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Writing Lecture/Objective Eleven
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Dramatic Premise

Definition of Dramatic - 1) of or relating to the drama, 2a) suitable to or characteristic of the drama: vivid, 2b) striking in appearance or effect.  Dramatic applies to speech or action having the power of deeply stirring the imagination or the emotions.

Definition of Premise - 1) to set forth beforehand as introductory or as postulated, 1b) to offer as a premise in an argument, 2) to presuppose or imply as preexistent: postulate.

A dramatic premise is the heartbeat of the work.  It's something you need to be passionate about, something that gets you spun up.  As you write you need to keep constantly asking yourself, Is this segment contributing to the dramatic premise?.

Now, let me digress for just a minute.  In this class, we are in Phase One of the writing process.  We probably don't have a dramatic premise in mind yet.  We are free flowing like the avant garde writers, following our conscious and muse to lead wherever it takes us.  This is where you can afford to do this—not in Phase Two when you seriously begin to write the novel.  So don't despair if you haven't figured out at this point what your premise is.  However, keep the need in mind because by the time you finish the six vignettes, you will be required to know what it is.

What the writer is doing with a dramatic premise is putting a gloved ultimatum to the reader.  It is a challenge. It says in essence, This story is about the way people behave. If you find it troubling or offensive, then look within yourself for that mote in your eye.  If the shoe fits put it on, or better yet, if it's uncomfortable exchange it for one that fits right.  After all the audience is made up of individuals, and each has a will.  They are big boys and girls, capable of making changes when established behaviors are self destructive.  What sets us apart from the animals is that we can learn things through imagination without experiencing them first hand on the playground of real life.

How you come up with a dramatic premise is pretty straight forward.  It's something actively stated in simple terms.  It's the backbone of a novel upon which all else rests.  It shows a relationship between two key ideas linked by an active verb.  Take a look at the following example.

         *BookStack3*   Idea #1 (Active Verb) Idea #2   *BookStack3*

*BulletO*  1.  Love conquers everything.
*BulletO*  2.  Jealously kills the one we love.
*BulletO*  3.  Suspicion undermines the trust we have in one another.
*BulletO*  4.  Rage drives the human spirit from our lives.
*BulletO*  5.  Kindness soothes the pain of reality.

The key is this needs to be a relationship you feel strongly about, strongly enough to pour your creative energies into a serious work such as a novel, stage or screen drama.  It is your reality check to help you realize if the story is getting off track.  It is alarm bells going off—a wake-up call that your muse is leading you off on a tangent.  This is not an issue right now, but it will be in Phase Two.  Once you decide what it is, you need to paste it on the wall, so you never lose track of it.

There are two types of dramatic premises: one that tells you what to do and one that tells you what not to do.  These are called positive and negative premises.  For my part, I tend to like a more positive one.  Note the examples below.

*BulletO*  A loving heart makes someone a better person. 
*BulletO*  A helping hand leads to a better world. 
*BulletO*  Prayer leads to a sense of humility.

They go on and on, and each one should be a unique expression of something you believe strongly in.  This is what your work is all about and serves as a constant reminder that your story is on the right track.

In the military one of the first steps in the planning process was an estimate of the situation.  The first step in the estimate is defining the problem.  In order to avoid a go/no go outcome and instead have a number of discrete possibilities, a planner uses the standard template: The problem is to determine the best way to . . .  This is opposed to one that might read: We need decide between X and Y.

The same idea holds true for a dramatic premise.  Don't say, Lying is wrong, or Greed is self-serving, or God is great.  This sort of premise puts you in a box with only two choices.  Rather say something like, Hope leads to an eternal optimism, or Charity leads to a kinder world.  This sort of open-ended relationship offers infinitely more room for the variations and possibilities than one with a simple on/off switch.

In the Workshop, you are attempting to discover what this premise is.  You come up with a Straw Man and begin from there.  This straw man becomes a working assumption, and you follow it until something better comes along, or until your gut hunch proves to be correct.  Nothing is etched in stone to begin with. You latch onto the coattails of your muse and follow along for the ride.

Percy Goodfellow - Workshop Instructor
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