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
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
Take your own story. Write down who it’s about and what’s going
to happen to your protagonist before he/she can achieve whatever it is
he/she 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 hero’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." Impact upon the characters. Impact
that propels your characters into action, into 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:
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?
"What’s at stake? Ask yourself this question: "If your
hero/heroine wants a particular goal, and if he/she 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.
Bibliography & Recommended Reading List:
Dixon, Debra. Goal, Motivation & Conflict. Gryphon Books,
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Writer’s Digest
Marshall, Evan. The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Writer’s
Digest Books, 1998
Rasley, Alicia. The Story Within. Midsummer Books, 1999
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Michael Wiese
Marcella Kampman has been writing for several years. She has had
several articles and a short, non-fiction story published. She is a
member of ORWA (The Ottawa Romance Writers Association) and RWA (Romance
Writers of America). Her first romance novel, PROMISE ME, was written
under the penname Vanessa deHart and is available from www.LTDBooks.com
To find out more about Marcella (aka Vanessa) check out her web page at www.geocities.com/marcella_kampman