Thursday, March 19, 2015

Problems with the Premise 1: Backstory and goals

To achieve an important Goal, the Protagonist must Act and overcome Obstacles, or Calamity will occur and she/he will not get what she/he Wants and/or Needs.

Not too difficult or complex, right? There are six or seven elements to be filled in. You can try it out with famous movies.

To save Tara, Scarlett must fight union troops and carpetbaggers, feed her family, get the crop in, marry men with money, and run a business, or Tara, her family, and much of what she holds dear will be destroyed.
To save the rebel alliance, Luke must escape Tatooine, rescue a princess, learn Jedi skills, and destroy the Death Star or his friends, the leadership of the alliance, and a planet will be destroyed.
To win the love of her life (Sam), Annie must discover his identity, send a note that stands out from many competitors, defy advice and her own sense of what’s reasonable, dump a fiancĂ©, and make it to the top of the Empire State Building before it closes or she will end up settling for a life that has only a pale shadow of the true happiness she longs for.
Okay, all of those could be improved, and none delve into important subplots, but they should demonstrate how a premise can come together. It is hard to write a good premise, and making one that is compelling is an art that even some wonderful writers have a difficult time mastering.
John Marlow has an excellent lesson and example (JURRASSIC PARK) on writing loglines (all of which explore and articulate premise) worthy of your attention. I’ll go at this from a different angle, what can go wrong, but first one more.
To go the distance in a prize fight with the champ, a washed-up fighter Rocky, must work with a hostile coach, deflect mocking press and naysayers, train physically and mentally, and handle powerful punches in the ring, or he will be humiliated and lose his only chance to demonstrate his quality as a person to his community.
In this last one, as opposed to the others, I slipped in some backstory. It is important to our understanding that this is a redemption story. The others didn’t seem to need any backstory, but this one cried out for it.
Most writers are in love with backstory, and it can be fatal to a clear premise. It distracts. It confuses. It can hide weaknesses. And I often get premises from students that have more words devoted to what has happened before the story began than to what happens in the story. It is great to know the backstory. Focusing too much on it can misdirect the writing. Solution: Create a version of the premise with no backstory.
Another common problem is the Goal. If it is too generic or (for a commercial story) only internal, it won’t work. Michael Hauge recommends testing goals by asking, can you take a picture of it? Crossing a finish line. Slaying a dragon. Bedding an object of affection. Graduating from college. Escaping prison. All of these qualify.
Learning a lesson? Adjusting to old age? Finding peace and self-acceptance? All of these are good things that may lousy Goals in a premise.
Saving Tara means restoring the house and farm and paying the taxes. Crops growing, fresh paint, and handing over the tax money can all be photographed. Destroying a Death Star is a vivid, memorable image. Sam, Annie, and Jonah taking the elevator down TOGETHER (as a family) is a visible statement of Annie winning the love of her life. Rocky still standing after the last round is the picture we’ve been waiting for through most of the movie.
Now, there is no picture of Scarlett paying off the taxes or Sam and Annie marrying, but that has more to do with cinematic presentation than story. In either case, these scenes would have fit and been accepted by audiences.
Premise, it seems, is a little more complicated than it first appears to be. And problems show up for the other elements, too. I’ll cover some of these in the next blog post.
Upcoming classes

April 15-April 29 Story Bootcamp (face-to-face) Westchester Community College
April 20-May 25 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) 
May 1-May 29 Bigger Stories (online) 

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