Saturday, May 19, 2012

19. Plot or Not? Part II: What is the difference between a premise and a plot?

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the 6 essential elements of a plot. To briefly recap, they are:

1. The premise
2. The protagonist
3. The basic conflict
4. The antagonist
5. The action and complications
6. The resolution

One of the most common mistakes beginning novelists make is to start out with a premise (the what if?) and call it a plot. A premise is like a dress-maker’s dummy. By itself it is bare and anonymous, but dress it up and it can be anything from a punk-rocker to a fairy-tale princess. In fact, the same premise can serve as the basis for an infinite number of very different stories.

dummy                                9701523-cartoon-punk-guitarist-with-guitar-isolated-on-white                     cinderella                     

Here are two premises that were presented as plots by students in a past novel-writing class:

“What if a man’s wife dies and he starts drinking too much?”  With enough added elements, this could be developed into a serviceable plot for a romance (he falls in love with a woman he meets at AA);  a tale of redemption (after losing his job and his friends, he finds salvation in the form of a crippled dog that adopts him); or any number of other types of story. But by itself, the premise above is NOT a plot.

What if a young girl decides to become the first female major-league baseball player?”  This more promising premise could make a terrific YA coming-of-age novel. What it needs are all the other plot elements. By itself it piques our interest; but it is not a plot.

How about these?

What if a spider were able to write words in her web? I’m sure you recognize the premise here for one of the most beloved of all children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. It was White’s amazing skill in interweaving all the other plot elements that made this book a classic.

What if an intelligent but arrogant young man decided that because of his own superiority it was all right for him to do anything--including commit a murder? This premise generated one of the greatest psychological novels of all time: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’m quite sure it has also served as the basis for many more ordinary mystery novels.

What if an extremely wealthy man decided to commit murder solely to acquire more money? This is the premise for one of my favorite novels, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith. Much more goes on in the novel than indicated by that brief what-if, but that premise is the reason the protagonist, Arkady Renko, takes so long to solve the murder. Because as a man raised in the Soviet Union’s anti-capltalist society, Arkady literally cannot imagine someone so wealthy as the villain committing murder merely for more money.

Tomorrow we’ll examine the tricky concept of basing characters on real-life people.

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