Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Second Step--Or I Say Hypothesis, You Say Premise

I introduced this concept in my last blog (just last Thursday, I’m saving up for the paper and exam-filled weeks to come—the end of the semester is approaching). As a research psychologist for the last twenty years (!) if you count graduate school, I’m writing about what I know.

The Scientific Method as a cure for what ails you. Right now, what ails me is deducing which idea I should pursue next. Last time, I wrote about Step One, Or Observing a Problem. As we all know, the second step in the scientific method is forming a hypothesis. That is, the budding scientist, or I hope, fiction writer, needs to take that amorphous problem and make it clear and precise, resulting in the hypothesis, or dare I say it, the premise?

What if I’ve been doing it all wrong so far? In case you can’t tell, writing this short series of blogs is hopefully for my benefit as well as any reader out there. Here’s my method of writing so far: dream a dream, write it down, and plot it out as if I were living it, as if I were watching a movie. Then, when I’m all done, come up with a pitch which sums up the whole novel in twenty-five words or less.

If I happened to be one of my research students, I’d fail myself. One NEVER collects data without the hypothesis fully justified and spelled out. Why have I been writing without the premise in place? Okay, I’m exaggerating…this haphazard method describes my first manuscript. My second, I began with an outline. My third, I wrote a synopsis first. My fourth, I plotted GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict). So maybe I’m a good wine.

Back to the premise. When teaching undergraduates how to form a hypothesis, we actually give them a simple formula…fill in the blanks: What is the effect of ____ on _____? The first blank is the independent variable and the second is the dependent variable. I’ve toyed with coming up with a similar formula for creating a premise.

How’s this? (Insert heroine’s name) wants _____, but can’t get it because of _______. Okay, that sounds very similar to someone else’s formula. I would add the same for a hero. And, then, hear a snide teenager’s voice asking, “And I care why?”

If the reader doesn’t care, if it’s not a problem they want to care about, then you can write it, but they won’t come. Maybe, unless they’re very famous or a wonderful storyteller. I’m not pretending fiction is science, just playing with ideas.

Other questions I ask when guiding students’ research…is the topic too broad? There are no absolutes, but I know you can’t do a single research project and try to cover all the effects of depression. Congruently, I don’t think you can write about everywoman or everyman. You need to see through a very precise set of eyes. But the topic can’t be too narrow, either. If the hero and heroine are modeled after real people, you’re too constricted unless you’re willing to go from there. Real life doesn’t always satisfy like fiction, so fiction needs to win.

The final question I ask is, do you care too much? Ah, that’s different. Can you care too much? Yes…if the pain is too new, too fresh, too harsh, you won’t be able to write the story. Yet. You won’t be able to gain enough distance to write a sympathetic villain or, if the villain has become all men, even a hero. My thought is journal the big hurts and write the ones you’ve gained some mileage on.

So, do you have a premise you can handle? That’s the question, isn’t it? Do you even need a premise or can you just write a cool story?

And Step 3, Collecting Data, yet to come…


Savanna Kougar said...

Lexie, you're making me dizzy. To simplify for my own sake. Sometimes I have a working premise because it's an inspiration. For example if I read a title about Vampires: Vamp Summer Camp (just a sample title to my knowledge). I'll read the blurb of the story, then think. Okay, what about that title is appealing to me? Summer camp in the wilds of Yellowstone? Heroine is taking her kiddos on a horseback trail ride. Oh no! Trajedy. A rattlesnake. She gets bit -- who saves her? The hero Vamp to the rescue disguised as a forest ranger because he's on a vital secret mission. Yep, daylight, but he's not your ordinary bloodsucker.
Scenaria two: An otherworld where vamps go to play in the friendly sunlight of this planet. Oh no, her vessel is in trouble -- beatiful unknown planet ahead -- crasho! Into the Vamp Summer playground.
Is that scientific? It certainly involves logic, but I think imagination rules -- even if you aren't partial to my imagination. O great despair on my part - here!
Or, are these not considered a premise?

Lexie O'Neill said...

I don't know if we can make it scientific...I'm simply playing with a way to make it simpler:) Even though it may not have turned out that way!
Thanks for blogging...

Savanna Kougar said...

Lexie, I didn't mean to sound discouraging. It's my own brain type. I was trying to understand from 'how' my brain functions creatively. Of course, that's why there are plotter and pantsers to put it simply. And both are very successful, and in all shades.
I got lost in a way because I'm not a scientific thinker, although I am good at scientific theory. I appreciate what you were expressing, and thinking through.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

I liked your idea of you as a writer being like wine i.e. getting better with age. I wrote my first novel at sixteen and I still have it. It's horrible. And no, I'm not looking for sympathy, it's honestly horrible because I didn't understand plotting, character development, or some basic punctuation guidelines. LOL but the margins were 1/4 inch and I used single space. Any editor would have cried.

But then, I wrote another one. And another. I got better. Then, I delved into craft and got even better. I think in a way I've applied the scientific method but in a rather backwards way. :)

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Lexie, this is such an interesting idea. That said, I think each book is different for me and where one will abide by 'rules' should there be any, another will evolve in the wrong order. I conducted an experiment myself last Summer. I've always favored the pantsers' approach. I make sure I understand my characters, then write and let the plot come to me as I go. Last August, I decided to take that a step farther and not work anything out before I sat down and started writing. The first time I wrote the hero and heroine's names I made them up. I wrote a short contemporary in that way. And although I say so myself, it actually hangs together fairly well--despite zero planning. It is destined to languish on the computer as it was only written for fun. But it did teach me exactly what I do need to know to move forward with a story most effectively.