Jeanne: Story vs. Premise

One of the things we studied at McDaniel College was the difference between a premise and a story.

A premise is an idea. defines it as “a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion.” It comes from two Latin words meaning “to put before.” So, basically, it’s the underlying idea that supports your story–and has to come before you can build your story.

A story, according to Aristotle, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories also have characters, settings and plots.

Your premise asks the question, “What if…?” Your story answers that question.

L.M. Montgomery got the idea for Anne of Green Gables when she saw an article in her local paper about an orphanage that mistakenly sent a child of the wrong gender to a family looking for a child to help out around the house. (The adoption business was apparently pretty fast-and-loose in those days.)

Robert Louis Stevens once drew a map to pass the time on a rainy vacation. The map inspired Treasure Island.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came to 16-year-old C.S. Lewis as a daydream.

Jules Verne got the idea for Around the World in 80 Days from a newspaper advertisement offering such a trip.

A lot of my writer friends complain that it’s tough to come up with ideas, but once they have an idea they can run a marathon with it.

I’m just the opposite. Premises grow like weeds in my brain (probably thrive in all that manure). It’s story that’s tough for me. Figuring out what kinds of characters and plot will allow my ieas to blossom into full-blown stories is like trying to make fire from flint. If all I had to do was strike rocks together and generate sparks, it would be great. But there’s that whole mess with tinder and twigs and small branches and making sure there’s enough oxygen and…. Okay, that metaphor’s getting away from me.

Not all premises (even really cool exciting ones) turn into stories. An idea may grab me, but investigation reveals that the characters don’t have what it takes to grow and change the way they need to for a satisfying story. Or, sometimes the premise has difficulties built into it that I’m just not smart enough to get around.

Fifteen years ago I started working on a historical novel set in Minnesota lumber country in 1894. The premise was that Lucy, my young protagonist, wanted to become a photojournalist. Her dream put her at cross-purposes with the conservative young editor of the town newspaper, so I had the conflict I needed for the romance piece. The technology to print half-tone photographs on rotary presses had just been invented, so I thought I could make it work. As I did further research, though, I discovered that, for a variety of reasons, photographs didn’t replace line drawings in newspapers for nearly 40 years. I love that character, (I love Lucy!) but I’ve never figured out how to give her story a happy ending.

I could list a dozen other stories that never got off the launch pad, but you get the idea.

What’s your process for turning premises into stories? Or do you even go about it that way?

10 thoughts on “Jeanne: Story vs. Premise

  1. I’m feeling bad that you couldn’t turn Lucy into a story. I’m thinking you could, if you’d be willing to make some adjustments to your premise. I think more brainstorming is called for! And soon we’ll be in New York. Let’s order out for pizza and get to work on that one.

    I don’t really have premises in the way you’re describing. I get one idea at a time, and when it occurs to me, however scanty it is, there’s usually enough there that I can go with it. I write those quirky contemporaries, so I’m looking for borderline outlandish situations, and in this particular case, I got the idea of a defrocked CIA agent who espies, so to speak, a crook out in plain sight whom no one else can spot. She wants her job back, so…and then I’m off and running.

    I think you’re lucky to have so many ideas—that would seem to give you a lot of things to play with. And again—New York. Pizza. Brainstorming.

  2. I’d love that, Kay. I wrote that book with no discernible plot and the half-dozen people who read it 12 years ago still bug me to finish it. Lucy is far-and-away the most likeable protagonist I’ve ever written and I’d love to rescue her from the drawer.

  3. I’m with you — I get a lot of premises, and I’m lucky if I can bring them to short story stage, let alone fill a whole novel with one premise. It really is the characters that grow the book, I think.

    BTW, as you know, I’m doing a lot with my photojournalist. She’s in New York City, and there were plenty of magazines, as well as Sunday supplements that were publishing photos. All you need is one visionary out in the wilds . . . . At least one of my great-grandfathers was taking pictures and had his own darkroom out in rural Nebraska (never published anything). And that area was famous for a rather bad photographer who took pictures of EVERYTHING and turned out to be a great boon for historians. The 1890s was the age of the New Woman, and so if she can find a part-time job (taking wedding and baby photos, maybe? Class photographs?), she could also take news photos.

    How close is she to the Twin Cities?

    (-: Just kicking out some ideas. I think you can get by with a weak premise if the characters are fantastic. But, a fantastic premise just kind of sits there without characters to enact it.

    • Hinckley is about 75 miles from the Twin Cities. And they had two different trains that ran through Hinckley, between Duluth and the Cities. The fire occurred at the height of Nellie Bly’s popularity. She even showed up in Hinckley after the fire. As of the time of the fire, half-tone reproductions had appeared in American newspapers exactly three times–in 1880 (New York Daily Graphic), 1884 (Philadelphia Sunday Mercury) and May, 1894 (Boston Journal). Enough to show it could be done. Three years later the Chicago Tribune began a regular illustrated Sunday section called “The Half-Tone Part.” By 1900, half-tones were in common use, but there was lots of resistance. Ugh, I feel an epilogue coming on.

      • Ah. I’m in 1899, which is five years later. I’m seeing portraits and settings in The New York Morning Telegraph, and also the New-York Tribune’s Sunday papers, off the top of my head. I’m not seeing photojournalism, per se. I suspect the cameras are not fast enough. Lots of actresses, and some houses and some train cars/cable cars.

        Frank Leslie’s magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and some other magazines are supposed to be well-known for photographs, but I haven’t been able to access these freely. Just photos here and there in library archives once in a while.

        I believe, but I’d have to research it to make sure I’m right, that some illustrators for newspapers were drawing from photographs. So, that might be a potential avenue. Whatshername, Frances from Washington, Frances Benjamin Johnston, was both a photographer and an illustrator.

        I’m really interested, though, in what the Hinckley newspapers looked at at the time. I was kind of surprised that some of the New York papers seem really, really thin. (So many editions? I haven’t had time to dig into the whys.)

        I am on such a Nellie Bly kick right now. By 1899, she was running a steel business into the ground (-:. But she may have a cameo part in my story.

        (-: I remember my journalism profs saying photos in newspapers were the wave of the future, particularly color. But they really put their trust in print and words. So, there’s a long tradition of photo-hate in the news biz. Steals columns from writers (-:.

        What if you placed it on a different planet that has undergone a terrible tragedy, knocking it back into the stone age, but when you start the story, they are at the “steam punk” era? LOL. Steampunk. My solution of the week.

        • In other words, I need to pick your brain — probably off-blog, and when we both get a little time to shoot the breeze. I will try to collect my thoughts tomorrow and e-mail you! If you don’t have time, don’t worry about it; I’ll be working on this for weeks . . . .

        • Back when I was doing the research, I ordered the Hinckley papers for 1894 through interlibrary loan on microfilm and printed out the local column. Do you want me to scan some pages and email them to you?

          It was a weekly paper, typically ran 8 pages, I think. Angus Hay, the editor, was a local figure, a mover and shaker in that little town. I’ve always kind of pictured the paper as a one-man operation. The front page was national news–he must have had some kind of wire service.

        • (-: Yes, but just the first page of one would be enough. I’d like to see the masthead and how the columns and print went, just because I’m a goof.

          I wonder when the Associated Press went into business — I noticed there are a lot of “specials” to the New York Tribune from farflung correspondents, and I believe there was some mention of Nellie Bly writing for her hometown newspaper while in New York. It really is amazing how “modern” the newsroom was by the 1900s. I began writing with a bit of a 1840s sound in my head, but after more research, I realized that Americans were probably a lot more slangy and casual than what I had in my head.

          (-: OK, taking it to email.

  4. Jeanne, I got the idea for The Traitor from a news story I saw years ago about an American soldier who had been held hostage. I started thinking “what if” and eventually wound up with a story. I’d probably never be able to retrace the path I took to get from that initial news story to my current story, but I do know where it all started.

    Like Michaeline, I get lots and lots of ideas, but the majority of them don’t even make it to the short-story stage. I note them all down though. You never know when one idea will spark another, or when seemingly unrelated ideas will turn into a bigger picture.

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