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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Authentic Swing

By Steven Pressfield
Published: December 10, 2014

[Continuing our look back at The Legend of Bagger Vance, seeking writers' lessons and insights on the book's 20th anniversary. P.S. Don't forget this year's Black Irish Christmas Special, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered (only 2500 available) anniversary edition of Bagger Vance.]

Matt Damon as Rannulph Junah in "The Legend of Bagger Vance." Behind him, left, is Michael Moncrief as the story's narrator, Hardy Greaves.

Sometimes a story—particularly fantasy, historical or sci-fi—needs a conceptual Premise. By that I mean a hypothetical truth that informs the drama the way, say, the airfoil-shaped wing informs the idea of an airplane.

The conceptual premise of The Legend of Bagger Vance is “the Authentic Swing.”

Premise is different from theme. It’s different from concept. It’s even different from “What if?”

Here are examples of premises in fiction and movies:

1. A certain ring contains the secret power of the universe. Whoever possesses the ring possesses that power.

2. In the future, technology exists that can detect crimes before they are committed. “PreCrime” is a division of police departments in this future.

3. In the future, creatures called “replicants” have been created, which are virtually identical to humans. Replicants, by the nature of their genesis, have no memories of childhood or of any past before they were created. Thus, to control them and to keep them emotionally stable, their manufacturer has implanted artificial memories, which the replicants believe to be real. When replicants discover this ruse and see through it, it is deeply distressing to them.

Sometimes non-fantasy/sci-fi stories have premises as well.

1. Love and hard work can overcome (or at least mitigate) certain psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder.

2. It is possible to recreate the past, specifically to recover a lost love, through force of will, abundant means, and an overpoweringly vivid reinvention of oneself and one’s world.

(These are the premises of Lord of the Rings, Minority Report, Blade Runner, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Great Gatsby.)

One curious thing about premises: they don’t have to be true. A premise is simply the supposition upon which the dramatic superstructure of the story is based. The reader/audience doesn’t have to buy into the truth of the premise in real life as long as he or she accepts it in the story. Nor do all the characters in the drama have to believe in the premise (though of course it’s better if they do). It’s enough for one character to believe the premise (Jay Gatsby, for example). The story can work, based on that alone.

But back to “the Authentic Swing.” What exactly is it and how does it fit into The Legend of Bagger Vance?
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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Authentic Swing, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 17, 2014

Continuing our examination of the idea that certain stories have conceptual premises. What is a conceptual premise? And how does it work in a dramatic narrative?

Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in "Fight Club."

[P.S. Don't forget this year's Black Irish Christmas Special, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered (only 2500 available) 20th Anniversary edition of The Legend of Bagger Vance.]

One fascinating aspect of premises is that they imply order. Start with any premise (say, in The Lord of the Rings, the idea that a certain ring commands the power of the universe) and when you dig to the next level, you get this:

The universe makes sense. Life has meaning. We humans are not lost and alone in a random, indifferent cosmos.

David Mamet says over and over in his books on writing that the human heart is programmed to perceive drama, i.e. meaning, in everything. That’s why we need stories. Because stories reinforce the idea of meaning. Drama starts at A and progresses to Z. Along the way, we learn. Truths are revealed. Secrets are disclosed. We walk out of the theater reassured. Life may be hard and brutal and justice may not always be served, but there is meaning and significance underneath it all.

A “what if” premise might go like this:

What if a husband and wife were both professional assassins, but each one had hid this hit-man occupation from the other? And what if this husband and wife were each secretly assigned by their competing employers to kill the other? [Mr. and Mrs. Smith by David Bartis and Simon Kinberg, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.}

That's a what-if, but it's not a conceptual premise.

A conceptual premise might be something like this:

Contemporary life has become so vapid and meaningless, particularly for young urban professionals, that it's possible for a young man to become so psychologically unhinged that he creates in his imagination a totally convincing nihilistic alter ego and then becomes so dominated and carried away by this imaginary personality that he reaches the point of near-suicide and the embrace of actual urban terrorism. [Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (novel) and Jim Uhls (screenplay) starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.]

That’s a premise. You might not believe it. You might say, leaving the theater, “Oh come on, no one’s gonna lose their mind to that extent. To punch themselves in the face, over and over, and think they’re being hit by somebody else?” You might not believe it driving home, but in the theater it was pretty powerful, wasn’t it?

A powerful premise can produce a riveting emotional and intellectual experience, above and beyond that elicited by the specific dramatic narrative of the story. It does that because we walk out of the movie (or put down the book), thinking, “Wow, what if that premise were actually true? Is life really a matrix of engineered sensations, based on nothing except some powerful cabal’s need to control the world? Or even if that premise isn’t literally true, is it true as a metaphor?”

As writers, if we can identify our premise, we can harness it to work inside the story and to amplify powerfully the narrative’s impact.
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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Steal Without Shame, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 3, 2014

[Don't forget to check out the Great Black Irish Christmas Sale, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered edition of The Legend of Bagger Vance.]

Continuing our 20th-anniversary look-back at the writing of The Legend of Bagger Vance:

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli's film of "Romeo and Juliet."

We were talking last week about stealing the structure of works we admire. I was confessing that, for Bagger, I had shamelessly ripped off the premise and spine of the Bhagavad-Gita. Now let me admit a further theft and an additional bonus:

When you steal a great story’s structure you also get its characters. See Romeo and Juliet, Jesus of Nazareth, etc.

When I poached the structure of the Gita, I got as a bonus the two principal characters—Arjuna and Krishna—and I got the dynamic of their relationship: the mentor-protege story. I also got the story’s Villain—Arjuna’s internal demons of self-doubt and self-condemnation. (If we were stealing the structure of Romeo and Juliet, we’d get the characters of the two lovers and their personal and societal allies and antagonists, i.e., Mercutio, Tybalt, Friar Lawrence, and the full cast of Montagues and Capulets.)

In the case of Bagger, that meant I got as a hero the brilliant but self-tormented champion Arjuna … and, as his mysterious guide and mentor, Krishna—who also happens to be God in human form. Not bad.

And, even better for the drama, I got the idea that the character of the All-Knowing, All-Powerful Almighty appeared in human guise as a servant, as a humble charioteer (or, in his rejiggered form as the character of Bagger Vance, as a caddie.)

This gave me a dramatic element that didn’t exist in the Gita. I could write scenes in which Bagger/Krishna/God was condescended to and even abused and humiliated by ignorant, clueless characters—and I could have Bagger/Krishna/God respond. Not bad either!

(Oh, and by the way, lest we imagine that Shakespeare would never stoop to shoplifting prior material and that he invented Romeo and Juliet himself, let’s bear in mind that the literary canon circa 1584 was loaded with legends of Doomed Lovers going back to the ancient Greeks and beyond, the most famous perhaps being the love story of Panthea and Abradatas—my own all-time fave, which I cannot read without weeping—which ends with a tragic death/suicide scene almost identical to the climax of Romeo and Juliet. In other words, the Bard was as shameless a thief as I am and as I am urging you to become. And could we but summon his shade and beseech it for wisdom, I have no doubt that Will’s ghost would declare for us, “Forsooth! Purloin everything in sight, kiddies!”)

But back to me as a thief. I also make no bones about brigandizing three major scenes from the Gita. (Remember, it’s not stealing if you put a new and original spin on it.) And ya know what? It worked. It all worked.

And it was all absolutely conscious and deliberate.

Now you may be saying, “But, Steve, isn’t it dishonorable … in fact isn’t it cheating to snatch the throughline and dramatis personae from an existing work?” I will answer with two questions:
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