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Premise vs. Plot

(Spoiler warning: In this post, I talk about the plot of the children’s book The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. If you haven’t read the book yet, get it. If you haven’t seen the movie… get the book.)

A few years ago, a friend and I had an idea for a story: a sister and brother fall in love with the same person.

I’m sure the idea has been done thousands of times, especially in the 90’s when gay characters were hip and “edgy”, but we were very excited about it and met a number of times to brainstorm a story.

Six months and over a dozen stops and starts later, we still didn’t have much more than the original idea. Why? What went wrong? What were we missing?…

A plot!

It’s a very common problem. Writers can be so excited about an idea that they get all dressed up and realize they have nowhere to go. It’s as if we started working on The Polar Express with just the idea of a magic train appearing on a little boy’s front lawn.

Ok, cool. THEN what? Well, he gets on the train and, uh, takes a ride to… somewhere…

If you’re lucky, the logistics of who, where, what, when will just fall into place, but more often you’ll find you have so many options to choose from that the story ends up going nowhere.

On the flip side, I pitched some ideas to a group of my fellow students at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and at the end of each pitch they seemed bored. I asked why and they said I was pitching plots, and they already know stories that have the same plots. Why were they supposed to be interested in my story?

I didn’t have a magic train premise, or “hook” to get the audience interested. It’s as though I said, “a kid takes a train to the North Pole, meets Santa, receives the first gift of Christmas and in the end continues to believe in the magic of Christmas.”

Ok… neat, but everyone has heard stories like that before. Boring. 

So, if you have no plot or no premise, what do you do?

In either case, your audience will be asking the same thing: Why do I care? And the answer to that question is always CHARACTER.

The character of your story is the reason why people care. The character has problems or goals that the audience can relate to. It’s those problems or goals that allow the premise to stir them from their current situation, pushing them out the door and into a series of events (plot). Hopefully those events will challenge and encourage those relatable problems or goals until an inevitable success or failure for the character. It begins and ends with character.

What does a magic train mean to this particular little boy? What would meeting Santa and receiving the first gift of Christmas mean to him? (Note: The book and the movie differ on this.)

Why does falling in love with the same person challenge these particular siblings as individuals? Or as a family? What would it mean to me if I were in their shoes, or if I were the one they both loved?

With any idea, find something about the character(s) that you can emotionally connect to, or move on to a different idea. Otherwise, you will be stabbing at the dark for six months wondering what to do with the magic train parked in your front yard!

Good luck! I hope that helps.

  1. johnhallow
    03/29/2012 at 5:51 PM

    Extremely useful! I was wondering why I was having so much trouble with fleshing out my story ideas. I knew it had something to do with premise and plot, but I couldn’t figure out exaclty WHAT! I’m glad I googled it xD I’ll focus on my main character🙂

    • 03/30/2012 at 10:00 PM

      Thanks, John! Glad I could help.

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