Truby and the Premise of Premises

The premise of many lives expressed visually.

John Truby, in his excellent “The Anatomy of Story”, teaches us that every story has a premise: the story itself expressed in a single sentence. His premise is that a weak premise implies a weak story.

Every premise has three elements:

  1. Some event that starts the action;
  2. Some sense of the main character;
  3. Some sense of the outcome of the story.

“The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.”

Guess the movie?

The premise must be “high-concept”, meaning that it can eventually be reduced to a catchy one-line description. It also functions as your inspiration, something to always keep in mind while writing. But it is also your prison, the one decision you won’t be able to change after you begin writing, the one decision all others will be based on. That’s another fine example when restricting ourselves liberates us. You make a decision, you stick to it, you accomplish something.

Truby says that most writers fail at the premise, because they don’t properly develop it. You must stay in the “premise stage” for weeks, carefully developing you idea until you can see the big picture and trust it has potential. But how do you do it?

A life-changing story: If you write something that is truly important to you, it has a great chance of being important to lots of people in the audience. And when you finish writing, even if it sucks for everybody else, you have in effect changed your life. I see no other purpose in writing.

Possibilities: Be humble after you come up with your dear premise, and first explore it as much as you can. First see what is promised by the idea itself, and then ask a number of “what if” questions to see where they lead. You never know when seemingly stupid ideas might lead you to creative breakthroughs.

Story challenges and problems: There are always particular difficulties deeply embedded in any story. Confront them first, and you might find your true story.

Designing principle: I find this concept quite difficult to discern from that of a premise. It is the premise stated in a more abstract way, it is “the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way”. But even after reading his many examples, I still find it ambiguous. Unfortunately, this is how non-literary I am.

Best character: Always tell a story about your best character. No surprises here.

Central conflict: That’s a one-line statement that answers the question “Who fights whom over what?”.

Basic action: The hero must take one very important action around which all others are unified.

Character change: Here Truby uses a formula, and my mathematical self likes it: W * A = C. A character with psychological and/or moral weaknesses (W) struggles to accomplish his basic action (A) and ends up a changed person (C).

Moral choice: The theme of a story is your moral vision about how the world should be, the “moral argument” of the story. And the most important step in the argument is the final moral choice the hero must make. His options must be as equal as possible, so as to make the decision hard and unpredictable.

Audience appeal: Is this story unique enough to interest a lot of people besides you?

And all that because of one single sentence…

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