Three types of story

Despite having written a few and studied many more, I don’t think I’ve ever really come to grips with the grammar of the short story. It may be partly due to the fact that the game-changing moment in a story is often to be found or intuited off-stage, in the gaps between what is shown or told. This difficulty is compounded by the ambiguity and understatement that can characterise the modern form.

But there often is a grammar at work, albeit subtly. Many stories, for example, contain a snap that causes the light to change, retrospectively transforming the meaning of everything that led up to this moment of revelation. Even when I see this in action, I’m almost never entirely sure how the change has been made, or even quite what has changed. It’s like watching a three cup trickster at work. You can follow obvious moves along every step of the way but somehow the work that leads to the outcome happens outside of observation. Still, like any sucker, I can’t help but look and look.

So I was pleased to come across Morphologies: Short Story Writers on Short Story Writers edited by Ra Page, and recently too to rediscover the amazing New Yorker short story podcast.

In his introduction to Morphologies, Ra Page recaps an interesting short story typology. He describes three categories: the Epical, the Lyrical and the Artificial.

An Epical short story offers an apparent narrative, which is subverted at the last moment by a revelation. At this point, the apparent narrative is overwritten by a replacing story, as the reader is forced to a re-evaluate everything that came before the epiphany.

The traditional form of this revelation is plot-based (the detective uncovers an unexpected truth). In the modern form it may be character-oriented (the protagonist reveals or discovers an unexpected truth about him or herself).

The traditional form remains common in genre fiction. Science fiction stories also offer a situational variant.. that is, where the reader discovers some truth about the story world that changes the preceding narrative.

By contrast, the Lyrical story focusses on a recurring image. This image or tableau is more than a symbol or, if it is a symbol, it’s a shifting one, its possible meanings changing throughout the story and beyond.

Once established — usually in the first act of the story the image is returned to and reinterpreted as the story progresses. Though fluid in meaning, it remains physically static: unexplained and unresolved, burning in the mind of the reader long after the story has concluded, the way a bright light might burn on the retina after it’s been switched off.

Finally, the Artificial Story embeds a surreal or unexpected element at its start, and builds a narrative around it — or possibly builds a narrative despite it. Perhaps the most famous example of this sort is Kafka’s Metamorphosis. More recently George Saunders’ story Semplica-Girl Diaries might be a good example.

This model is also common in science fiction, though it might be argued that literary and genre stories deploy the central artifice in diametrically opposed ways. Science fiction stories sometimes deploy a striking and unexpected element, which is then normalised through explanation. In fact, this process of normalisation can be the substance of the story’s journey — the story is a quest for the secret that ultimately explains the anomaly. The literary story, on the other hand, often refuses to explain. Explaining would undermine the disruption at the heart of the story. The anomaly remains. It echoes onward past the story’s end.

Of course, these categories are far too crude to encapsulate the sheer variety and invention in the short story form. Ra Page goes on to illustrate a range of ways in which stories slip between these boundaries, and ways in which the characteristics themselves are often versions of each other (the artificial nugget and the lyrical image significantly overlap, for example). For all that, they may be a good way in to thinking about the short story. Just so long as you don’t imagine you’ll find which cup really hides the ball.

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Bzzzt – decloaking

So there was this Creative Writing MA. Actually there was that MA, and then there was this MA. What I did. Two in a row, for complicated reasons. And I loved them both. Oh, and I won an award for one of them too. I’m pretty proud of that.

And now there is the novel which I write and I write and I write, and it unravels at about the same rate as it coalesces. Like knitting at one end of a garment whilst a slo-mo demon Andrex puppy runs off with a loose thread at the other. And every now and again, I wonder, as you might about a river or a human being after seven years of cell regeneration, every now and then I wonder if this now novel thing is the same as that then novel thing. Let’s say it is. Let’s say that contiguity is identity. I think that’s best.

And then there are the various lovely clients who are helping me to fund the writing of the novel and to pay the many sudden bills that weren’t sudden at all, but which I apparently only just noticed. And letting me write code which I like to do.

And sleep is a waste of time anyway.

How about you?

Oh yes, also, if you like to read writing about literature you should check out Kit Coldstream’s blog which is excellent.

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Jeanette Winterson and the Zombies of the Unexamined Life

On Monday 11 November 2013 Jeanette Winterson was interviewed by Andrew Marr on Radio 4′s Start the Week programme. She spoke about a kind of zombie-dom which I think we’re encouraged to settle into once we’re done with the bother of learning stuff and trying things out. This is probably compounded by the requirements of the workplace, and of the market too — it’s really much less bother when people both produce and consume precisely as they’re told to. Luckily people are glorious and difficult:

Andrew Marr: Would you say that a good writer has to be hard on themselves?

Jeanette Winterson: Oh always, you can’t be self indulgent. You always have to believe either that something is wrong or something is missing and always of course that you could have done it better. It’s about answering to conscience but it’s also about keeping perpetually alive and not dying before you are dead. There are a lot of people walking around now who are in fact dead although they appear to be alive.

Andrew Marr: Because they’re not conscious of being alive, the extraordinary lucky chance of being alive.

Jeanette Winterson: There’s no consciousness, no, and I think in creative work it’s always [about] trying to keep us conscious and at a high level so that this strange rag bag of being, this human being that appears to die, whether there’s an afterlife or not we don’t know, but consciousness seems to be something we all strive for.

Andrew Marr: Look around and pay attention in short.

Jeanette Winterson: And I wish we could drag Michael Gove in here, really, and stop this utilitarian aspect of eduction. And just say let’s have an education which is not about utility, which is about allowing people to be human beings in all their glory and difficulty. Otherwise we’re back with Engels, aren’t we? Looking round at the slums of Manchester and saying this is what happens when men regard each other only as useful objects.

Jeanette Winterson in conversation with Andrew Marr – Start the Week, Radio 4, Mon, 11 Nov 2013

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Your leased future

I mentioned a while back that I’ll be folding my Bookshape blog into this one over the coming weeks. This is my first new Bookshape post.

Two articles about our digital reading future caught my attention this week. At Techdirt Glyn Moody reported on a classics professor who had his books ‘undownloaded’ by Google Play because he travelled beyond his home market.

“So, it seems that ebook users need to add a new word to their vocabulary: “undownloading” — what happens when you leave the authorized zone in which you may read the ebooks you paid for, and cross into the digital badlands where they are taken away like illicit items at customs. If you are lucky, you will get them back when you return to your home patch — by un-undownloading them.”

While, at The Guardian’s Australian Culture Blog, indie bookstore loving Charlotte Harper charted her journey to the ‘dark side’ of Amazon Kindle.

Harper was ultimately seduced by Whispersync (syncing across Kindle devices and apps), the content available via Kindle Singles, and the useful ‘my highlights’ feature on Kindle devices.

Maybe this tension reflects a trade-off we’re all facing. On the one hand we love the freedom and power of the cloud. On the other hand we’re waving farewell both to our privacy and to old concepts ownership. In the future cultural products will be leased not bought and access to them will be managed by corporations.

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Analysing Boojum

I’m primarily working on a novel at the moment, but I’m also increasingly interested in the form and structure of the short story . I’ve taken to reading and annotating stories, both literary and science fiction, to get a sense of what works and what sells — overlapping but not identical spheres.

This week I have been reading Boojum by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, a lovely tale of pirates in space which has been much anthologised. Because this story is available online (PDF) I thought I’d share some of my notes. Read the story before reading on here.. it’s fun, and THERE WILL BE SPOILERS to come. You have been warned.

Read it? Good wasn’t it?

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I love The Poetics. One of the things that interested me right off about Boojum was the way that the structure conformed to Aristotle’s recipe for good tragedy. Let’s check off some of the elements.

The story is self-contained. That is, although Black Alice has a past that informs the events here, the story explicitly begins at the start and ends at the end. Nothing is left out, and nothing unrelated is included.

It sometimes seems that this Aristotelian requirement is more often observed in science fiction short stories than in literary fiction shorts which can be more fragmentary and ambiguous. That’s a gross generalisation, of course. In any case a fragmentary story is not necessarily less Aristotelian. Aristotle made a distinction between a story’s underlying events and the story as portrayed. As Malcolm Heath wrote in his fantastic introduction to the Penguin Poetics,

Aristotle is often quoted as if he had said that a play has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is wrong. It is the plot, the underlying sequence of actions, that has this structure

Nevertheless, Bear and Monette manage to present a complete story in the events protrayed. Pretty good, when you consider that this means that all the worldbuilding and exposition together with a space battle, a boarding party, an orgiastic bathtime interview, a sneaky mission to the pirate hold, and the final climax must all be packed into 7500 words.

With one slight caveat, the parts of Boojum are connected in a way that is necessary or probable – that is, each part follows plausibly from the last and leads to the next. So:

The attack (leads naturally to) the boarding of the attacked ship (which leads naturally to) the discovery of the jars. (Because she loves her ship and is repulsed by the whole brain in jar thing) Black Alice warns the captain. (Because the captain callously ignores her concerns, and a little bit because plot) Black Alice sneaks into the hold and looks at the cargo, and the ship affirms its affinity with Black Alice by giving her water. (Because of this rapport between Black Alice and the ship) Black Alice frees the ship from the restraining bolt thingie, and the ship ‘eats’ Black Alice, thus rescuing her from the attacking Mi-Go.

It pretty much holds together, right? And that’s just the flow from scene to scene. As we’ll see the whole is bound together tighter still. Note that I said ‘a bit because plot‘ above. I guess that this is probably the weakest link in the causal chain. I’m not entirely sure the authors convince me of Black Alice’s motives here. She knows there are brains in those jars, and that they’re alive. It’s not clear she has much to gain by confirming this. So for the only time in the story I found myself thinking.. ‘Black Alice is doing this because the plot wants her to do it, and not because she does‘. A minor criticism, though — and a subjective take.

So what next? Well there’s a reversal of fortune for sure. Black Alice’s fate seems sealed as she stands on hull of the Lavinia Whateley waiting for brain stealing fungal things to come for her. Better still, the seeds of her rescue seem to lie in her empathy with the spaceship (though we might argue that the ship would have incorporated anyone in the crew as part of its lifecycle transition).

There is recognition. There are at least three moments of insight in the story’s climax. Firstly, Black Alice understands the nature of the restraining bolt and how that makes her complicit in an inhumane act. Secondly, she understands that the Mi-Go will punish the crew for the arrogance of their captain. Finally, she understands what it means to be ‘eaten’ by a Boojum. Does this recognition turn inward to represent a change in Black Alice’s character? Perhaps not so much. In many science fiction stories the moment of recognition (and of astonishment) are external. They reveal something fundamental about the setting, about the story world, or the principle under examination. The character is often an agent of that recognition, not its subject.

This final element provides the astonishment too, and of the best kind. Aristotle argued that astonishment should not be arbitrary. In other words the seeds for the astonishment should lie already in the story. You can’t import an astonishing twist. A twist must be astonishing and plausible at the same time. The authors lay this groundwork early on. This is from page 4: “There were stories about the Marie Curie, too.” And this passage from page 10:

They probably knew exactly what was wrong and exactly what to do to keep the Lavinia Whateley from going core meltdown like the Marie Curie had. That was a whispered story, not the sort of thing anybody talked about except in their hammocks after lights out.
The Marie Curie had eaten her own crew.

And there’s more. The Marie Curie‘s crew-eating binge beats through the story like a rising pulse. When we finally learn what this eating entails, it is an astonoshing reversal of expectation, but it is also organically part of the story.

There is identification too. Arisotle said that the audience should feel pity and fear on behalf of the hero. And should not feel disgust. We respond to Black Alice’s empathy for the ship, and for its crew, for the poor tortured brains acquired by the Mi-Go. We understand her ambition to talk to a Boojum. At each stage, her good qualities are contrasted with the those of her foil, the captain. Where she has empathy, the captain has cynicism. Where she wants to help, the captain wants to profit. It is therefore satisfying when the captain falls and Black Alice rises.

I’ve not yet finished with this story. There’s still much to learn from it. I’ll keep on studying and may return to it in a future piece.

For now though, it’s worth summing up. This is a clever story. It plays with pirate tropes without becoming a caricature. Like so many science fiction shorts it’s a puzzle piece. Its climactic reveal exposes a surprising facet of the story world. And yet Black Alice is an emotionally engaging character, and the tentative relationship between her and the Lavinia Whateley is subtly and sensitively drawn.

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Day jobs and writing

Well, it’s been a month since my ten days of blogging. Am I rested? Well not really, because I’ve spent the time catching up with all sorts of writing and day job related issues. Which more or less brings me to this post.

Day jobs are a necessary evil for most writers. There are a lucky few who make enough money from writing alone to fund their lives. For the rest of us, there’s always likely to be a balance involved. This week I noticed a couple of posts which presented two very different perspectives on the writer’s day job. First off at Catie Diabato wrote in praise of the 9 to 5. She celebrated

the ability to support oneself during the creation of the work, beholden to no other entity. I know how to write a book while also having a job. I will never need to rely on grants, a university’s funding, a fellowship, or a retreat to fund my writing time. If I lose my job, I’ll find another, and it almost doesn’t matter what it is (not easy, in this market, but doable, because I have a good job history and skill set, and I’m still young enough to seem like a good investment). I’m making the money myself, and I’m in charge of to whom it gets allocated. It’s me. I’m the one who gets it. And every penny coming in will keep going right to me, when I start the second book, and when I finish it.

Then Go Into The Story replayed an ancient post from 2008 which linked to an equally ancient edition of Cary Tennis’s advice column at The mood here was very different.

In spite of what you believe is possible — that it is possible to “have your day job and keep your integrity” — my experience has been that the concrete, day-to-day forces, sociological and economic, that hold corporations together and make them function, will and must work on you; they will force you to choose. You cannot maintain two completely separate lives. What you are experiencing now, it seems to me, is the pain — the terror, perhaps — of realizing that your occupation must take all of you.

And what do I think? I think that most of us don’t have any choice but to earn money. Especially if we happen to have a mortgage, or horror upon horrors, children. There is, of course, Cyril Connolly‘s famous pram (“there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”). But, hell, I’m not going to be taking the little tykes back to the stork. Anyway, there’s a return-by limitation, I think.

But there is a point to be made about the serious job. The job that wants your concentration, or your evenings, or your creativity. Some occupations want your soul, there’s no getting round it. Perhaps writers should avoid work they enjoy and are good at. But that seems pretty counter-productive.

After a fantastic year doing a Creative Writing MA at UEA I’m about to spend more of my time writing code, and writing about writing code — both of which I love doing. I’m pretty good at them too. The trick is going to be in finding a balance between these new challenges and writing fiction. But that’s the kind of negotiation that most of us have to make here in the real world. I have to believe that, with discipline and some early mornings, I’ll make it work.

In practical terms, this all means that Inflatable Ink now has a sister blog which is part of my my professional site: getInstance(). If you’re at all interested in software development and design patterns (hey, you never know) it may be worth checking out.

At the same time, far from winding things down here, I’ll be taking Inflatable Ink weekly. As in the old days, Friday will be my regular deadline (well, as in the old days, let’s say Friday flopping pathetically over into Saturday). I’ll also be folding my blog, bookshape, which tracks links on the future of the book, into this one.

And now, as Kent Beck writes in the introductions to his books on Xtreme Programming, “Excuse me. I gotta go program.” (I always say that in a kind of Superman voice, in case you’re interested).

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Day 10 (Day 10)

It’s day 10 of my solo Back to Blogging Challenge. Whew.

As soon as you commit to something it’s guaranteed that everything else in your life will go crazy. Sure enough, various unexpected projects and paranoias popped up and keeping to my post-a-day promise was not always easy.

It’s not helped by the fact that my interests lend themselves often to posts that are more substantial than brief. This may explain why I so often seem to have alighted upon ale as my closing topic.

So what have I learned? Most of all, that often if you just start writing you’ll discover what you want to write about. I often overthink posts, and then they don’t get started, let alone finished. The pressure to get on and bash something out demonstrated to me that you can make sense without too much agonising.

I also found I enjoyed those posts in which I drifted through the preoccupations of my day. I suspect this mode is best used sparingly, though. I have a feeling that, like dream diaries, impressionistic literary musings may be more interesting for the writer than the reader.

What now? Well, I have a dissertation and a novel to write, a PhD to prepare for, as well as various shorter projects, not to mention moneymaking preoccupations. I suspect I’ll return Inflatable Ink to a more sedate mode for a while — maybe weekly posts, as well as occasional one-off articles and reviews.

And yes. I’m going to have a beer now. London Pride, I think.

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Friday check in (Day 9)

Today I hit a writing wall. It’s not so much a block as a realisation that I could go on indefinitely in my current direction because I like to describe the sound that metal banisters make in a tiled stairwell and the lemony colour of a sunny courtyard. And I like those lovely quantifiable word counts.

But I know there’s some edge missing. So I took my own advice, and went meta. I wrote as usual, but I wrote about the story rather than writing the story itself. I discovered that I had been revealing too much as I went along. Because Harriet wants this thing, she breaks this law, and here’s what her daughter Mary thinks about that. I realised that if I hid some or part of Harriet’s actions and motivation from Mary, I could make that part of the subject of the story. And in needing to discover why Harriet did such crazy things, I might cure Mary of her insipient passivity.

So that was a thing.

I ran in the sun. I wrote code. I rephrased translated error messages for a client. As I ran I thought about when I was a child and a local boy rode his bike at me on the pavement, how I refused to move for him and how he threw his bike down pushed me up against a lamppost, his hand round my neck. I remember saying to him “you don’t want me… you want Michael up the road.” I can’t remember now why I thought Michael would be a viable alternative victim, but I’ve clearly kept an awareness of having been so spineless with me since then. I wondered if I could give that to a character. Would it define him, or would the character consciously attempt to make amends when tested as an adult? Am I a better person than that now? I hope so, but fear not.

I worried about short story structure, and how I think there’s a magic secret somewhere that eludes me. I bought Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story. I figured I could maybe peel these exemplars apart at their sentences and perhaps pull something warm and beating from one or two. I hatched a plot to write a short story a week for a year. I worried that this was taking on too much. For a while I just worried.

I hung up washing. The cherry tree is giving up fruit for the first time since we planted it. Raspberries have appeared. I despair of our corn, but the beans and peas are going crazy. I poured boiling water on the weeds in the path and felt bad about it for a moment. I sprayed soapy water on the lemon tree in the conservatory — it’s sticky thanks to the oozings of scale. I failed to make bread. And I bought the beer I am about to drink.

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Ancient sports days (Day 8)

Somehow the sports gene passed me by. It’s not that I don’t like exercise — I have to run at least every other day, or I feel even more crabby and irritable than usual. It’s just that for some reason, due either to nature or nurture, I’ve never been able to understand the pleasures that many people derive from following sports teams and idols. Not that I begrudge it. It must be nice to feel part of a tribe, and to be able to talk in the first person plural about team strategies, and to sing songs, and wear special clothes. I’d like to fly flags too. And have stickers. Though, to be honest, on second thoughts, I’d rather steer clear of the clothes.

I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think about this since returning from the States to England. First there was a World Cup, then the Olympics, and most recently Wimbledon. Add to the mix the unrelated but equally mystifying (to me) Jubilee, and I seem to have been in a constant state of vague incomprehension. It no longer drives me mad, though, because we have more TV channels than we used to and I download most of my television. So I’m unlikely to hear this, as I settle down for some weekly TV appointment:

“This week’s episode of [the science fiction series you currently love] is cancelled due to the exciting developments here at [some place that sport happens]. And now back to the action. Look! He’s [thrown a ball or hit it with a stick or something]!”

The other day I wrote about reality TV as analysed by Scarlett Thomas, and the way it often conforms to an Aristotelian structure. Shortly after that I found myself in Anfield, where I saw the outside of the football stadium (so famous, even I’ve heard of it.. albeit vaguely). It looked beautiful and modern and gleaming, floating there with its back turned to street after street of boarded up houses and shuttered businesses. It reminded me that there’s a similar parallel to be made between sport today, and the way the ancients went about things.

Think about superstar sportsmen, for example, and the massive fees they command, their incredible celebrity. It feels like a modern phenomenon. Pundits talk about footballers in the early Twentieth Century who earned little more than a good basic wage for their talents. But in the Second Century, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a charioteer from humble origins earned the equivalent of £9.6 billion in prize money.

And the excitement of the fans was at least as intense then as now, according to Peter Struck at Laphams Quarterly:

For the races, spectators arrived the evening before to stake out good seats. They ate and drank to excess, and fights were common under the influence of furor circensis, the Romans’ name for the mass hysteria the spectacles induced. Ovid recommended the reserve seating as a good place to pick up aristocratic women, and he advised letting your hand linger as you fluff her seat cushion.

We complain that although supporters love their teams, players transfer in and out according to the whims of managers and the spending power of owners. The charioteers of the second century were organised into teams too: the Reds, the Whites, the Greens and the Blues. Factionalism was no less strong then than now. Here’s Pliny the Younger quoted by Barbara McManus at

I am the more astonished that so many thousands of grown men should be possessed again and again with a childish passion to look at galloping horses, and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, they were attracted by the swiftness of the horses or the skill of the men, one could account for this enthusiasm. But in fact it is a bit of cloth they favour, a bit of cloth that captivates them. And if during the running the racers were to exchange colours, their partisans would change sides, and instantly forsake the very drivers and horses whom they were just before recognizing from afar, and clamorously saluting by name. (translated by William Melmoth, H. A. Harris, Sport in Greece and Rome [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972], 220-21)

And the fans’ love of their teams, and hatred of their opponents’ teams, often reached obsessive heights. Here, also quoted by Barbara McManus, is a curse tablet

Help me in the Circus on 8 November. Bind every limb, every sinew, the shoulders, the ankles and the elbows of Olympus, Olympianus, Scortius and Juvencus, the charioteers of the Red. Torment their minds, their intelligence and their senses so that they may not know what they are doing, and knock out their eyes so that they may not see where they are going—neither they nor the horses they are going to drive. (translated by H. A. Harris, Sport in Greece and Rome, 235-36)

Four centuries later in Byzantium, chariot racing remained an obsession, though only the Blues and Greens survived. Rather like the supporters of the contemporary football teams, Celtic and Rangers, supporters of the Blues and Greens were associated with entrenched social, religious and political stances. In 532 a riot actually threatened the reign of the Emperor Justinian. The rebellion was finally and bloodily put down within the walls of the Hippodrome itself. Here is Mike Dash at the Smithsonian Magazine.

Shamed, Justinian determined to stay and fight. Both Belisarius and Narses were with him in the palace, and the two generals planned a counterstrike. The Blues and the Greens, still assembled in the Hippodrome, were to be locked into the arena. After that, loyal troops, most of them Thracians and Goths with no allegiance to either of the circus factions, could be sent in to cut them down.

Imagine a force of heavily armed troops advancing on the crowds in the MetLife Stadium or Wembley and you’ll have some idea of how things developed in the Hippodrome, a stadium with a capacity of about 150,000 that held tens of thousands of partisans of the Greens and Blues. While Belisarius’ Goths hacked away with swords and spears, Narses and the men of the Imperial Bodyguard blocked the exits and prevented any of the panicking rioters from escaping. “Within a few minutes,” John Julius Norwich writes in his history of Byzantium, “the angry shouts of the great amphitheater had given place to the cries and groans of wounded and dying men; soon these too grew quiet, until silence spread over the entire arena, its sand now sodden with the blood of the victims.”

Drawing parallels between the the past and present is tempting and perilous. But from country to country, and era to era, we reinvent the same modes, and succumb to the same obsessions. I bet the Romans cancelled science fiction plays too, when the chariot races overran.

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From the craft books: Premise (Day 7)

“So, what’s it about?”

This can be a strangely perplexing question when you’re sunk deep in the writing process. Sometimes the only answer available to me is something like “It’s about 5000 words.”

[I wrote that line before I read this lovely post by Neil Gaiman about the death of Iain Banks. It seems Banks was once what The Wasp Factory is about and replied “It’s about 180 pages”.]

I can afford to feel my way to the root of a short story as I work. I can back up and run again at the problem as many times as necessary
Some people apply this approach to novel writing, too. For them, it’s only by writing the novel they discover its heart. For a narrative that might weigh in at 90,000 words, this can be a costly process, though. Others argue that it’s better to have a sense of a story’s core before you begin writing.

To this end, many writers use a premise statement (or, in screenwriter parlance, a logline). The premise statement distils the essence of a story. According to its advocates, it comes into its own both at the very beginning and at the very end of the novel’s project. At the end, it provides the kind of summation you might offer to a publisher or an agent. At the start, it provides a trajectory for your writing. It keeps you on course, whether you’re outlining or not.

Laura Whitcomb, author of Novel Shortcuts writes:

The premise is a statement that briefly describes your story. it covers the main issue, the problem that arcs across the entire novel. For me, a good premise also needs to state whom the story is about and where the story takes place.

So, that’s character, problem, and setting. Whitcomb stresses that all three of these should be vivid and well-developed. In particular the problem should be serious, intractable (make sure there isn’t an obvious solution that you’re conveniently ignoring for plot purposes), and durable enough to sustain an entire novel.

In Outlining Your Novel, KM Weiland argues that a premise sentence should identify the novel’s central idea, its protagonist and its core conflict. So, the premise sentence for her novel Dreamlander is:

Renegade Journalist Chris Reston discovers his dreams are really memories of a world he lives in while he sleeps, which he will, reluctantly, have to fight to save from destruction.

We might render this as a formula something like:

[protagonist with characteristic] [lives in the world of the novel’s idea] [and must fight in some way] [to achieve an important thing]

Or, perhaps

[protagonist with characteristic] [encounters seemingly insurmountable problem] [and must fight in some way] [to achieve ultimate goal]

This captures quite a lot, though it remains resolutely in the external realm. Elsewhere in her book, Weiland addresses both theme and the relationship between the protagonist’s inner and outer quest. Some writers attempt to pull at least some of this into the premise statement itself. New Zealand author MJ Wright, for example, proposes a similar model for the premise sentence, but pushes it along a little further. Here’s his take on Lord of the Rings:

Unwilling halfling has to find the courage to face the power of the Dark Lord in a quest to destroy a cursed ring that threatens the world.

So that might break down to:

[protagonist with characteristic] [has to overcome inner weakness] [to face external threat] [and achieve an end] [or bad things will happen]

This model adds a couple of elements to Weiland’s version. Firstly, and most importantly, he has included an inner weakness. The halfling must conquer his fear before he can complete his external quest. Secondly, Wright has separated the quest from the stakes. This is a fine distinction, but an important one. The objective is a thing in itself, and the consequences of failure make it matter.

The logline, Wright argues,

doesn’t recount the plot; it describes the character arc – in effect, the emotional effect of the book on the reader.

In Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maas provides a less prescriptive premise definition. A premise, he says, is

any single image, moment feeling or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages, or perhaps to serve as a finish line: an ending so necessary that every step of the journey burns to be taken.

While the premise doesn’t have a particular structure for Maas, it remains a foundation stone. A successful premise must, he argues, encompass plausibility, inherent conflict (primarily of milieu), originality (a fresh perspective), and gut emotional appeal. Maas builds an example which runs to a paragraph rather than a sentence. Nonetheless, it defines a protagonist with an inner weakness and an outer objective. It describes barriers that must be overcome, and ultimate stakes.

James N Frey agrees that a premise is an essential writing tool. In How To Write Damn Good Fiction he argues that

There is no more powerful concept in fiction writing that of premise. If you structure your stories with a strong premise in mind, your novel will be well focused and dramatically powerful, and it will hold your readers from beginning to end.

To Frey a premise is

A statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the conflict of the story.

A premise is a proposition. It is something that must be ‘proved’ in the story’s unfolding. It is made up of two parts. Firstly, the subject of the story—what it’s about—and, secondly, the consequences for the character of this. So, for Frey, a typical premise is:

Obsessive love leads to suicide.

So that’s something like:

[subject] [causes] [an effect for the characters]

Frey itemises three types of premise. A chain reaction premise, which we saw above, encapsulates a series of causally related events that result in a final effect. This kind of premise might typically include the phrase ‘leads to’. A chance encounter on a train leads to death.

An opposing forces premise sets two camps at each others’ throats. This opposition may comprise the entire premise: Love overcomes Corporate Greed. Alternatively, the opposition may may form the causal ground for a chain reaction: Duty to political party vs love leads to death.

A situational premise applies a common situation to multiple characters. In fact, this is often a portmanteau premise. A novel might show the effects of an earthquake on three families, for example, and might encompass grief, heroism and selfishness in three separate sub-premises.

Frey is careful to disambiguate premise—“the statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story”, theme—what the story is about: fear of death, or corporate greed, and moral—a novel’s message or take way lesson.

Other craft writers are less focused on a definition for premise. Still, they advocate an initial formulation that might combine aspects of some or all of Frey’s premise, theme and moral.

Scarlet Thomas, for example, defines three elements: A narrative question, a thematic question and a seed word.

The seed word is at once the simplest and hardest premise-like concept. It should sum up the essence of your novel in a single word. Get it right, Thomas argues, and it will drive your writing.

Everything in your novel is somehow contained in it and will grow from it

The seed word will tend to answer the question: what is your novel about? So words like betrayal, or greed, will be more useful than others like elbow or socks.

The thematic question grows naturally from the seed word. It should sum up the underlying project of a novel. It tends to be a nature of question. What is the nature of love? It is, according to Thomas, the main point of the novel.

Your thematic question is an important question that you will never answer. It is important how you frame this; it should be a universal, open question (”what is power?”) rather than a personal, limited question (”Should I be kind to my horse?”).

The narrative question is much more plotty than themey — It’s the problem a character must solve to get what she wants:

Narrative questions will intrigue your reader and keep him or her reading. Will Cinderella go to the ball? Will Hamlet kill Claudius… A question like this will usually be the main reason we start engaging with a piece of fiction.

Thomas provides an excellent illustration of this hierarchy of premise elements. Imagine, she says, you’re at a party and someone asks you what your novel is about.

say in a dignified way, ‘I hope it’s going to be about power’, or ‘I suppose I want it to be about energy’. Then if the person wants to know more you can reveal your thematic question. ‘Well, I really want to ask about the extent to which power moves around. You know electricity moves around but political influence doesn’t seem to, I’m really interested in that.’ If pressed further, you can move on to your narrative question. ‘The main story is about this guy whose sister was kidnapped by a religious cult that said it could store divine power in these weird batteries..’

I like this for two reasons. Firstly it addresses that “what’s it about?” problem so neatly. Secondly it lets me imagine being invited to the kind of party at which people ask me about my novel. I’ll have a nice bottle of Adnams Broadside ale, thanks, and then I’ll tell you.

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