Story at a Glance

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Review – Anatomy of a Premise Line

Jeff Lyons and I might share a story spirit animal. (Whatever that might be; making a note for a future blog post now.)

His Anatomy of a Premise Line is close enough to my own view of story development that it could arguably go in my core list. It might still. Just his use of the word “premise” was enough to get me interested in the book, considering Lajos Egri’s take on premise provided one of the greatest insights I’ve encountered about story design.

But Lyons’ using Egri’s conception of premise as a jumping off point for his own proved just the beginning of our kindred views of story. The first few pages reveals not only his similarly left-brained approach to presenting information—step-by-step, icon-driven, outlined structure—but what feels like a Vulcan mind meld when it comes to my thoughts on story.

Yes, story should come first, before writing; you create a houseplan before you build a house. Yes, writing and story are different things, and indeed different skillsets altogether. (The latter I realized after consistently feeling good about the words I’d written but less so about the story I was telling.) And yes, premise—like the “organizing principle” that I’ve also used—is like the banks of a river, my own favorite analogy, giving form and direction to your story.

Mind you, I’m not saying these thinks have never been thunked before. But at least based on my reading over thirty years, they are surprisingly rare in the literature, especially the distinction between writing and storytelling.1 Ditto between an actual narrative story and merely a situation, a distinction I hadn’t teased out as much in my own head. I knew that situations can help drive great stories (Back to the Future comes immediately to mind, and two of my own scripts lean heavily on them), but I hadn’t distinguished as much as Lyons does the different character of each to ensure your story really is a story, rather than a situational idea. It’s a crucial distinction to draw before starting to write.

Just as it’s the execution of an idea that matters more than the idea itself, though, such ideas already being available in various sources isn’t enough. They have to be presented in such a way that a reader not only understands them clearly but can apply them. Now maybe it’s just my left-brain feeling the love again, but to me that’s where Anatomy of a Premise Line rises above most books in the genre. All of these ideas are presented, and the logical conclusions about how they impact story design and development are drawn, clearly, concisely, and coherently, and in a step-wise fashion that makes it easy for anyone to apply them to their own story ideas.

Getting to the Point

The real value for most storytellers, I suspect, comes in Lyons’ thoughtful expansion of Egri’s “premise,” and the process he supplies for creating one for your own story, to nail down exactly what the story is. With the moral component he introduces into it, it reminds me of a marriage between Egri’s “premise” and McKee’s “controlling idea.” Egri’s has always had more of a true “moral of the story” flavor to me, with a more traditional sense of moral judgement to it: “this character trait leads to that ultimate fate.” Compare McKee’s “this resolution happens because of that truism manifest in the protagonist’s choices.” That could certainly end up as explicitly moral, in a traditional sense, as Egri’s, but to me is more generally utilitarian and consequentialist. Both are helpful in their own way in examining your characters and your story, but I’d been casually seeking a way to combine them in my own head to make them work together.

Enter the Lyons den. For me, his construction is somewhat of a happy medium of the two, strongly clausal like McKee’s but echoing Egri by using a moral compass to fashion those clauses. The heart of Anatomy is a rigorous process of creating a robust premise line, one that fully expresses the narrative and moral heart of your story. The goal, of course, is to give writers a clear enough understanding and vision of their stories that they can intelligently, rationally separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of what belongs in their story and what doesn’t.

Based on the writers I know, some will love Lyons’ strongly methodical, logical approach while others will take a more a la carte approach to it. Obviously I lean towards the first as it reflects and appeals so much to my own personality, but I think even those who strain against such pragmatic approaches can still find it extremely helpful at least in forcing them to think about how theirs is different, and how much that matters. After all, being exposed to different ideas and methods has helped people clarify their own since the dawn of man.

All in all, Anatomy of a Premise Line is simply one of the best books for understanding the real nature of a story on a theoretical basis out there thanks to its eminently accessible structure, and I do think everyone who wants to be a better storyteller will greatly benefit from its practical exploration and application of Lyons’ theoretical approach.

1 Which also in my experience is the most common actual reason for “writer’s” block. In the vast majority of cases over the years where I’ve inquired about someone’s “writer’s block,” the problem was in fact “story block”—literally not knowing what should come next in their story, rather than not being able to write the words to tell that story. And hey, look at that: Lyons devotes chapter 11 to that very idea. YES.)

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