Compelling Premise (Story Engineering and Physics #7 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsIn the first post in this series I talked about the differences between premise, concept, and idea, and gave these examples of premise:

  • An elderly Irishman traveling in America meets and woos an elderly Englishwoman during the Irish War for Independence, and when he discovers she’s ignorant of the war, creates humorous havoc in his attempts to prevent her from learning that their two homelands are in conflict.
  • An elderly Irishman traveling abroad during the Irish War for Independence meets and woos an Englishwoman who feigns ignorance of their two country’s conflict in order to preserve their romance.
  • A young teacher in modern Chicago tells her elementary school students the story of her grandparents’ romance in an attempt to teach them the value of overcoming prejudice.

Let’s dig deeper into what makes a premise, and then talk about what makes one compelling.

Concept + Character = Premise. Sort Of.

Each of those premises above includes something about the people you’ll write about. Are they happy or sad? Serious or frivolous? Energetic or sedentary? Adventurous or homebodies?

Stories are about people and conflicts. Character and conflict, injected into your concept, are a premise. Each of those examples above points to a very different book, whereas the concept is the same for each: the high level question “What if an elderly Irishman traveling abroad in 1920 met and wooed an elderly expatriate Englishwoman who was unaware of the troubles between their countries?”

When we combine character with concept the resulting premise isn’t merely additive, like mixing flour and water. More like mixing vinegar and baking soda: done right, the resulting explosion compels readers to dive in, turning page after page till your book is consumed.

Compel: to Urge Irresistibly

What about this for a premise, based on the concept above: “An elderly Irishman traveling abroad falls in love with a comatose Englishwoman.”

I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t read that book, let alone write it.

It’s based on the same concept as the others, but there is nothing to irresistibly urge a reader to dive in.

Human nature has fundamental aspects which never change. It’s why Shakespeare still works. When the characters and conflict in your premise spark with basic human needs and fears, you’re heading for Compellingville.

Granted, “compelling” will mean different things to different people. If I were in a Jeeves and Wooster kind of mood, the romantic comedy of premise #1 above might appeal. A more seriously romantic reader and writer might agree on #2, and #3 leans toward historical fiction.

Any of those is a better bet than the “love in the time of coma” nonsense.

When you grow your idea in a petri dish and it develops into a real concept, look for a character and their conflict which will irresistibly urge, or compel, your readers.

Because that’s what will compel you to write.

If you enjoy the posts in this series, please do me a favor and buy Larry’s books. This blog is free, of course, but I couldn’t be teaching you these things without Larry’s writing and blog. The $25 it will cost you to buy the books will be more than repaid by the information you get from them.

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