Friday, April 3, 2015

Problems with the Premise 3: Calamity, needs and wants

A premise can be a strong foundation for storytelling, ensuring the key elements are understood and articulated. Unfortunately, writing a good premise isn't easy. There are lots of ways writers can go wrong. I've already discussed Backstory and Goals and Actions and Obstacles in previous posts.

As a reminder, 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.

This time, we'll look at Calamity.

Damon Knight once told me that, as long as there are other options, a hero facing the loss of a job is not a calamity. Taking this further, any loss that can be replaced in a reasonable way does not create sufficient stakes for most commercial stories. 

One way to get around this is to add other elements. If the loss of the job means a child's life or death operation cannot be paid for, that's a calamity. Looking at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the consequences of job loss are pretty fundamental. Similarly, if losing the job will inevitably lead to divorce, this may be calamitous. 

Does an actor losing the job he loves on a soap opera count as calamitous? Probably not. Yes, the part he was born to play, the true expression of his talent is gone forever -- but most readers don't get much chance for self-expression in their jobs, so they aren't likely to feel too sorry for him. 

Does a politician being voted out of office seem like disaster? Not likely. She can serve society in other roles, and readers understand that.

Of course, there are losses other than job losses that need a closer look. Losing a car carries less weight than losing a beloved grandfather's watch. Losing your hair, even if it is just before the senior prom, is less grave than losing your leg. Any pure loss that is attached to the top of the hierarchy is questionable in commercial fiction, if it stands alone. These are what some people term "first world problems."

There is one important exception -- comedy. It is perfectly fine to have the protagonist see something minor as a tragedy and obsess about it. Comedy often puts the audience in a superior position while still eliciting a measure of empathy.

What can you do if the consequences of failure are too slight? First, you might want to take a closer look at your premise. If it is inherently weak, there may be no saving it. On the other hand, it may have strengths and you may be able to push the premise so it becomes more powerful. 

I was going to conclude with protagonist Needs and Wants, but I'll save that until next time.

Upcoming classes

April 15-April 29 Story Bootcamp (face-to-face) Westchester Community College
May 1-May 29 Bigger Stories (online) 

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