Buying the Premise

Because You Have ToIf you don’t deliver a plausible premise which also begs to be developed—to be taken somewhere— you’ve lost your readers before they start.

At least, as a reader, this is how I feel.

What’s more: sometimes a story’s premise is the story.

By which I mean it’s clever, but there’s nowhere to take it. So it’s over as soon as it’s uttered. An example I’ll steal is from a play (I can’t remember its name or the playwright, which is probably better anyway) which opens with the black-comedy idea that a married couple has decided to sell its children for some serious money. Or, in another play, someone in a café answers the cellphone of a man who’s just died there.

Both sound bleakly funny, and therefore promising at first glance. But if you really think about it, neither story can do much or go anywhere that can “best” the original trope, the supernova blast of the premise. What can follow such an opener, in a way that engages us?

For my money, each idea shoots itself in the foot out of the gate, because the premise, in these two examples, is also the punchline.

Stories can do this, too. We may believe a zingy premise ambitious and alluring—but there’s a line between what sounds provocative, and what begs us to want to know more.

I’m thinking now of a story by Scottish author Ali Smith in which a dinner guest in England excuses himself, apparently to use the bathroom, but then in fact locks himself in the host’s bedroom and refuses to come out for months.

The above opening almost risks the kind of self-sabotage I mean—but this instance, thanks to Smith’s skill, leaves itself a crumb trail: we readers want, based on the way we are fed these facts at the outset, to know why he does this. Smith makes readers care about the man, and proceeds to pay out information in tantalizing little bundles, interlinking his story with those of other characters—so that little by little a hazy portrait of this man begins to come into focus.

A good rule of thumb in the editing room (note, please, that this is light years after having had perfect freedom to make the biggest mess you could): would you want to know more after you’ve read the first page or two of what you’ve written?

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.



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