How do you expand a premise into a story?
April 29, 2004 1:39 PM   Subscribe

Creativity question: How do you expand a premise into a story? More inside....

i'm good at designing characters and making up situations but putting them into stories are really hard for me. Do you guys have any, i don't know, special techniques or something for making a premise into a fully-fledged story? Or should i just try to find a collaborator?
posted by Miles Long to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
May I recommend the Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot? It's a short piece by Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage, on how to create riveting page-turning fiction. A lot of people look down on plot-driven fiction, but Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens did it and their works are now considered classics. Have fun!
posted by Orkboi at 2:22 PM on April 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: awesome.
posted by Miles Long at 3:13 PM on April 29, 2004

Some tips from Orson Scott Card:

1) Work backward. What happened before the part you've already come up with? (This is how "Ender's Game" became a novel.)

2) Add a second and maybe a third unrelated idea to your first -- the less related the better. One idea (e.g. your premise) is kind of a thin thread to hang a story on.
posted by kindall at 4:11 PM on April 29, 2004

I highly recommend this book.

Once you have your character and your situation, ask yourself what it is your character wants (love, fame, money, etc.). It should be something that is not too easy to attain. Then add obstacles in your character's way until he/she overcomes them and attains their goal.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 4:21 PM on April 29, 2004

The way I do it is to figure out where I want the characters to be (emotionally/physically/whatever) when the story is over, then nudge them toward that conclusion.

Figuring out how they get there turns a premise into a story, and figuring out how they get there feeds into your skills with characterization. If you know that Mary Sue Jones is timid and shy, figuring out how to get her to stand on stage and sing the National Anthem at the Superbowl, while still maintaining her integrity as Mary Sue Jones, creates your story. It's all variables, what will she do (given the right circumstances,) what won't she do (no matter what,) and nudge, nudge, nudge until the circumstances over the course of the story work out so that your shy Mary Sue willingly takes the stage (or chickens out at the last minute,) by the end.
posted by headspace at 4:42 PM on April 29, 2004

Check out:


This is (1.) a unique theory of of the underlying psychology of storytelling and (2.) a somewhat pricey software implimentation thereof. The learning curve is extremely intimidating, but once you grasp the ideas it is a very seductive approach to analyzing story dynamics. It won't write your stories for you -- but it will point out weaknesses in a manner that will prod and inspire you. This makes it particularly effective for brainstorming when you only have a few elements of a story. You can enter it at any point. Got a great character? A great scene? And ending? A theme you wish to explore? Dramatica is very useful at helping you flesh these out into robust stories. Check out the General FAQ and take a look at a fantastic Screenwriting tutorial by Armando Saldaña Mora. If you want a gentle introduction, read their PDF-based Comic Book. There is an interesting section on the site where they suggest how some well-known stories could be improved using Dramatica theory. They also have extensive story analyses, but you need to understand some fundamentals before you can really appreciate these.

If Dramatica is too overwhelming, you might take a look at Truby's Blockbuster.

Unlike Dramatica, which applies to all sorts of writing, Truby caters to screenwriters and excels at offering suggestions specific to the beats found in various genres. Poke through the website and read a few of John Truby's film analyses. If you agree with him, you'll probably like his software. Truby has (2) major drawbacks -- it has a very clunky (FoxPro) interface, and it is horrendously expensive. And that expense doesn't even include the add-ons for each genre. ;) Nonetheless, the information is very helpful. His lectures are very popular (and are snapped up immediately on ebay whenever they appear).

In the interest of fairplay, I should give a plug to my friend, Jeff Schechter, a WORKING screenwriter who runs the TotallyWrite website. Jeff, familiar with both Dramatica and Truby, found them both lacking; either too expensive, too clunky, too complex, too whatever. He lectures on story structure and has recently started offering it on his website, along with a program that helps you develop your story. I have no firsthand experience with his program (yet), but I can assure you he is well-respected for giving extremely lucid, knowledgeable, and practical advice.

And if your prefered genre is action/adventure, you might want to check out Bill Martell's website. Another working writer, he publishes what is probably THE most comprehensive book on the subject.
posted by RavinDave at 5:01 PM on April 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

I think you should just forget all this and try to write it. See how far you get. Then you'll know what you need help with. Indiscriminately (or even discriminately) reading books on how to write can be very wearying, and they can make you doubt yourself before you even get started.
posted by bingo at 5:32 PM on April 29, 2004

If you're really good with characters, you could write one, place them somewhere, then drop them and go to another character, placing them elsewhere--and try to have them, or their situations, intersect or cross paths or come together. It'd be an interesting exercise in tying story threads together, if not successful as a complete story.
posted by amberglow at 5:46 AM on April 30, 2004

Response by poster: thanks everyone for your responses!

amberglow- that's kind of where i'm at right now. All my stories so far seem to be 'gimmick' stories. Like telling two stories simultaneously, or doing a 'real time' thing (ticking bomb, drug that kills you at midnight). there's nothing really wrong with gimmicks, i guess, it's just comics after all (ha ha, only serious)

kindall- thank you Orson Scott! both especially great suggestions. Work backwards (and forwards) from the situations you have. incidentally, the second one (add another unrelated element into the mix) is a technique often used in the visual arts. I do it a lot myself in painting.

you guys rock.
posted by Miles Long at 9:52 AM on April 30, 2004

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