Friday, March 27, 2015

Problems with the Premise 2 - Actions and Obstacles

Last time I wrote about the elements of a good premise, and I discussed problems writers have in adding backstory and establishing goals.

The formulation for a premise is this:

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.

And you can find several examples from movies in my previous post.

Some writers have problems with what they include in the action. While how the Protagonist Acts my be expressed in a very net way in the premise, here are the general requirements for action:

  • Actions should be visible, defined, and often time-bound. 
  • They are not internal (decisions, changes in perspectives, new understandings, feelings, opinions, values, or knowledge), although these may mix in.
  • The actions that the protagonist takes must involve sacrifice. 
  • They must be difficult and get more difficult as the story progresses. 
  • There must be a coherence and reason for the order of the steps taken.
  • They can involve convincing, compelling, tricking, or commanding someone else to act in a visible, defined way, though this often leads to problems with a lack of investment by the main character. 
  • They can also involve stopping someone from acting, but this needs to be done by way of a scene that involves conflict that's usually more than a simple argument is almost certainly more than providing knowledge that could have been provided earlier in the story.
  • Actions should be distinct. A common problem is repeating the same action (such as escaping from bad guys) over and over again.

The Obstacles can cause problems for writers, too.

Most often, the obstacles are too easy (and the risk is too low). As above, it's not good if the problem can be solved with a simple conversation. Having someone else solve the problem (except when they do it for an onerous price) can feel like a cheat, bordering on deus ex machine. 

It's good to remember that the more extreme the challenges are and the more difficulty the protagonist faces, the better the story. If, even in the premise, it seems as if the task is impossible, you'll hook readers. So take the protagonist out of his or her comfort zone. Keep raising the stakes.

Next time, I'll conclude the look at the premise with some thoughts on Calamity, Needs, and Wants.

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