CHAPTER 2: Plot
Just as most of the metals with which a blacksmith works are amalgams and alloys, a novel is generally said to have three constituents: plot, characterization, and setting.8 Plot is the author’s contrivance of storyline, its narrative structure. Characterization is the act of establishing identity, creating the ‘people’ populating the novel. Setting is the location wherein the novel takes place, and includes landscape as well as atmosphere, and mood or tone. The internal landscape of a character is also tremendously important as a “setting.” But the essence of a novel goes beyond these constituents. A novel is an organic whole, a living being, so to speak. Not only was Hephaestus the god of fire, who made armor for Achilles, he was also the craftsman who created the first woman, Pandora. The novelsmith should also view the creation of his novel as the creation a living thing. Everything in it contributes to its life. What doesn’t contribute to that life doesn’t belong, and should be removed. As Aristotle stated 2300 years ago:
[The story] must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposition or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.9
That pretty well isolates the story from everything not part of it. And you can keep most of the extraneous material from ever getting into your novel by knowing your entire storyline, doing all the plotting, before you start writing.
You might say that the initial plotting is a little like the blacksmith, or perhaps the metallurgist before him, taking the raw ore and heating it in his hearth until the pure metal separates from the slag. If you don’t do this work early, all the impurities you leave in will weaken your storyline and compromise the final work.
To expand a little, plot is the author’s ordered contrivance of storyline in the interest of furthering the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience. Plotting is a lengthy process, much of which will occur while writing the novel, but the bulk should be done up front before you put any of the actual words on paper. Avoid the temptation to start writing when you first get an idea. Holding off until you thoroughly know your entire storyline allows you to be on top of the story instead of totally within it. This gives the author perspective and the confidence to write with authority. Delaying the writing also minimizes mistakes, ensures that the author knows what to put in and leave out, but more importantly, it stores the creative energy so it can explode on the page. As the novelsmith, you can swing your hammer with confidence. Plotting allows you to develop story strategy as opposed to simply supplying a sequence of events littered with facts. Plotting up front separates the metal from the slag.
So how do you get a handle on this plotting process? The answer is that every story has a kernel from which everything else builds.
THE SECRET BEHIND PLOTTING
The first step in plotting is to establish the core of the story around which everything will evolve. This central core is known in the industry as the Premise.
Definition: Premise, a proposition to be proved; a basis of argument.
Premise is the Rosetta Stone for decoding the entire idea and getting it into the form of a novel. A Premise forms the core of every meaningful story. In the same spirit as the proverbial grain of sand that contains the history of the universe, so the Premise contains the motivating force behind everything in the novel, and is the author’s guiding light for what to put in and leave out.10
Since the Premise is the “seed” from which your novel will grow, it contains the genetic material for the entire tree. Only then will it have a strong trunk (storyline), develop branches (subplots), flower (generate ideas), and in the end, bear fruit (prove its point). Henry James explained the effect of having a good Premise this way:
One’s luck was to have felt one’s subject right—whether [by] instinct or calculation…; and the circumstance even amounts perhaps to a little lesson that when this has happily occurred faults may show, faults may disfigure, and yet not upset the work. It remains in equilibrium by having found its centre, the point of command of all the rest. From this centre the subject has been treated, from this centre the interest has spread, and so, whatever else it may do or may not do, the thing has acknowledged a principle of composition and contrives to at least hang together.11
James’ statement emphasizes the point that every story should be more than just a sequence of events. It must have the intellectual core that will hold it together, a core that provides meaning. We’ll discuss “meaning” in more detail later, but keep in mind that every novel has a point to make. Any event that sticks in your mind does so for a reason, and that reason is that it means something to you. What, you may not quite be able to articulate, but it does.
Henry James aside, all this has undoubtedly started to degenerate into obscurities that you can’t quite see how to put into practice, so let’s set this rather philosophical discussion aside and make it really simple. The Premise in its essence is conflict. And conflict can be expressed in three words:
X versus Y
Example: Good overcomes Evil
Again, first and foremost, Premise is about conflict. That’s what sets the forces in motion (starts the novel) and leads to resolution (ends the novel). You must have a Premise to have a novel at all. Until you have one, you’re just stoking a dead fire. Hidden within the Premise are both main characters and the central conflict. This may sound startling, but it’s the nature of conflict. Conflict occurs because of opposing wills. These “wills” may be two individuals, two families (as in a family feud), two countries (as in war), etc. The possibilities are endless. If you want an image for the Premise: two bighorn sheep butting heads during rut.
My friend with the character who found a suitcase of money couldn’t find his story because he didn’t have a Premise. No one opposed his character’s desire to keep the money. If he brought in a drug lord, he’d be in business.
The reason I say that you should first have an idea for a novel is that it’s practically impossible to start with a Premise; the Premise is ambiguous by nature. If you have an idea for a novel first, then you can use the principle behind the Premise to uncover the hidden elements and fully develop it into a well-rounded story.
If the Premise is viewed as the key, then the idea is the locked door that must be opened to expose all the elements of the story. Using this key, the first word of the Premise gives us the protagonist, the third the antagonist. The second word contains the conflict and its result. These three elements are immediately revealed through examination of the Premise. Since novels are about conflict, the conflict must be “locked” early in the story, thus setting the characters in motion. Some movie makers are so anxious to lock the conflict that they do so before the titles roll. The story ends when the conflict is resolved.
As an example, let’s say you want to write a novel about a young woman who loves children. As far as this idea goes, it isn’t a story because it has no conflict. It has a character, possibly the protagonist, but no story. If you further state that the woman can’t have children because she is sterile, we then at least have conflict. The woman’s emotional needs are in conflict with her biological state, and we have the beginning of a story, although we don’t yet have a full Premise, because we don’t know the nature of her biological problem and how she overcomes or succumbs to her physical limitations. If you say that she is sterile because her husband forced her to have surgery, we have uncovered more of the Premise because we know the antagonist, the husband, but we still don’t know the outcome. If you say that she divorces her husband, has her surgery reversed, and has a child by artificial insemination, then we have a full story.
I’ll not go into the multitude of possible Premises inherent in this simple story, but I will provide a couple of attempts at defining it. A very simple Premise might be “wife overcomes husband,” which is character-oriented. “Good overcomes evil” is another possible Premise, and this time it is cosmic in its scope. A further possibility is “determination overcomes control,” which is psychology related. The main thing you should get from this example is how to work with a Premise to develop your idea.
At this point, you might want to consider other novels, movies or plays you admire to determine whether you can uncover a possible Premise for each. Remember that the Premise is a working tool for the craftsman. It insures that your efforts are rewarded by a full-bodied story.
With this example behind us, let’s look at some possibilities for a Premise. Keep in mind that conflict creates a tension that gives the story an inevitable sense of forward motion and puts on the brakes when it is resolved at the end. Here are some examples of a “three-word” Premise:
Intelligence overcomes stupidity.
Anarchy overcomes order.
Forbidden love destroys the lovers. (Romeo and Juliet?)
Jealousy destroys the person. (Othello?)
Unbridled ambition destroys the person. (Macbeth?)
Faith conquers pride.
Intelligence overcomes superstition.
Procrastination destroys the person. (Hamlet?)
Poverty destroys society.
Love overcomes hatred.
The order of each of these, and thus the outcome, could be reversed. The number of possibilities is endless.
The Premise not only provides conflict, but also takes sides in that conflict. By doing this, the Premise provides meaning and exposes an underlying truth, or what the author believes to be a truth. And now we come to one of the great paradoxes of novel writing:
The Premise is never specifically stated.
The Premise, although it is the “be all and end all” of storytelling, will never be explicitly stated in the novel. If it is stated explicitly, you will be preaching to your reader. The reader must be left on his own to form his opinion of what the subject matter means. The author can only go so far down the road to get his meaning across.
To make sure you understand the concept of Premise, let’s approach the origin of your Premise one more time:
Question: How and where do you find your Premise?
Answer: You must uncover the Premise from within your idea for the novel.
The idea will usually, but not always, come first. You’ll pull some event from your life experience or elsewhere, and then start looking for meaning and a Premise. The Premise will seem trivial, but it will take on greater significance within the full context of the novel. As you develop all the elements, you should always return to the Premise for guidance. You will get tired of thinking about Premise before it is all over, but don’t let your irritation get the better of you. Your ability to handle the Premise will either make or break you as a novelsmith.
EXAMPLES FROM STORIES WE ALL KNOW
The conflict can be internal to a single individual, as in Dostoeveky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is in conflict with himself. He eventually turns himself in for murdering two sisters. In the movie Groundhog Day, the Premise might be stated as: “man overcomes his own base nature,” or in three words: “man overcomes himself.” One might suppose God is the teacher giving Phil the chance to live one day over and over until he gets it right. Phil’s conflict is with himself. He can’t get past his own base self to win the girl he loves.
It can be a conflict between two rights (which turns out to be the most philosophically profound) as in the Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep movie Kramer vs. Kramer. Both parents love their child and have a right to custody. Note that the conflict is expressed in this movie’s title and that it relates to the Premise. But it doesn’t tell the outcome, so it isn’t the Premise. So what is the Premise? Could it be “altruism overcomes personal need”? That might be it for Meryl Streep’s character, but I’m sure you can come up with many more that apply.
Since the Premise is about conflict between opposing wills, let’s say a few words about what does not fit this pattern. Frequently, we hear adventure stories expressed as “man versus the mountain.” But a mountain has no will, so this is not even a true conflict. A man or woman struggling to climb a mountain is struggling against his or her own will and physical limitations. This is an internal struggle, and can be covered by Premise quite easily as “man overcomes himself.” You might say that the will to continue overcomes the desire to turn back. In this same vein, “man overcomes lion” is a worthy Premise, because a lion has a will and can stalk the man just the same as can a serial killer.
Remember that the Premise will expose character and the nature of the conflict, as well as dictate the beginning and end of the story. It exposes character because the individuals who are in conflict care deeply about what they are in conflict over. The way they deal with the conflict, i.e., whether they want to argue or grab a gun, exposes character. The story starts when the conflict is locked, and ends when it is resolved.
The Premise may, and usually does, raise a question of universal significance. The movie Star Wars has a cosmic landscape because of “The Force,” and has universal significance because of the struggle between good and evil. The universal question raised concerns the relationship between good and evil. Which is the most powerful? Which is the right path to follow? The universal comes from the particular. Luke, the embodiment of “good,” is a single human being engaged in a battle against Darth Vader, the embodiment of the “evil” or “dark side” of the Force.
A Premise will exist for each sub-conflict (subplot) in the novel. This then defines what a subplot is: a secondary conflict between opposing wills. All subplots must also be resolved by the end of the novel. This is what we commonly call “tying up all the loose ends.” Realizing that each subplot is essentially a conflict that must be locked in the beginning (or close to it) and resolved at the end (or close to it) provides the author with a handle to manage all the sub-conflicts.
Something that may not be immediately obvious is that Premise always, at least on a metaphoric level, connotes cosmic forces at work and provides the spiritual level necessary to insure you’ll capture the full human experience. It may contain a moral, although that is not necessary. It may be optimistic, pessimistic, or simply state the way the world works. In the movie Titanic, the cosmic conflict is “God destroys arrogance.” This conflict is locked when Cal (Rose’s fiancé) says, “Even God couldn’t sink the Titanic.” The principle human conflict in the story is between Rose and Cal. Rose is the protagonist, Cal the antagonist. This conflict is locked when Rose boards the Titanic and likens it to a slave ship with she herself being taken aboard in chains. The Premise for this conflict is “freedom overcomes bondage.” The word “freedom” tells us a lot about Rose as a character. We know she craves freedom above all else. The word “bondage” also tells us a lot about her mother and her fiancé. They believe Rose should bow to society’s demands and their own requirements of her. The word “overcomes” also tells us the ending of the story. We know Rose will escape to live her life to its fullest. The screenwriter knows the outcome before he starts writing, but the audience will only learn the full nature of the Premise at the end.
The Premise is elusive, and your impression of it may change throughout the development of the novel. Still, you need to make a guess at the start to organize your material and develop a complete storyline. Writing a novel is an iterative process. That’s why having a synopsis before starting the actual writing of the novel is crucial. The synopsis is the first cut at the complete storyline.
A quick word about Premise and its relationship to Jungian psychology, since you might have the feeling that we’ve gone a bit far afield. You can rest assured that Premise does have its roots in Jungian psychology, as I will describe in detail in Chapter 10, “Psychology of Creativity.” As a preview, I’ll say that the source of creativity within us is hidden away in the subconscious. Access to this portion of the psyche is through a gate guarded by a “presence” that is in conflict with our conscious self. This internal conflict is voiced though the projection of conflict into our thoughts and daily activities; it wants all these conflicts resolved through a process known as “talking it to death.” Throughout eternity, this internal process has manifested in storytelling. Our conscious selves, together with the contrary presence standing at the gateway into the subconscious, and the argument that ensues, has the essence of Premise.
Now that we have defined the Premise, which gives us the principal characters, identifies the primary conflict, and provides the beginning and ending of the novel, we can start to uncover more of the novel’s structure. First of all, a novel is a little like a life, and this metaphor isn’t so far afield from our blacksmith analogy, because a novel is immortal. It lives long after the novelsmith has passed away. In ancient Greece, fire was known for its immortality producing effects. I’ll provide a single reference to illustrate this. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the goddess Demeter places Demophoon, a mortal child, in the hearth fire to make him immortal, but Metaneira, the child’s mother, catches the goddess doing this and screams in protest, not understanding the goddess’s intent. So the novelsmith’s hearth seems to be the correct place for the birth of a novel. The apparent paradox is that, though the novel suffers a death in that it does end, it lives eternally, or at least as long as one book exists. Conflict and adversity are these “fires of life” that produce immortality. The Premise can then be viewed as the fire within the novelsmith’s forge.
So let’s look at a life to uncover the analogous elements that might tell us something about the novel. Life has a beginning (birth) and an ending (death). The birth of a novel is locking the conflict through the coming together of the protagonist and the antagonist, a little like the sperm and the egg. The end of the novel, through conflict resolution, is its death. The story is over, finished, its life expended. This, then, is the basic structure of a novel.
But, we can further expand the structure. Remember in what follows that the Premise never appears as an explicit part of the novel. The Premise is the unseen force driving it. Structure comes from the natural elements of storytelling. Applying it to your idea will open it up and reveal the depth of your own story.12
THE NOVEL DIAGRAM
To help visualize the structure of a novel, all the major plot events and resulting actions are shown in Figure 2 and explained in the following narrative.
a. Beginning: Putting the Characters in Motion
First thing on the agenda is to lock the conflict. The modern American novel will generally have some event at the beginning that puts the main characters in conflict, and thus, sets them in motion. You might say that this activates the Premise. Some call this “the hook,” because it hooks, or engages, the reader’s interest, but this term doesn’t necessarily relate to conflict or define the relationship of the initial “hook” to the rest of the story. Locking the central conflict defines the scope of the story, and the hook better accomplish this or it is superfluous. To the extent that the conflict is delayed from the start of the narrative, the reader will puzzle over what the story is about, and thus, whether or not he is interested.13
b. First Plot Point
One quarter of the way into the novel, a major event occurs that deepens the conflict and takes the story in a new direction, a direction in which the story will continue for the rest of the novel. It exposes the true nature of the central conflict. It will be an unexpected addition to the storyline and renew the reader’s interest. This constitutes the end of the beginning. Nothing really new about the plot will be introduced from here on. All the main characters must be on stage at this point. In Groundhog Day, the first plot point occurs when Phil wakes the second morning to find that the holiday is repeating. This is the first plot point, and the rest of the movie follows that format. In the movie Titanic, this is where Rose contemplates suicide while standing over the railing at the edge of the ship.
The concept of a “First Plot Point” has a rather remarkable connection with ancient Greek religion. The ancient Greeks realized that life is punctuated by a few major events, such as puberty, that constitute life transitions. Cult initiation ceremonies within the ancient religion defined the nature of these events, and helped the initiate make the life transition. For the women of Attica, this took the form of a symbolic death ritual at puberty, which was held at Brauron on the eastern coast. The girls “danced the Bear” and sacrificed a she-goat that represented their maiden selves. This was the transformation of the maiden into full womanhood, and was visualized as the death of the maiden she had been and as well as her rebirth as a young woman. She was still the same person, but transformed. You might say she’d reached the end of the beginning of her life.
Using the analogy of a novel as a life would then mean that the novel should also undergo this transformation, if it is to become fully formed and adult in scope. The conflict locked in the beginning must be transformed into one of greater significance, thus forcing greater character involvement. Just as ancient women underwent the initiation at puberty, the one-quarter point of their life, so the novel will undergo this conflict transformation at the one-quarter point. This is “the end of the beginning,” and as the confrontation escalates for the next quarter of the novel, the characters play out the consequences of Plot Point 1.
c. Mid-Novel Reversal
Perhaps the most difficult task for the beginning and advanced storyteller is preventing the mid-novel sag. A novel is a long narrative art form, and reader interest can only be maintained by constant change. This means that the nature of the conflict, not just the intensity of it, must also change. Some changes in the storyline will be greater than others, and this is one of the largest changes. But this change isn’t anything artificial that must be superimposed on the novel structure. This reversal occurs because of the nature of prolonged conflict. In a short story, this change may not be present at all. A long story undergoes a subtle but profound change halfway through. Generally, this will be a reversal in the primary conflict. One might say that the reason a long story has a tendency to sag in the middle is that the storyteller isn’t fully aware of the nuances in his storyline. Said another way, the reason a certain story may be long is that it has this reversal at its midpoint.
Up until the midpoint, one character, protagonist or antagonist, will be the aggressor. After it, the opposite character will be the aggressor. In Titanic, the ship floats for the first half of the movie (the builders represent the aggressor), but right in the middle of the movie, it hits an iceberg and sinks for the second half of the movie (God is the aggressor). In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the Indians chase the white men for the first half of the novel, and the white men chase the Indians for the second half. The writers for the television series Law and Order always lock the conflict (usually the discovery the body) before the main actors come on the scene, and they go to the first commercial. One half-hour into the show (the mid point), they always handcuff the suspect, and the police turn the case over to the lawyers. In the movie Jaws, the fish chases the people for the first half, and they chase the fish the second half. Everywhere you look, you will find other examples.
d. Second Plot Point
The second plot point occurs three quarters of the way through the novel. This event leads directly to the resolution of the conflict. This is the point at which one of the opposing forces is revealed to be the stronger, and also when the Premise is confirmed. But it is still a little short of conflict resolution, which occurs at the end. What is absolutely essential here is that the protagonist exhibit “the agony of choice.” At this point in Titanic, Rose is aboard the lifeboat with her mother, headed for a life of servitude. Suddenly, she comes to her senses, realizes she is making a mistake, and climbs out of the lifeboat and back onto Titanic to be with Jack. Cameron stretches out the scene by swelling the music while Rose agonizes over her decision. Again, she shows her willingness to risk everything to get what she wants. Jack is her symbol of freedom.
When viewing the novel as a life, as we did earlier, the second plot point has a “life” altering impact just as had the first plot point. The novel can now see the end of its life, and it is looking forward, more than ever, to the meaning of it all, but it is also looking backward to pull on what it has learned during its “life.” This might be termed the “point of wisdom,” because the novel has matured throughout its life, and is now alluding to that truth that lies above itself, that rather divine truth that is only exposed through an ironic stance. The fires of life have had their effect, and the novel is now becoming immortal, though it is about to suffer death in resolution.
Human beings, in the later stages of life, tend to think back on their lives and reminisce through storytelling, to explore their own mythology. The events of the novel have now become myth within the novel itself, and the novel will tend to look back on itself and see the events metaphorically.
e. The End: Conflict Resolution
Novelists (and screenwriters) have no end of problems with endings. Generally, this is because they do not understand their Premise. Premise dictates the outcome at the end. All the elements of the story, including main characters, conflict, setting, have been selected to fulfill the Premise. At the end, one of the two major forces in the novel overcomes the other, according to the dictates of the Premise. This is what is generally called the climax. The author, who has done his plotting well, knows the end of the story before he ever puts pencil to paper, because he believes in his Premise. He may, however, struggle over the way his ending comes about.
The only thing that may occur after conflict resolution is the revelation of its effects, the denouement. At the end of Titanic, we see pictures of Rose throughout her life, depicting all her accomplishments brought about through exercising the freedom of choice she learned about from Jack. If, in the end, Rose had left the dock with Cal, the entire audience would have groaned. Instead, she hid her face from Cal and turned away. James Cameron knew the end of the movie before he wrote the screenplay. I’d bet my house on it.
One of the most famous endings of all novels is in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s world has collapsed, and he killed in a case of mistaken identity perpetrated by Gatsby’s girlfriend’s husband. Nick, the narrator of Gatsby’s story, ruminates over what has happened:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms father…. And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.14
Nick has started to reminisce over the events that have unfolded, to draw conclusions, and has developed a philosophy. He sees a truth emerging from what has happened around him and has developed an ironic stance that alludes to a complex truth that can only be seen when the entire novel is viewed as a whole. From his stance above the events at the end of the novel, Nick has gained a certain wisdom that can only be expressed through irony. As Colebrook puts it:
Perhaps wisdom requires irony: not speaking literally and explicitly, recognizing that there is always more to what we say.15
This has been Fitzgerald’s intent from the beginning: to demonstrate a basic truth about the human condition, which he has formulated with his Premise. At the end, Fitzgerald has resorted to an ironic metaphor, “boats against the current,” to convey the philosophical impact of the events on his character.
Fitzgerald has also used dramatic irony because he has given the reader clues so that he might see beyond Nick’s insightful comments. Gatsby was never “great.” He was, after all, a bootlegger, a drug dealer and wife stealer. He was a common criminal, a gangster really, who was victimized by his own acts. We’ll discuss irony in detail in Chapter 5.
Every well-written novel will have three levels of Premise, a Premise Trinity. First, there’s the cosmic Premise (e.g., good versus evil), then the story Premise (e.g., freedom overcomes bondage), and then the character Premise (e.g., self-determination overcomes society’s demands). These are three aspects of the same Premise, although each may have a different outcome. In Titanic, the cosmic struggle is between the divine forces of good and evil, and this struggle remains unresolved. The story Premise is the Titanic’s struggle to stay afloat. The Titanic loses. The character premise is Rose’s attempt to throw off the bonds of her mother and her fiancé and live her own life. Rose wins.
Each subplot could potentially also have a full set of Premises. From this, you can now understand the complexity of a novel’s underlying structure, and the reason novels, or any story for that matter, are so variously interpreted. You may also be able to understand the multitude of reasons why so many novels and movies fall short of their promise. Few writers really understand the underlying structure inherent in a novel or screenplay.
Chances are you’ve seen all of these movies and read these novels, never realizing the structure underneath. That’s the nature of plotting. Story structure disappears behind events, just the same as a home’s framework isn’t visible under drywall, paint, and texturing. A novelsmith, or any advanced storyteller for that matter, can’t afford to operate solely on intuition. That’s the reason some novels fail so miserably. The authors haven’t built the framework, and actually don’t understand the nature of storytelling. But don’t paste the storyline artifacts onto your story. Examine your story to uncover these turns of events, and place them where they should occur.
Henry James provides us with another example, this one concerning the plotting of his novel, The American, and I’ve included it as Attachment II. In just a couple of paragraphs, James describes how the idea for the novel came to him, and how he plotted it on the spot. It just goes to show that, when you know your craft, an idea can be turned into a plotted novel almost immediately.
HOW TO ANSWER THE QUESTION:
“What is your novel about?”
This is one of the most frustrating questions a novelist can be asked, and you’d be surprised at how few can provide a good answer. You can answer this question in many ways, and with the description of the novel’s structure provided above, you’ll be able to come up with several good answers. You may simply state the Premise, provide a short summary of the storyline, or provide a description of your protagonist and/or the antagonist. You may answer on the Premise level by saying that it’s about the cosmic struggle between good and evil, for instance. On the story level, James Cameron could say that Titanic is about the sinking of a great ship. On the character level, he could say that it’s about a woman who gains her freedom from family domination. He wouldn’t even have to say that she does this while surviving the sinking of the Titanic.
Understanding your Premise provides the tools that will enable you to discuss the essence of your novel with an agent, publisher or publicist. You won’t become tongue-tied, as is so frequently the case, when asked, “What is your novel about?”
Conflict may be the force that drives the novel forward, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. The blacksmith doesn’t apply only fire to get the shape and hardness of the object with which he is working. Even the surface finish may be important, and that can take a little tender love and care. Similarly, applying too much heat to the novelsmith’s fire or pounding the conflict too much can cause the destruction of the whole concept. In other words, the conflict doesn’t have to be a “to-the-death” struggle. It can be emotional, as in Kramer vs. Kramer in which the characters are sympathetic to each other and share a love for their little boy. They resist their lawyers’ efforts to get them to destroy each other. It is often said that the most meaningful stories are those in which the conflict is between two rights. Good does not change, nor does evil. The more interesting struggle is between two good characters who are trying to determine the better path to follow, or perhaps, to understand the very nature of goodness. This was the nature of the conflict in Kramer vs. Kramer.
Don’t get stuck in the “take-no-prisoners” mentality. The conflict may even be obscure as in Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, in which the Premise seems to be “Curiosity overcomes Narcissism.” In this sci-fi novel, conflict doesn’t seem to exist at all. The novel’s forward motion appears to be driven solely by discovery. The focus for most of the novel is on the questions: “What’s inside the mysterious spaceship entering the solar system,” and “Why are these visitors from outer space coming to visit us?” Only at the very end do we realize how narcissistic our perceptions have been, and meaning finally comes to the story when the spaceship dips in close to the sun to scoop up plasma. This act tells us unequivocally that the spaceship is on a fueling run and has no interest in us at all. The conflict, all along, has been between perception and reality. And the resolution comes as a revelation at the very end.
These then are the basics of plotting. Remember that your Premise will many times be obscure, but don’t let that fact permit your focus to drift from it. Allow Premise and story structure to focus your material. Once you have a storyline, you can start working earnestly on the narrative technique you’ll employ to begin writing the novel. We’ll get to narration shortly, but first we need to talk about character development in more detail.
FOUR SENTENCE SUMMARY
Storyline gives the novel length.
Characters give the novel breadth.
Premise gives the novel depth.
A novel with these elements is a three-dimensional simulation of life.
(a) Using the concept for your novel that you wrote down as an exercise at the end of the previous chapter, develop a Premise for the principal conflict. (b) Identify the protagonist and antagonist. (c) List the major events from the Novel Diagram that define the geometry of your novel and provide a short description of each. (d) Write both a one-sentence and a one-paragraph description of the complete storyline. (e) State the central question posed by the Premise.