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.

The idea of the Authentic Swing came to me in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of writing The Legend of Bagger Vance. It just “fell out.” I stopped typing, stared at the phrase on the page, and thought, “Wow, that is great. That’s the whole book. That’s everything.”

Knowing the premise gave me a prism through which to view the entire story, scene by scene. I could ask myself questions like, “When should I introduce this premise? Should it be done overtly? Should a character actually verbalize it? Or should it just be there as an unspoken but undergirding element? Should it simply be reflected in the characters’ attitudes and actions without being expressed ‘on the nose?'”

In the case of The Legend of Bagger Vance, the premise and theme turned out to be intricately entwined. The premise was, “There is such a thing as the Authentic Swing/Self.” The theme was, “To live life at its most meaningful level, we must find our Authentic Swing/Self and swing/live it.”

My own belief is that every story has a premise. We as writers might not be aware of our own premises, even though every word we write is based upon them the same way every girder in a bridge is supported by its conceptual and foundational structures.

Are you working on a novel about Queen Boudica of early Britain? Have you got a cop story going? Or a Thomas Pynchon-esque megabook about the origins of the cosmos as reflected and refracted in a single teardrop?

There’s a premise in what you’re working on. Find it.

Ask yourself what precept, what principle is the architecture and  superstructure of your story based on? What’s the foundational truth (even if that truth isn’t literally “true?”) That premise is the lever and fulcrum with which you can move the world.

More on the writing of The Legend of Bagger Vance next week.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

11 Responses to “The Authentic Swing, Part Two”

  1. December 17, 2014 at 6:48 am

    I like what you said about a foundational truth in your story not having to be “true.” That’s the purpose of the story, to examine the “what if?” as a scientist would experiment with a hypothesis. Some awesome stuff can come of this, I need to hone in on incorporating conceptual premises when I write.

  2. Eric
    December 17, 2014 at 7:26 am

    Mr. Pressfield, this advice is incredibly helpful. It seems so simple and obvious now, with the light shone on it. I’d like to add my voice to the many who have paid gratitude for your work. I mean it. After reading (and re-reading) The War of Art a few years ago, I gave up booze completely and I get up at 4:30 each morning to “work before work”. When people say things like, “that book changed my life”, it’s generally an overstatement. This time it’s not. Your work touched off perhaps the most pivotal moment thus far in my life (and I’m not young). Think about that.

    • December 17, 2014 at 11:35 am

      Thanks, Eric. Giving up booze and getting up at 4:30 each morning? U R the Man!

      • December 22, 2014 at 5:30 am

        Steven, I wanted to echo Eric’s statement. Your books made me think about everything differently, changed my life and everything. I give out your books to so many people and talk of the principles in it so much that my family is literally tired of hearing your name. :)

        Peace and happy Christmas!

  3. Richard
    December 17, 2014 at 8:19 am

    Just finished Gates of Fire. What a great book and thank you! Always “knew” the story… but never lived the story!

  4. December 17, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Thanks! So what, then, is the premise for Mr. & Mrs. Smith? I’ve not seen it, but going by your description would it be simply that there are professional assassins among us, blending in and hiding their vocation from even their spouses? I would love to be able to compare “what if” which is easier to find with “premise” in the particular case.

  5. December 17, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Steve, sorry, I don’t understand this post. What is the premise of the Fight Club? What is the underlying order? Why doesn’t Mr. and Mrs. Smith have a premise, i.e., it’s possible for two people to be married to each other and have no idea of who each other are.

    Does a premise have to have underlying meaning? Does The Fight Club have underlying meaning?

    Please clarify this.

    • Nik
      December 18, 2014 at 3:00 pm

      I think Fight Club’s underlying message was supposed to be that capitalism is bad, mmmmkay, so we should just listen to Brad Pitt when he says we should give up all our possessions, ditch our jobs, and go live in hovels with our imaginary friends. Except when it’s time to see his movies or buy the new issue of People with the cover story about Brad and Angelina’s vacation in Zaire.

      Hah, that sounds pretty harsh, but I actually enjoyed the book and the movie.

      Man, I keep reading these Writing Wednesdays columns and wondering if I’m shooting myself in the foot by not having an overt theme or a clear cut antagonist in my book. It’s driven by a central mystery, and the characters set out to solve that mystery. An answer (or at least a partial answer) comes before the midpoint of the book, and spawns a thousand new questions.

      As a reader, I love the allure of the unknown and the feeling that absolutely anything is possible. I’m also mindful that the best way to write a mystery-driven story is to ever-so-carefully reveal bits and pieces.

      And I’ve always found random, meaningless, cosmic tragedy more terrifying than most emotionally-motivated wrongs. If a guy walks into his former office and shoots the supervisor who fired him, of course we won’t agree with the action, but we can recognize the emotions that spurred it. Whereas if your wife or child or another loved one is with you on the beach one sunny day and gets swallowed by a freak wave, there’s no meaning at all. It’s cruel and horrible and life-changing, but there’s no malice behind it, nothing to understand. And somehow that makes it even more awful and more cruel, that a life was snuffed out for no reason at all.

      Once again I’ve written too much!

  6. December 17, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Premise-theme-character-plot: A story, perhaps even a life, must have all of these. (Let’s incude setting under plot.) Above, you present the premise as a question and the theme as a statement (declaration). Elsewhere, you, and others, talk about conflict in character and conflict in plot. I suspect that some intersecting lines can be drawn here, since the charactr’s conflict while at least parallel is not always the same as the plot’s conflict. (you pointed this out, I think.) Perhaps it’s not so much the answers to the questions as it is the search for meaning the questions imply.

  7. December 18, 2014 at 6:07 am

    Steve – It seems to me that the “Authentic Swing” can be found in every career, in every job, but to find it, we need to define what we’re trying to accomplish. Writers have it easy; our success or failure is apparent paragraph by ugly paragraph; as opposed to golfers searching for their “Authentic Swing,” as writers, we seek to pick the best word and the best phrase that support our best premise.

    What I find, when sitting at my desk, is that the “Authentic Word” is often hard to find. For whatever reason, I lose my rhythm, I tighten up and get constricted (P. 162 of my leather-bound copy of Legend of…!), and with no Bagger Vance sitting at my side, what to do?

    I pull a book off my shelf and use it for inspiration…’How Green Was my Valley,’ ‘Strong Men Armed’,’ Gates’…there are a few books on which I can rely for inspiration. Is this stealing, as you discussed a few weeks ago? I’d say no, because that wouldn’t be true to my ‘Authentic Swing / Word.’ But reading a few pages expands my thoughts, brightens my aura, and the words begin to flow again. Oh, they’ll be edited, re-edited, and edited again, but I know I’m on the right track.

    Thanks for the thought you’re putting into this series; it’s illuminating on many levels //

    • December 18, 2014 at 11:02 am

      Great points on inspiration, Andrew!