19 February 2020

Premises, Premises

I recently had an amazing insight into my own writing.  You might say: Well, after forty years it's about time.  To which I reply: Don't be obnoxious.

And the insight which, as I said, amazed me, may strike you as blindingly obvious.  Even tautological. That's a problem with great discoveries: like magician's tricks they can be boring when they're explained.  But let's give it a shot.

I have always said that I am strong at characters and premises, but weak at plot.  So, what's the difference between a premise and a plot?  Think of the premise as the elevator pitch for the story:

The Premise: An orphan boy discovers that he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school.

The Plot (greatly condensed): At the school he makes friends and enemies, learns about magic and his family history, and struggles with a sorcerer who is plotting to kill him.

Or, to move into our own field...

The Premise: A private detective seeks to find who murdered his partner.

The Plot (greatly condensed): He learns that their client is mixed up with an international gang searching for a priceless medieval artwork.

This reminds me of Donald E. Westlake's Drowned Hopes.  In the middle of a complicated caper (which almost kills him)  John Dortmunder bails out and refuses to participate.  His partner hopes one of the other members of the gang and take over:

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”
“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

I feel for you, Andy. As I said, I am pretty good at coming up with premises for stories, but working out the details of a plot is a struggle.  That may be why I have a whole notebook full of ideas that don't seem about to bloom into publishable woks any time soon.

Now, another fact: I tend to write shorter-than-average stories.  I currently have eight tales that have been purchased by magazine or anthologies but not yet published.  They average out to about 3,900 words.  The Derringer Awards separate their Short and Long Story categories at 4,000 words, so you can see where I fall.  (And my median is even lower: 3,600 words.)

So now we get to the blazing discovery I just made.  Ready?  The reason I write short is that in very short pieces the premise is the plot.  For example, consider my story "Why" which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The Premise:  A cop resigns because of a discovery he made while investigating the motive of a mass murderer.

The Plot (Not at all condensed): Same as the above.

See what I mean?  Now, I don't blame you if you're reaction to this shocking insight is: Well, duh.  But it was news to me.

I have to sit with this discovery for a while, and try to see if it helps me with my plotting problem.  Meanwhile, I hope some of those eight stories find their way into print in the coming year.  At least most of them won't take up too many pages.


  1. Just remember short is beautiful!
    I do like the Westlake character's excuse- many writers would echo his problem exactly.

  2. I also like Westlake's description of ideas vs a plan. That's a good way to look at premise vs. plot.

  3. Interesting. No easy way out of it, I guess. Sometimes I come up with a knowing destination. How it'll end or how it might end and start the characters moving and follow along.

  4. I'm in the same boat with you, Rob. I can come up with characters or dialogue like snapping my fingers, but plot...?

    It's hard work simply understanding that a premise will or won't work for a story...OR carry an entire novel. Non-writers don't get that.

    I tell my writing workshops that I take about 15 months to write a novel and the first three is developing the plot from a basic premise. My mind doesn't work in a linear manner (there are debates about how or if it actually does work), so plot is tough. I change the order of the events to make a stronger cause/effect relationship constantly, and that's another couple of months. After all that, revision is a relief, and I love it.

    MAYBE that's why I'm moving more and more to short stories. I'm having more trouble coming up with premises that will carry an entire novel, and you only need a few scenes for a short story...maybe only ONE.

    And congratulations on having eight stories ready to go.

  5. I'm with you, Rob--the ideas come quick, the plots take awhile. I myself love the very short stories, probably for the reason you gave, but I seem to be writing more longer ones lately. (Venturing off the premises?)

    Interesting column!

  6. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I write short stories because I haven't got enough time to make them shorter....

    Good stuff as always, Rob!

  7. I'm with you, Rob - I can come up with an idea and characters and dialogue - but getting from A to B to C with a couple of red herrings, etc., is just misery. Just misery.

  8. Never thought of this before, Rob. I don't seem to have much trouble with plot. My weakness is descriptions. The pattern I see in work like Westlake's is that he keeps piling on obstacles. This is particularly obvious in the Dortmunder stories. I also try to give each major character a secret. Don't always need to have it revealed, but can come in handy. I don't plot ahead. I simply stick in bad things happening to the main character, and know that things will become clearer when she or he learns people's secrets. Hope your new insight gives you some peace.

  9. Strictly a view from the outside looking in, but methinks ye sell yourself short. You craft amazing little stories.

    And anyone who comes up with a title of Premises, Premises is a genius.

  10. Good insight, Robert. When I wrote my five novels, I was in part a "plotter" and in part a "pantser," but when I shifted to short stories, it mostly boiled down to premises. Like why can't dragonflies spit fire (worth a page and a half); or an insurance company that ONLY insures against acts of God (one page); or a little girl builds a sandcastle, but it's haunted (four and a half pages). Then the challenge, at least for me, is how to structure that premise into a real story. But as I often say (with tongue firmly in cheek) "I'm going to live forever. So far, so good."

  11. You had me at Dortmunder.

    But you (and Andy, honestly) may be soft-selling a major skill: that continual string of inventive premises. That's not nothing. Or else how does Dortmunder learn about the hot rocks and mobile banks and car collections? No string of premises, maybe not so many stories.

    And I totally have the same problem. I can get someone into trouble, but getting them out?

  12. I'll try a different approach to this problem in my own blog tomorrow. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  13. Clearly I struck a nerve here. Thanks for all the comments (and sympathy). I should also thank FredFitch who runs The Westlake Rerview for finding me that quote from Man and Andy. I THOUGHT it was in Drowned Hopes, but I couldn't track it down...

  14. I didn't know this. Fascinating.


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