Within and without by Rosanne Dingli

Author Rosanne Dingli

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.

For more on Rosanne, visit her website or her blog.

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12 thoughts on “Within and without by Rosanne Dingli”

  1. Interesting set of opinions, Rosanne, but I'm not sure I agree with you. I'm not even sure what you mean by 'premise' and suspect it might be closely tied to what others call 'theme'. When people ask me what the theme is for any of my 50+ novels, I have to say I didn't have a theme in mind when I wrote it.

    I write stories about imaginary people (others call them characters, to me they're people) in imaginary situations. In other words, I start from a 'what if?' and join the central characters to find out what happens next. I can't possibly plan that ahead.

    I'm not there to explore universal themes or (I suspect) develop a premise, but to entertain people and spread out a panorama that's probably different from their own lives – different from mine too.

    But as long as we provide a satisfying story/book for our readers, I don't suppose it matters how we authors set about it and you clearly do that, Rosanne. As well as writing interesting blogs.

    (I'm both trad and indie published, by the way.)

  2. I still get the sense that premise is more of a warm and fuzzy notion than a tangible thing, yet. so much hinges on it. The luxury of being a first time author is that I don't know what I don't know. I didn't put a lot of thought into premise in my book, it was just there as I developed characters and plot.

  3. Nice article, Rosanne. I think when the author isn't true, the reader knows it. It's a challenge. But, it must be faced and dealt with or the story will be lacking.

  4. Not all novels express actual experiences of the author, but the theme or themes must be something that from deep within the author believes in or has struggled with in order for the novel to sound authentic to the reader. That's my opinion, anyway.

    Boyd Lemon-Author of "Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages."

    1. Boyd, some writers do themes, others don't. We all work differently, and it's the end 'product' (hate that word in connection with writing, but it's apposite here)

      Rosanne, I haven't read any of your examples and don't intend to. I read to relax and be entertained. I did try Dan Brown but his first chapter bored me so I didn't finish it, and I haven't even tried the other books. I'm too old to read anything but what pleases me. Good thing there are a lot of different genres. It's like food, really. Variety is good.

      I write to entertain, and I get pleasure from giving my readers pleasure. So I write stories and who cares about themes?

  5. Identifying a premise is not an easy thing. Some authors give it a lot of thought, and others don't, but their premises are there. It's what an author wants a reader to 'believe' or understand while reading the book, so that the story works.

    In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown asks us to believe that the grand daughter raised by a couple of rather weird academics would sever her relationship with them just because she witnessed them participate in a sexual ritual. Hmm – it was a weak one, that only JUST worked for me.

    It's stronger in Alice in Wonderland, where we believe without a blink that a Victorian girl would be allowed to spend hours in a garden all alone with a male family friend.

    In The Riders, by Tim Winton, we are asked to believe that a man would down tools and follow his errant and elusive wife all over Europe, getting within yards of finding her, and losing her again.

    In Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan, the reader is asked to believe that it's possible for a stalker to come between a committed man and his partner, and completely ruin their lives.

    If we don't *believe* what an author asks us to, the novel might be abandoned, or read halfheartedly. A thin or feeble premise is noticed immediately and can disappoint.

    In The Information Officer, by Mark Mills, we are asked to believe that a person can cycle across a very hilly unfamiliar island 19 miles across, in complete darkness, and reach a destination without mishap, in under 20 minutes.

    A book can have more than just one premise, of course. The Da Vinci Code has many – Dan Brown also wants us to believe that a man and a European woman could go on a long chase together, getting into some close shaves and near misses and some rather intimate scrapes, and not for one minute entertain a thought of attraction. Right.

    It would never happen in one of my books – and if it did, I would have to build the premise around it that either the hero had water in his veins, or that the heroine had her heart committed elsewhere… or something. But there would have to be something.

    When a reader raises an eyebrow and says, 'Wow, what an amazing premise!' one has to wait to hear whether they thought it held the book together or not. Whether it was believable.

  6. It's intersting that all writers don't work the same way.

    For me the premise comes about because of the characters I choose to write about. I start with a character and work from there, never knowing where my character might lead me. At the end it's possible to see the premise or theme inherent in the book. Sometimes it may be more than one.I believe my latest novel Streets on a Map has more than one.

  7. I am entirely in agreement with you, Rosanne, at least in relation to my own work. I think in all my short stories and novels, I have been motivated to explore that inner and private life you refer to as risky and revealing. The issues that have made me uncomfortable or caused pain need to be transposed into fiction. Controversial attitudes (abortion, political demonstration, gay life style, affairs) creep into stories because at some point in my life I have had to consider these issues, either personally or on behalf of people who are close to me). As my characters struggle with these issues, I come to reveal myself to myself. When life is at its worst, I find the most useful material for future writing.

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