When an author decides to start writing a book, the different sides of the project – like the sides of a cube – present themselves. Just like a cube, the new project does not reveal all planes in one viewing. There is always a hidden side – or a difficult aspect for an author to address.
It is possible to give the six sides of the cube different facet names associated with writing a novel: story, plot, structure, characters, locations … and the all-important premise. They all present challenges to the author. The last more than the others. Hm – can an author afford to address the premise last? Turning the cube so that premise is always on the blind side might be possible when scribbling out a plot outline, or sketching out the various characters.
When it comes creating the protagonist, however, and the plot that drives the story, one cannot move onward without a good strong premise: one based in some way on an aspect of the human condition.
One of my readers wrote to say, “Infusing a novel with personal experience will make it more authentic, but it also has to be said that the greatest novels do not so much reveal personal experience of the author, but touch upon universal themes – things that are relevant to all of us.” He was right. But an author’s experience is a valuable inclusion if it is nuanced.
Sometimes a premise can be found by looking at ancient adages: they were created, and found some sort of permanence, because of the universal quality of their meaning. “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” “It takes one to know one.”
An author can’t go past Erasmus when seeking a premise to hold a book together. Applying one of this philosopher’s adages to a book can quickly bring about that ‘aha!’ feeling one longs for when faced with a new task. It shows the way: it reveals a method, an understanding, or a trajectory. And when a writer can see these things, the reader sees them too.
A reader is often challenged by an author: plots can be complicated, characters can seem dull and lifeless until the action starts. The premise too, is sometimes elusive. This is because the author is challenged on two levels.
Two? Yes – within and without the author’s own life.
One is the dimension and time-line of the novel and its story: it exists outside the author’s own life and needs to stand alone. The other is the relevance the novel has to real life, and how it needs that relevance to reflect something inside the author’s life. This is something readers need to guess, but they certainly feel it if it is authentic. It is nuance, personal nuance. One can feel the author’s experience coming through authentic descriptions of pain, joy, disappointment and triumph.
The premise is important to the writer: the challenge is to be brave enough to choose one close to what the author is all about. It is exposure. It is showing the world something private and personal: something meaningful and weighty. It is risky: dare one show the world contentious and very private issues? Would it be turning the story inside out?
The challenge for a reader is to decide whether the premise – and the humanity of the author it reveals – is valid. Whether it’s a seamless part of the story, and the most important part of the book.
[A different version of this post appeared on Rosanne Dingli’s blog in December 2010.]
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Rosanne Dingli has been writing full-time since retiring from teaching in 2009. She is author of fifteen titles and is currently working on publishing her out-of-print short fiction and poetry in handy easy-to-read volumes that do not cost the earth.