Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Promise of Your Premise

This part of story structure always gets my heart pumping. Act One is over. The characters have been presented with a significant change in their world, they've calculated the risks, and they've made a clear decision to move forward regardless.

Act Two begins with what Blake Snyder calls "Fun and Games", and appropriately so. In my opinion, it's the most fun part to write. This section contains half of your second act, and finishes out the first half of your entire story. It runs from the tail end of your debate, right after that all-important decision was made, up to the midpoint of the story. We'll discuss midpoint in more detail on Monday.

Today is all about premise. The Fun and Games section of your story is "the promise of your premise." This is where you, as the author, ask yourself the most "what if" questions. Everything you present in this section is meant to maximize your main premise, make it abundantly clear to the reader, while at the same time building more and more conflict as the characters approach the climax.

It may be called "fun and games" but much of this section is rarely actually fun for the characters. The audience, however, LOVES it.

Determining what to present in this section is probably the easiest of any part of the structure. Unless, of course, you don't have a clear premise in mind before you start.

We're going to back up a bit. Longtime readers of this blog probably already know what I'm about to say, but I could say this in EVERY blog post and it still wouldn't be enough. You ready?

Write a logline before you start writing the story. A logline is a one-sentence description of your premise. Your what? Your PREMISE!

Why is premise so important? To put it simply, premise is what will sell your audience on your story. It's what gets them to buy your book after reading only the jacket blurb. It's what gets agents to request your manuscript after reading only a query letter.

(Aside: I am living proof of that. The number one comment I've received from agents is that SUMMER HOAX has an outstanding premise. Not surprisingly, I wrote the logline for this story before I wrote any part of the story itself. I referred back to this logline as often as I needed to in order to stay focused on my main premise. When I got to the Fun and Games section... I cannot even describe how excited I was to write those parts. This is it! We're here! *rubs hands together and cackles maniacally*

That story, however, has only "sold" to agents so far (sold meaning they were interested enough in the premise to request the manuscript). In the three short stories I've sold in the financial sense, the same is true. The premise for "The Keeper of Secrets" focuses on the main character keeping secrets. The premise for "The Blade of Tears" focuses on how the weapon called The Blade of Tears helps the MC out of her bad situation. The premise for "Spread Your Wings and Die" focuses on the MC, a dragon, risking death to take flight out of captivity.

What, you thought story structure was only for novels? No. I use this structure for everything I write, even stories as short as flash fiction. Why? Because it works.)

When writing a logline, title is so important. The title is half your logline, and these are all things you should know beforehand, or you can easily write yourself astray. Title = what your story is about = premise. It's that simple. Is your title doing your story justice?

When you see the title HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, you may not know any of the details of what happens yet, but you can make an educated guess. In the Fun and Games part of that movie (surprise!) we see Hiccup training his dragon.

Well... duh. And in my opinion, it is one of the best parts of the entire film. It has the best music, the best sequences, the best everything. It gets me excited every time I watch it. I want Hiccup to succeed in everything he does. Train that dragon, boy! I am totally hooked at this point, and I'm loving it.

In SUMMER HOAX, the Fun and Games section starts with (surprise!) the summer hoax. Ben and Diana are pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend for the summer. The very first paragraph of my second act makes it clear the characters are now knee-deep in the premise, whether for good or bad or whatever happens next.

The word awkward did not even begin to describe how Tuesday went, working not only a full seven hour shift after one day of training, but doing so alongside my new boyfriend who really wasn't.  Every time I delivered a ticket to the kitchen or picked up a tray, Ben thought he had to make things obvious and wink at me, or make a comment (Grazie, Bella!), or enjoy kneading his dough balls a little too much while ogling my chest (because a one-size-too-big polo shirt cut for a man's body was just that flattering).

By the time we took our first break--together, of course--all the restaurant employees were buzzing with "Oh, aren't they cute?" and "Looks like Ben finally found himself a nice girl."

You have a lot of room to maximize your premise in this section of the story. But like I said, it's not necessarily going to be fun for the characters. It depends on the story how much good vs bad you're going to show here. In HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, most of this section entails good things happening for Hiccup.

Or so he thinks.

See, the whole time Hiccup is training his dragon, he's finding ways to "fight" the other dragons in his official dragon training without really hurting them. He's already determined in Act One that he is not a dragon killer. And while he believes everything is going well for him, we see Astrid getting more and more agitated with his success, and we see the village getting more and more impressed with his success. Both of these things will factor greatly in later parts of the story, when things start to crumble terribly fast after the midpoint.

Maximizing your premise means not only showing how things can go well for your characters, but more importantly, how it all can go very very wrong.

During the Fun and Games, the first half of Act Two, we see...

In JURASSIC PARK, the characters experience all the wonders of a dinosaur park while at the same time, without their knowledge, actions have already begun to sabotage everything.

In ICE AGE, all the fun weirdness of a woolly mammoth, a sloth, and a saber-tooth tiger somehow caring for a human baby is emphasized, while at the same time, only one of them knows they are being led into a trap.

In FINDING NEMO, Marlin and Dory are in full pursuit while being bombarded with obstacles, one right after the other, right after the other.

Notice again how important the title is. I cannot emphasize this enough. Title = what your story is about = premise.

The start of Act Two is also where your B story becomes clear, but like I said this past Monday, for the sake of keeping things short(er) I'm only going to focus on the main plot points.

So when it comes time to maximize your premise, you must first know your premise. If you cannot describe your story in one sentence, you very likely won't do your story any justice when you've reached this all-important break into the second act.

1. Write a logline that includes a relevant title.

2. Ask yourself as many "what if" questions you can, then decide which of those will fit best in the beginning parts of Act Two and which will fit best in the later parts of Act Two, or perhaps even Act Three, near the climax. The worse something is, the later it should happen in the story.

3. Don't forget the good things. The fun things. This is, after all, entertainment. And because things will continue to get worse and worse as the story moves along, the first half of the second act is prime real estate for having a bit of fun before all hell breaks loose.

In the movie INCEPTION, the Fun and Games part is where the audience learns all the ins and outs of inception while they're teaching the new "architect." (Forgive me, I can't remember her name.) Again, clearly relevant to both the title and the premise, but this is also where I remember the audience had the most LOLs. And that film is not even meant to be a comedy. It just happens, though, when you maximize your premise correctly.

You're showing your audience the core nugget of your idea. You're providing them with the premise you promised in your pitch. The good, the bad, and all the crazy that follows. Have fun with it. Let your passion for the story take over. Because it (literally) all goes downhill from here.

Happy writing,


  1. So you're saying we should have a premise first? I don't know, Lydia. That sounds like a dangerous flirtation with reducing your wordcount below 200K.

  2. I am totally saving this post for future reference, Lydia. After the many logline contests I've been seeing/entering lately, I have to say you are totally spot on. Having the logline done BEFORE writing anything is way easier. I've already been working on that for my next WiP. Talk about a lesson I wish I'd learned a year ago - or maybe even longer.

    (And I'm noticing a HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON trend here... You use it as an example a lot. =) Think I'm going to have to rent it this weekend so I can fully understand all of your great examples!)

    Thanks for such a good and insightful post!

  3. Yes! Don't just rent that movie, BUY IT AND STUDY IT. Seriously. One of the best examples of good story structure I've ever seen.

    And yeah, I wish I'd known about all this stuff a few years ago, too.

    "Dangerous flirtation" is my middle name. At least, as far as writing is concerned. ;)

    1. Yeah the fun and games part is the hardest to get your head around. You put it across in a way I understand. I love you Lydia ;)

  4. Great advice as always, Lydia. I did write a logline for my NaNo WIP before I started writing it, per your suggestion. It does tend to keep the story in perspective.
    Not sure my title is doing it justice tho... may have to work on that. :s

  5. WOW- so thorough! What a great review of Blake Snyder's "fun and games" concept and on premise in general. Thanks!

  6. Thank you Lydia!

    When the idea for my current WIP forst came to me, it was about 4 teens and their relationships with their mothers. Before I even began to write on of them stepped forward as an MC. So now it's about her dealing with guilt over her mother's death, and pretending that she's fine when she isn't.

    The original title was light and fun, but that no longer suits the WIP, and I've been struggling with a title ever since. While reading this, it came to me.


    Thanks :)

  7. Ran across this in a FB screenwriting group. Great posts which I will share on my page. I teach my students about the Promise of the Premise all the time. Often in movies it's those great moments you see in the trailer that make you understand what the movie is about and make you want to see the film.


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