Recognizing Premise, Narrative, Character, Story, and Plot
So you sit down to write your story idea. You spend hours writing amazing dialogue and action sequences. There’s crazy detail and it’s just oozing with drama. You’re feeling good. You put it to bed, forget about it and then come and realize this turd is still steaming.
Somewhere along the way, that amazing idea just dissolved into arbitrary beats and nothing is adding up. All the pieces seem to be there like characters and things are happening, but it just seems like an aimless mass of verbiage.
Well it is not uncommon to find oneself lost in some dark forest of creative efforts and it’s very easy to get stuck following proverbial trees rather than clearing a way through them. And the solution to this problem may be more complex than what we’ll cover here BUT a good grasp of the following basic ideas will go a long way in any effort to create meaningful narrative experiences.
I will be covering some fundamental definitions and each of the following terms could be expanded into its own book. But we’ll stick to just the basics.
If you would like to go deeper, I would recommend starting your research with books like,
- Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing
- Paul Lucey, Story Sense
- Yves Lavandier, Writing Drama ( uses Plot and Narrative synonymously)
- Alice LaPlante, The Making of Story
- Any good anthology such as the Norton series will be helpful too. They usually have good essays covering many essential topics of creative writing and provide a good selection of sample stories.
Approaching these ideas separately does introduce some difficulties since they are intrinsically tied to each other. Just as Story and Plot are related, they are locked in an eternal dance with Characters and Premises. This creative forest is a gestalt. Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing says no part is more important than the whole and all must blend harmoniously. Yet it is important and useful to look at each of these elements in isolation so that we may have a basic understanding of what creative writing tools we have to work with.
OK, back to business. Here we will survey some essential ideas about Premise, Narrative, Character, Story, and Plot.
In all media, there are many elements that go into a meaningful piece of fiction, but these dynamics are fundamental and writers should recognize them even if they are deliberately ignored or circumvented.
You do you.
Most stories begin as an idea or the author’s desire to explore some theme or motif i.e. love, hate, death, the need for change, transformation, pigeons, whatever. But It is not just some vague idea, like a fog you stumble through. Instead, your premises should be well thought out statements that encapsulate the essential truth or argument that your creative work is going to explore. Such as,
Love conquers all across space and time.
A man fights to survive and find his family
A woman changes gender and discovers her identity
The power of Nature will always trump humanity.
It may change, evolve, or grow in complexity as the piece develops, but good premises remain a vital guide that writers use to shape their stories and plots. Often the plot or essential action of a story will be bundled with the premise in which case these complex statements may be called loglines, or confusingly just as ‘premises’. In this survey, I would limit your premise to a more abstracted concept that will influence the chosen action of the story. And when developing that story, what is being written should be checked against the premise to ensure the content supports and follows it; if the writing does not follow in some consistent way, then that portion should be revised. Egri remarks that premises are “the motivating power behind everything you do” and that
…this is a necessity in all good writing. Without it, it is impossible to know your characters. A premise has to contain; character, conflict and resolution. It is impossible to know all this without a clear cut premise…No one premise is necessarily a universal truth…but if you’ve chosen [a premise], it does in your case…The premise is the conception, the beginning of a play. The premise is the seed and it grows into a plant that was contained in the original seed…In a well constructed play or story, it is impossible to denote just where the premise is and where the story or character begins.
Be aware that a premise may not always be so obvious to readers, and one would not be so pedantic to write flat out, “My premise for this story is…” but it is implicit of all that comprises your creative experience. The text may maintain an ambiguous tone as well; in that case, there may be several different interpretations. Indeed, part of the joy of fiction and art is in that ambiguous space that allows readers to have their own unique experience and understand it for themselves.
Nevertheless, just remember that a premise is necessary since it is a central concept that influences the design of everything else and creates some degree of value for an audience as it should connect on some level to a human need or experience.
Narrative and Story are often used interchangeably. But when approaching the creation and development of a piece of fiction, it’s helpful to think of Narrative as distinct from Story. Although these two words feel close, I would reserve Narrative for mostly the mechanics and devices that structure a story and plot. Here is one definition I find helpful in distinguishing the difference between,
A narrative is a story…involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do…”
Fair Enough. But,
[Narrative as it will be understood here]
Narratology denotes a recent concern with narrative in general. It deals especially with the identification of structural elements and their diverse modes of combination, with recurrent narrative devices, and with the analysis of the kinds of discourse by which a narrative gets told…a systematic formal construction…
Narrative is the bones of the experience. It is an imposed framework used to design a story. It is a level of design that abstracts the details of a particular story into a more generalized model and tries to identify the necessary components that make the piece what it is. If that 7th Grade frog you dissected was your story, all its bones, organs, and myriad other things packed in there and their particular arrangement would make up the Narrative of your frog-story. Agonists, diegetic theories, character arcs, Aristotilian poetics, genre, Hero journeys, et al. They belong to critical analysis and development. They are non diegetic and no character would be aware of their presence just as you do not wake up and think about who will be the antagonist of your arc today, or at what point you will cross a threshold that will take you onto your hero adventure.
But for authors, creators, and critical audiences, these are necessary considerations and should be carefully planned in order for your fiction to be cohesive and significant. These various organizational structures, devices, and relationships are the creative tools that artists use to engineer effective fiction and other creative works.
By way of another example, in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkein wrote the story particulars of Frodo Baggins: A Hobbit who lives in the Shire, who happens to have a powerful ring and is conscripted into a perilous adventure with other mythical beings and creatures on an adventure to destroy it and save the world. Narratively, Tolkein constructed Frodo as a protagonist who fulfills certain dramatic roles as he follows his hero’s journey to achieve his goals structured within the Middle Earth Story world. Frodo’s experience that we read is part of the plot that makes up this particular narrative in the Lord of the Rings. To put it simply, there is an architectural structure specifically designed by Tolkein that we recognize as valuable.
So what is a Story with a capital S? Think of it as the total limits and extensions of an imaginary world. It is the level of particulars that articulate this unique reality such as the dynamics that define and constrain its universe: is magic a possibility? Are there living Gods? Do vehicles operate with anti-gravity engines? Are there even cars? Do humans have green blood? Are there humans at all? There are no flux capacitors in Westeros. And Thanos is not a part of Narnia.
Story includes all of these important details as well as the creatures and characters that operate within this fictional realm; and Story holds all of the possible events and phenomena that might occur in their chronology. You might say in an authorial omniscient sort of way that it is the sum total of all possible plots, events, and experiences that could occur. Again, it should not be a Hallween candy bucket full of a little bit of everything. Although the writer is a God here who says what is and what can or cannot be, there should be a reason all these elements are included in the reality of your story.
I know I have broadly defined what entails a Story world, but realize that the world of Harry Potter operates by rules completely different from say Frank Herbert’s Dune. And any video game world such as my current obsession, For Honor, will have a reality defined by a completely different set of operators. It is the writer’s job to ensure that any and all details that make it before a reader’s eyeballs are appropriate to the plot and are consistent with the established world/ universe that they are creating. It would be very strange if Cinderella had a lightsaber.
Now, it is possible to lose the forest and obsess over the trees, but audiences need not know every possible detail, just enough to create a believable and cohesive experience. Remember that as a tangible text, audiences will only see as much as is written. For example, the premise of a story might be that of a man who rediscovers love and that world may be something like Briderton or Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But your story would include just the necessary events and world details that create the protagonist’s journey that we as an audience will follow and help articulate this idea of ‘rediscovering love’.
Think of it as all the activity and elements that make it ‘on screen’; it is all that is shown and told. Alice LaPlante says it “is that series of events, arranged in a particular order, which brings about the desired final effect…”. Plot, and there may be more than one in a given work, is that particular matrix of Story world events & phenomena that the author has elected to illustrate in order to serve the premise and create a significant, dynamic experience that will impart some degree of value to readers.
As we have acknowledged before, it’s not practical to show the entirety of an invented reality; any one narrative should narrowly focus on just the necessary information that is needed to form believable sequences. These events should be causally related and create a logical experience that develops characters’s Story relationships and dramatic journeys. As such, there are many books that try to systematically categorize or list all possible plots and I would agree, thematically, they often do fall into certain classic conflicts like:
Man vs Nature
Man vs Self
Man vs Society
But again, these are generalized frameworks that overlook subtleties that are unique and valuable to each piece. Reminder, use models as a guide to making your work easier and manageable and not as a paint-by-numbers crutch.
Ideally, at the end of a plot sequence, readers should have some sense of the premise or have their curiosity inspired enough to be motivated to try to understand what it could all mean. It is a powerful trait of storytelling that we as audiences accept the fiction as having its own reality and further imagine the world agents continuing to function and characters living their realities even after the final chapter ends. The classic fairy tale ending ‘and they lived happily ever after’ implies as much. A good plot and story world–however limited in narration–will inspire audiences to imagine things ‘off screen’. The internet has no shortage of forums and fan sites dedicated to theories and what-if debates, and you’re probably on the right track if your writing is as inspiring. Get’em talking.
These are of course the actors, or agonists, of a particular narrative that drive the plot. They are complex creations bound to their Story worlds. Spiderman would feel mighty out of place in American Horror Story. There are many types of characters and degrees of development; some are Heros, some are supporting roles that either help develop the plot or represent dynamics of the Story world, or some other part of a narrative. All are important. And even though a character may not be the Hero of one story, they may become the villain or a principal player in another plot. In any case, all forms of fiction will have some kind of characters or subject even if it is not an obvious creature or human. There must be some kind of actor or at least action to advance the plot. If not, one may just have a block of static description or atmospheric exposition.
I will stop here as this discussion could go on and on, just realize that,
Creating a story is hard.
Creating a good story is difficult.
Creating a great story is a brave challenge.
Here I have provided some basic elements of what goes into making a story, but these ideas are just what’s bobbing at the surface. This brief overview is not the Be All and And All.
These definitions are grossly simplified and, yes, there is no shame in simplifying something if it makes the work more efficient. We want to avoid falling into a blackhole of minutiae or a paralysing anxiety of being imprecise, neither of which is helpful for creativity or doing our best work. But there is a danger of thinking too simply about them. These are deep subjects among many others and the discussion is not new, for as long as writers have imagined something fantastic there has been heated debate about what goes into making these fantasies.
There are plenty of thick books on the subject of writing fiction; each one confidently announcing how it all fits together. And I encourage you to read them all. But I would caution that these basic definitions might be skipped over. Story, Narrative and Plot are often used in very similar and/or contradictory ways. More dangerously, a writer might assume that readers already share their (the author’s) thinking on the subject and not explain anything at all. Things get even more slippery as you consider these creative tools in extended non-theatrical environments like Branding, Marketing, UX, and Advertising.
Hence, as a creative writer of any media, it is important to make these distinctions clear in your mind before you start working. Build a model that works for your needs so when you do attack a project, your time and efforts are not wasted stumbling around in the dark gripping at just whatever you land on. It is not good enough to be vague or casually informed. Take the time to understand the basics and the complex things will not seem so scary. Sure the challenge will alway be there, but at least there will be a little light to guide you along the way.
Abrams, M.H.1993. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th Ed. Forth Worth: Harcourt Brace, 123 p.
Egri, Lajos. 2007. The Art of Dramatic Writing. Cabin John: Wildside Press; 9, 29 p.
LaPlante, Alice. 2007. The Making of a Story. New York: Norton; 377 p.