an image or feeling that gives you enough meaning to take your hero/heroine to the goal and where the resolution of that goal will be so necessary that every step of the journey strives to be undertaken. Now, using strong verbs and nouns, enhance your premise.

Remember that your reader wants to become involved in the protagonist’s struggle to achieve a specific goal, and she wants to ‘worry’ about whether or not the hero/heroine can actually achieve that goal.

Now let’s enhance the premise even more – Dorothy, an angst ridden teenage girl, who feels out-of-place in her ordinary world, gets blown far away from her aunt and uncle’s farm in a tornado to a magical, strange new land. There she undergoes exciting events where she meets with several characters, who use their various talents to aid her in fighting a wicked witch. She finally meets up with a wizard, but he leaves before he’s able to send her back home. Only when she realizes that she has the power to save herself can she finally get home.

Stories are about people, people undergoing tremendous struggles. “What happens to the characters in the course of the story should be unusual, dramatic, and meaningful. This doesn’t mean that you have to write stories about epic wars; it’s just that you have to write about events that have impact.”[1] Impact upon the characters. Impact that propels your characters into action. Impact that produces change. Dorothy must change, that is, she must grow up, she must learn the importance of family, she must learn that even though she’s an orphan she still has an aunt and uncle who love her dearly and want her to come back home. All the unusual, dramatic, and meaningful events in the story steer her in that direction.

How can I build my own premise to that level of impact, you may very well ask? By asking yourself these questions:

1. What if? Use that what if question to start your premise, then to escalate the stakes, then to add layers to the plot and characters. What if a young girl didn’t feel like she belonged? What if a tornado blew her away from home? What if she realized that she wanted to go back? What if a wicked witch stood in her way? What if she met some interesting characters who wanted to help her but didn’t know how? What if, at the end of all her harrowing adventures, the wizard turns out to be a fraud?

2. “What’s at stake? Ask yourself this question: “If your hero/heroine wants a particular goal, and if s/he is not successful, then what?” Well, then what? That is the essence of defining what is at stake. What would be lost?” Will Dorothy ever get back home again? If she doesn’t, what happens? Why doesn’t she just live happily ever after with the munchkins? If she doesn’t go back, what happens to Auntie Em? How would her uncle and the farmhands feel? How would Dorothy feel if she never saw any of them ever again?

Take your starting premise and build it up. Question yourself as you write your new and improved premise in order to give the enhanced version more detail. Writing a premise may sound a little like making magic, but it isn’t. The magic comes not from having a flash of inspiration, but in knowing how to develop that spark into a solid story premise that will make your readers sigh with satisfaction long after they’ve put your book down.

1. Dixon, Debra. Goal, Motivation & Conflict. Gryphon Books, 1997
2. Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Writer’s Digest Books, 2001
3. Marshall, Evan. The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Writer’s Digest Books, 1998
4. Rasley, Alicia. The Story Within. Midsummer Books, 1999
5. Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998

Marcella Kampman has been writing for several years. Under her own name she has had several articles and a short, non-fiction story published. Later this year, Bayeux Arts will be publishing her young adult collection of Ancient Sumerian Myths and Legends. Marcella is a published romance author under the name of Vanessa deHart. Her first two romance novels, Promise Me, and Out of Darkness, are published by Lachesis Publishing and are available at Amazon and Fictionwise. Her third romance book, No More Lies, will be made available soon. To find out more about Marcella (aka Vanessa) check out her web page at:

[1] Maass, p.38

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