A story is a connected narration of real or imagined events. There are many types of story, including science fiction, romance, myth, fairy tale, tragedy, and adventure. The full range of storytelling is limited only by the human imagination, yet there are key principles that apply to all stories, and all stories can be classified in different categories or subgenre.
Stories have an internal logic driven by a premise acting through characters and conflict to move the plot from a beginning point of attack, through one or more crises, to a climax that resolves into a resolution. There is a wide range of variation within this approach, but the key principles apply to almost all of them. The classic story formula goes something like this: (1) The hero wants something enough to do anything to get it. (2) The hero faces a difficult adventure or problem in trying to get what he wants. (3) The hero faces serious obstacles. (4) The hero overcomes the obstacles. (5) The hero reaches his goal and gets what he wants (i.e., the princess, the money, revenge, etc).
Steps for Constructing Your Story
- Start your engines: Formulate your premise
The engine of your communication is the premise that your communication must prove in a logical, impressive way (given your genre and medium of choice) in order for your audience to be affected by your story and message in exactly the way you desired. In most cases, an impressive proof of your premise will require lots of interesting illustrations—verbal or pictorial—and plenty of technical, dramatic, or literary effects.
For another perspective: the premise is where you are going (let’s say Hollywood); the plot is how you get there (let’s say you miss your plane and decide to take a car, but the car breaks down, etc.); the people who travel with you are the characters (let’s say that each one is a friend of yours who does not get along with anyone else); and, the themes are the continuing interactions between different sets of characters (let’s say your friend Joe wants to lead your friend June to Jesus Christ).
The audience will want to know where you are going up front. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the audience knows right from the first act that Frodo has to take the ring to the mountain where it was originally forged and destroy it. From the beginning of Finding Nemo, the audience wants the father, Marlin, to find Nemo. How the hero achieves his goal in spite of all the obstacles the writer throws at him produces the excitement in the story.
The key element is your premise. The premise is the motivating power that drives your communication. Your premise is an active, dynamic statement of the argument that you will prove in your communication. It is the essence of your communication. The premise holds the key elements of the message within your story, in a neat and compact package. Quite simply, the premise is a sentence with an active verb, a subject, and an object that summarizes your story, and tells you where you are going—your goal. In discussing the role of a premise and elements that emerge from the premise in a dramatic play, Lajos Egri has noted:
A play [or movie] can be judged before it reaches actual production. First, the premise must be discernible from the beginning. We have a right to know in what direction the author is leading us. The characters, growing out of the premise, necessarily identify themselves with the aim of the play. They will prove the premise through conflict. The play must start with conflict, which rises steadily until it reaches the climax. The characters must be so well drawn that, whether or not the author has declared their individual backgrounds, we can make out accurate case histories for each of them.
A writer has many ways to arrive at your premise. You may have an idea, or a conviction, which you will convert into premise. You may be intrigued by an obligatory scene, event, or situation and want to develop that scene, event, or situation into a premise. To convert your scene or idea into a premise: look for the drama, the meaning, the conflict and the purpose inherent in that idea/scene. State the purpose, meaning, and conflict in a simple, active sentence. This sentence becomes your premise.
Suppose your idea is to communicate that God is love. Ask yourself what your purpose is—why you want to communicate this particular message. Your answer may be that your purpose is to show your audience that God loves them, us, mankind, and/or the world. Be as specific as possible by refining your purpose in light of the answers you have found to your ascertainment questions. In this example, you would also want to ask the question, “ How does God love them, you, or us?” Your answer will depend on the way you answered your ascertainment questions, but may be that He loves us by comforting us in sorrow, by delivering us from fear, forgiving us our transgressions, or by rescuing us from drug addiction.
For our example, let’s say your purpose is to demonstrate the forgiveness inherent in God’s love. In light of your answers to the ascertainment questions, state your premise in a simple but specific sentence such as, “God’s love forgives the transgressor.”
What does that mean? What is the conflict inherent in that statement? Forgiveness must mean that a wrong was committed which has alienated the wrongdoer, perhaps because of his/her feeling of guilt, or knowledge that a just judgment is awaiting him or her. God’s love conflicts with and triumphs over that alienation by forgiving the individual from judgment and healing him/her from guilt.
Your premise gives you the direction, the basic elements, and the conclusion of your communication. In our example, the direction and the conclusion of your communication is inherent in the active verb, “ forgives.” Since you are going to demonstrate how God’s love forgives the wrongdoer, you will conclude your communication at that point where the forgiveness is a reality for the transgressor. The initiating force in your communication is God, and the object of your communication is the forgiven transgressor. The conflict is the negation of the verb/object combination, which, in terms of your premise, is the transgressor’s alienation that resists forgiveness. By resisting the direction and conclusion of your premise, the conflict forces your proof and propels your communication along.
Let’s assume that you decide, because of the audience and medium that you have chosen, to demonstrate your premise through a story. You could choose to make the wrongdoer a young woman who decides to run away from home to live the good life. After several adventures, she ends up destitute. She feels guilty for running away and for ending up destitute. You might decide because of your audience to represent the subject of your premise as the father who manifests God’s love. His love for his daughter causes him to go search for her. She sees him, but avoids him because of her guilt and fear of judgment. In the process of avoiding him, she is thrown in jail. The father finds his daughter, spends all he has to pay her fine and takes her home. When the father finds the daughter and forgives her, and she accepts his love and forgiveness, your premise is proved and the story is resolved, although you may want to top and tail your story to highlight the message of your premise.
Because of the nature of your audience, you may want to prove your premise in another genre. Whatever method you choose to prove your premise, by condensing your idea into a premise statement, you have given yourself a clear direction to follow in your communication plan.
Remember that any idea, scene, thought, or conviction may be converted into a premise that will drive your communication to a powerful conclusion.
To be continued…
Please read HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL) for a complete guide to filmmaking.