Promise of the Premise

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At the outset of my career I read a lot of books and articles on the hero’s journey and the three act structure and while I found them interesting, I had a difficult time really internalizing the information.  I could objectively see what the authors were talking about, but I couldn’t apply it to my own stories.  I just didn’t get it.

Then, I attended a workshop with Michael Hague and he blew my mind.  His background is in movies which have a fairly rigid structure that’s fairly easily translatable to writing novels (where the structure doesn’t need to be as rigid).  Something about Hague’s explanation of the 3 Act structure just made sense to me (you can find an overview of his approach here).

Except that I still struggled with one part: the stretch between the second turning point (25% of the way into the story) and the midpoint (50% of the way into the story).  This is the part of the story that Hague calls “Stage Three” in which progress occurs: “your hero’s plan seems to be working as he takes action to achieve his goal…whatever obstacles your hero faces, he is able to avoid or overcome them.” 

But even this explanation never really helped me.  I understand the first quarter of a story where you introduce everyone/everything and start ratcheting up the tension, and I understand taking the characters from the “Point of No Return” (50%) and doubling down on the trouble to begin the furious pace toward the black moment and the end.  But I’ve never really known what to do between those two points — the 25%-50% aka Stage Three.  So much so, that with almost every book I’ve written I’ve gotten to around 17-20k words and then found myself stuck.  

And then recently I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat which was a huge eye-opener.  Snyder’s background was also in screenwriting and I’ve found his approach — a 16 point beat sheet (link) — very useful.  Under his approach, the stretch between the 25% and 50% is the “Fun and Games” beat and this is where you find the Promise of the Premise.

Snyder describes the Promise of the Premise as the “heart of the movie” and the “core and essence of the movie’s poster.”  This is the part of the movie that makes the idea cool — the reason you go to see it.  Think of any commercial movie premise and then think about what that premise promises — this is the part of the story where you’ll find it.  

In Tootsie you have a man dressing as a woman in order to land a role on a TV show.  Immediately you know some of the scenes that have to be in the movie: Dustin Hoffman struggling to dress as a woman; the comedy of him getting hit on by men, etc.  In Night at the Museum you have a security guard, Ben Stiller, working at the Smithsonian where everything comes alive at night.  You know right away that you’re going to have several scenes of that happening: the museum coming alive and the security guard trying to deal with it (and notice — those are the scenes that show up most in the trailer because trailers are all about delivering the premise).  This is the part of the story where the new millionaire goes on a shopping spree or the new superhero plays with his powers.

Snyder calls this part of the story “fun and games” for a reason — maybe the characters aren’t enjoying it all that much, but the audience is.  This is where we indulge in the premise even as we’re laying the groundwork for the conflict that will come to a head at the midpoint.  And when you think about Hague’s description of the third stage — that this is where the progress occurs, where the characters are meeting obstacles but able to overcome them — it makes sense.  In the above examples Dustin Hoffman is dealing with those aspects of pretending to be a woman, Ben Stiller survives the museum coming alive.  We haven’t yet gotten to the point where the stakes are raised and there’s no turning back; where suddenly the character begins to struggle more and more with obstacles which throws his success into question.

 So now, whenever I find myself 17-20k into a draft and stuck, I ask myself, “what’s the promise of my premise?” What are the scenes that must exist for the premise to work?  What is the book or movie promising in the title, cover/poster, flap copy/trailer?   Figuring that out makes the 25%-50% stretch of the book much easier to draft!

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15 comments to Promise of the Premise

  • Love this, Carrie, and needed it right now. I’m just getting to the 30k word mark on a book that should come in somewhere between 100k and 110k. In other words, I’m just entering the sweet spot of the problem area. And last week, after struggling with the direction of the novel for several days, I realized just where I needed to take the story. And yes, I wound up steering the story into an exploration of the book’s central premise, so I guess (for now) I’m doing this right.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  • ::grin:: I, too, attended a Michael Hague class and found him to be *wonderful* at helping me to flesh out the inevitably sagging middles of my stories. I’ve had lots (and lots and lots) of people recommend the Snyder book — and I love the idea of “Fun and Games” — just the designation makes me feel more optimistic about conquering that part of my ms. Thanks for the push for me to follow through on a long-standing promise to myself and Read The Book (er, um, Save The Cat)…

  • Carrie, I never heard of this but it totally works! I have always reached that point and stopped struggled and finally made do with, “OK, idiot. What the heck is this book about?” But the promise and the premise is so much clearer and cleaner and descriptive of what I was trying to do. I totally GOT IT.

  • Ken

    Thanks Carrie! I’m closing in on the “Fun and games” section of my WIP and this couldn’t have come at a better time. AND thanks for the links. That Beatsheet looks pretty useful and “Save the Cat” has been on my radar for a LONG time.

  • David — glad you figured out where to take the book! Usually when I hit a spot where I don’t know what’s next I obsessively order books on craft 🙂

    Mindy — I love Hague! I bought his Hero Journey DVD and often take it on writing retreats where it blows peoples minds. I’ve probably seen his workshop a dozen times and I still get something out of it every time. I’d started Save the Cat a while back but hadn’t gotten that far into it. Recently a friend mentioned his 16 beats and urged me to at least read that far (or skip the beginning and go straight to that part) and I’m glad I did. His beats make a lot of sense and I think they fit in well with Hague’s structure.

    Faith — glad that helped! That part of the book has always been a struggle for me. Often I feel like I’m just lost in the woods.

    Ken — I hope the beat sheet works! Hague also has some great articles on his website and it looks like the Save the Cat website had a good blog as well. As I mentioned to Mindy above — a friend told me that I needed to read about the 16 beats in Save the Cat even if that meant skipping the first part of the book. I’m glad she pressed me to read it because it’s gone to the top of my helpful craft books list.

  • Good stuff. I’ve read about these approaches, but I’ve never seen these handy .pdf files which make the process so much more approachable. Thank you.

  • Very timely post for me, Carrie! Thank you!

    I am planning a story and I am needing to flesh out that “fun & games section”. Your posthas steered me into a good direction.

  • Thank you thank you for the post. The timing couldn’t be better for me. I am currently stuck in exactly that spot, and have been floundering around trying to get myself unstuck. This helps clarify what why I’m stuck and what I can do about it. And I’m looking forward to reading more about the 16 Beats.

  • I too only understood a vague description of the three act structure. I think this is what I needed to know for a novel I sat aside just because I didn’t where to go with it. I like this idea. The examples really brought the point home. This is one of the post I’ll bookmark. Thx.

  • Glad it helped WaitforHim! I’m happy to write more structure posts in the future if that’s something y’all are interested in!

    SiSi — that’s the spot I always, without fail, get stuck in. Thankfully, that’s also around the length of a book proposal so I get to postpone trying to figure it out – lol!

    Mark – there are some great posts out there on point. If you google “Promise of the Premise” you’ll find a bunch of them!

    DeepForestGreen — I also found this file which is a downloadable spreadsheet that will calculate the word counts for the beats in any length novel. Very handy! http://lizwritesbooks.com/savethecat/

  • Gypsyharper

    Very helpful post. I’ve been hearing a lot about Save the Cat lately, but was unfamiliar with Hague. I will definitely check them both out. I’m just starting to understand this whole three-act structure thing, but it seems like this might be part of the reason I keep getting stuck, too.

  • quillet

    I’d heard of Save the Cat but not Michael Hauge, and your links sent me on a small journey through the net and then a longer one through my WIP. The results are extremely helpful. 🙂 Thank you! …And more posts on structure? Yes, please!

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  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for this great post. Everything plot related baffles me almost all the time, but the way you’ve described this section here makes such great sense, and sounds *really* useful in translating cool-new-shiny ideas into actual plot components. Thank you!

  • Megan B.

    Very nice tips and tools. I always get a little nervous at this kind of thing, though. I wonder how much we, as writers, can get away with bending these “rules.”