The Heroic Journey 10: The Premise, or What the Story’s About
This article is another guest post from author and former WriteAtHome writing coach, David Sims. The series discusses the common characteristics of great stories.
Any work of fiction, the Hero’s Journey or otherwise, needs a solid theme, or premise, to guide it. A movie or novel patterned on the Hero’s Journey needs three things — a premise, a Hero and an Evil One.
Hollywood script consultant Michael Hauge says a movie isn’t about everything that happened to someone, but one important thing that happened to someone. The Hero’s Journey novel is the same way – “I have one warning: Be sure that your story can be summed up to some theme,” Ayn Rand said.
The premise can be thought of as what the Hero needs to learn. If Henry McTell learns that sacrificing his marriage for a career only leaves him miserable, the premise for a novel about him would be “Personal satisfaction is more important than job satisfaction,” since that’s what he had to learn and what the reader can learn by reading the novel.
The novel would show Henry with great success at work, but a crumbling marriage and how all his career success is empty without Marja’s love. It would show him pursuing a less ambitious career track to give his marriage a higher priority in his life and finding greater happiness by doing so. By the end of the novel, he finds the satisfaction in his marriage he couldn’t get from his job.
Big warning here: don’t start with a premise. (“I want to write a novel showing that people should help those less fortunate.”) Writers who do that end up with preachy, artificial novels. Trust me. Start with a good story and as you write you’ll realize what you’re saying. The premise will emerge.
So why is a premise important? Because it shows you what belongs in your story and what doesn’t. You can’t write a novel simply about things happening without these events working towards an end, and only a premise should direct the actions. If the action in our example novel doesn’t lead to a happy marriage as more satisfying to Henry than professional accomplishment, it doesn’t belong in the novel.
Without a premise any story is out of control, weak and aimless. It gets episodic, rambling, boring, and meaningless – just one event after another.
Next week we’ll find out how to find your premise.