Analysis

Five Stories Afraid of Their Own Premise

Of course this group of hardened insurgents was given uniforms. Why wouldn't they be?

Every story has a premise that shapes what will happen. Some premises are good, like “a neglected orphan goes to a secret school for wizards.” Some premises are bad, like “a teenager gets into an abusive relationship with a vampire.” But no matter if the premise is good or bad, it will have a strong influence on how the story turns out.

That is, unless a story refuses to follow through on its own premise. Then you get strange stories that just don’t feel right. The author promised something but didn’t deliver. Sometimes it’s missed dramatic opportunity; sometimes it’s a lack of logical sense. Either way, the story suffers. Take a look at these five stories, each of which is afraid of its own premise.

1. Beauty and the Beast

The Beast and the Prince side by side.

Throughout its many incarnations, this is the story of a beautiful woman falling in love with a hideous beast, and the power of that love turns him back into a prince.* We’re most familiar with the Disney version, complete with singing teapots and a rose under glass, but many other adaptations exist. In the original novel by Madame de Villeneuve, all the Beast had to do to change back was sleep next to Belle, but in most versions since, he’s needed Belle to fall in love with him despite his hideous looks.

The problem is that the Beast is almost never actually ugly. In both Disney’s animated and live action versions of the story, the Beast is very appealing from a visual perspective. He’s a majestic creature with luxurious fur and a suit that fits perfectly. Because he spends so much more time in Beast mode, a lot more effort goes into those visuals, and his human appearance is always some generically attractive guy.

This badly sabotages the story’s urgency. In Disney’s version, the Beast must get Belle to love him before the last petal falls off a rose, or he’ll stay a beast forever. But so what? He seems fine as a beast. If he has a problem, it’s that he’s lonely, and Belle certainly doesn’t have any issues with his looks. The worst-case scenario is that he gets to stay as this awesome-looking monster. There’s more urgency if you consider that his servants will be stuck as objects forever,* but that’s never what the story focuses on.

The ending’s payoff is also lacking, because turning into a generic prince actually seems like a step down for many viewers. Certainly when people think of the two leads from that movie, they aren’t imagining Belle and some red-headed human. The movie’s real climax is when the Beast lives despite his wounds. His transformation back into a human is an awkward epilogue.

The underlying cause here is that despite the story’s conceit that the Beast is ugly, no creative team will actually show him as ugly because he’s part of a romance. Everyone has to be beautiful in a romance, even the vicious monsters who kidnap women and hold them prisoner for no reason.

2. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

Ron and Hermione in one of the many camping scenes.

The first six Harry Potter books fulfill their premises beautifully. Harry and friends go to Hogwarts, learn some magic, and stop whatever problem is brewing at the school that year. The stakes get higher with each book, up to and including world domination from You-Know-Who, but the conflict itself is always confined to Hogwarts.

That is until book seven when everything explodes. Voldemort takes over the ministry of magic, muggle born wizards and their sympathizers are rounded up, and dementors prowl the land! Not only are the stakes higher in this book, but also the conflict is more spread out, with Voldemort’s grip felt throughout Britain.

This is a natural evolution for the series, and it only follows that this book would be a story of the epic struggle against Voldemort’s tyranny. Except that it isn’t. Instead, we follow Harry as he does everything possible to stay away from the action. We hear some rumors about what’s going on in Hogwarts, but that’s it. There’s no mention of muggleborns being smuggled out of the country, of opposition politicians being jailed or killed, not even anything about the Order of the Phoenix, which exists specifically to fight Voldemort.

Instead, we get a handful of exciting escape sequences, followed by page upon page of Harry, Hermione, and Ron camping out in the woods. This takes up a huge part of the book. Supposedly they are trying to find the remaining horcruxes, but since they have no real leads, that plot stalls until Rowling eventually drops the answers in their lap.

The previous books were focused on Harry, and that worked fine, but this conflict is now bigger than one wizard. It’s now about an entire country ruled by the Dark Lord. For some reason, the book is afraid to follow through on its premise. Maybe it’s the fear of taking the spotlight away from Harry. Maybe it’s that Rowling wasn’t sure how to plot a book without a school year to give it structure. Whatever the reason, the most exciting part of the story is all but ignored.

3. Corpse Bride

The Corpse Bride herself.

Ah, the classic* story of boy meets girl. Except the girl is a corpse. But she’s a living corpse? Sure. Protagonist Victor ends up in an arranged marriage to Victoria, a woman he’s never met, so that his parents can gain noble titles. But through a series of shenanigans, he ends up engaged to a reanimated corpse instead. This corpse is Emily, and she takes Victor on a zany adventure where they bond over mutual attraction and shared interest. Then they get together and live happily ever after.

Except that’s not what happens. In reality, Victor ends up marrying Victoria, and Emily turns into a cloud of butterflies. Presumably this means she has found peace, unlike everyone else in the underworld.

Even though there’s some foreshadowing that Victor will marry Victoria, this still feels like a last-minute change because his relationship with Emily is so much better developed. They grow to like each other over the course of the story. He gets over his initial disgust at her rotted appearance and sees her for who she is. They have an adventure in the underworld. They even play the piano together!

On the other hand, Victor’s attraction to Victoria seems based mostly on the fact that she’s hot. They’ve never met before the film’s opening and have very little time to interact. Emily is also just more compelling than Victoria. Emily is genuinely funny, but she uses her awkward humor to cover up the deep hurt of being betrayed by a man she loved.

Everything seems to be building toward Victor marrying Emily and living with her in the underworld. He’s even ready to, until suddenly Emily decides she’s denying Victoria the happiness of marrying a near stranger. It feels like they had the whole film planned out with Victor and Emily tying the knot, but then someone in a focus group was grossed out by the idea of marriage to a corpse.

4. Shannara Chronicles

The Space Needle, fallen over and overgrown.

The Sword of Shannara books are technically post-apocalyptic fantasy, but that fact is heavily obscured until late in the series. The TV show, on the other hand, is much more blatant about its setting, with easily recognizable buildings, like the Space Needle, displayed in all-their-ruined glory. The exact cause of the apocalypse is a mystery, but the remnants of our world are unmistakable. Protagonists fight demons against a background of crumbling skyscrapers and broken streets.

With that kind of unusual premise, you’d expect the story to diverge from standard fantasy tropes. Describing the premise conjures images of spiky-haired elves riding souped-up motorcycles and dwarves charging to meet them in rusty, powered armor. Unfortunately, none of that happens.

The TV show plays as straight high fantasy with almost no deviation to account for the unusual setting. Everyone uses medieval weapons and armor. The horse is the only means of transport around. The land is ruled by an elven king.* Most of the buildings look like they were plucked right out of Middle-earth.

The trolls at least have a Mad Max inspired aesthetic, and there is one episode with a human village trying to regain their lost technology, but that’s it. This strains believability, as it’s difficult to imagine that so few people would be interested in the powerful technology of the past, especially in a land beset by demons and monsters. If nothing else, those ruined cities are sources of free building material that everyone just leaves alone.

Beyond believability, not taking advantage of the setting relegates the Shannara Chronicles to being yet another high-fantasy story. It’s plot is average at best, and the characters aren’t anything special. Going full post-apocalyptic would have given the show much needed novelty.

5. Voyager

Voyager fighting a Borg ship

Without a doubt, Voyager is the king of fearing its own premise. In a major departure from previous entries in the franchise, this show is about a starship flung to the other side of the galaxy and left to fend for itself. The ship has no hope of help or resupply, making the situation desperate indeed.

But wait, there’s more! Many of Voyager’s crew members were killed, and the only replacements available are a group of Maquis insurgents. The Maquis have been at war with the Federation for years now, so there’s no love lost between the two of them. This show sounds like the perfect recipe for high-stakes—inter-character conflict and difficult decisions stemming from a lack of resources.

But you know that doesn’t happen. Voyager is almost never shown to be low on any kind of supplies. On the rare occasion this is made into a plot point, it’s often resolved without any effort. They even have the surplus energy to run the holodecks twenty-four hours a day.* Worse, no matter how badly damaged the ship is at the end of an episode, it’s always in pristine condition for the next episode. Little questions like how they managed repairs so quickly with no help from Starfleet are left unanswered.

Conflict between crew members is nearly non-existent. The Maquis are fully assimilated into the Starfleet crew, with uniforms and everything, by the second episode. There’s exactly one episode about the Maquis having trouble fitting in on a ship that they were recently shooting at, and even then it’s limited to only a few troublemakers. The main cast isn’t immune to this either. Chakotay, the Maquis leader, is usually shown as a man of iron clad principles who shuns violence at nearly any cost. How he maintained that attitude as an insurgent leader is anyone’s guess.

Even the individual-episode plots seem to reject the show’s premise. Voyager is always stopping to explore some random phenomena or another, even though they’re supposed to be trying to get home as fast as they can. Some of these phenomena are incredibly dangerous, but Voyager flies in anyway despite the fact that there’s no one to call for help if something goes wrong. It leaves you wondering if they really want to get home.

Voyager does not feel like a show about a ship lost far from home. It feels like a poor-quality continuation of The Next Generation (TNG). In TNG, the Enterprise had little inter-character conflict because the crew were all hand-picked Starfleet officers. They explored dangerous phenomena because it was their job, and they could call for help if they needed it. If Voyager’s writers wanted to write TNG style stories, they should have picked a premise that would have supported them.


If you’re sitting down to write out that great idea you had, but the story won’t cooperate, it’s likely that you’re having trouble with the premise. That isn’t the end of the world! Often the story you’ve written will work fine with a different premise. For example, Beauty and the Beast would have worked much better if it were about a transformed prince deciding he’s fine with the way he looks now, and Voyager could have been a continuation of The Next Generation. The key is to recognize when this is happening rather than forging ahead with a premise you can’t follow through on.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    About #2: This actually explains why I have much less of a yearning to read the Deathly Hallows again, even though I’ve read all other novels several times. I can remember someone doing a host of posters for a post-Hogwarts-battle world in which Voldemort won that battle (but without Harry dying) and Harry and his friends (plus Draco) went underground and are now high on the ‘most wanted’ list. I always thought that would make for an awesome story.

    About #3: The end of The Corpse Bride (as much as I love the movie) really is some sort of let-down. Even though the movie shows there’s a certain liking between Victoria and Victor (he does try to escape back to her from the underworld and she does try to find a way to free him from his engagement to Emily), there is no real explanation for that. Victor and Victoria meet for the first time when they come together to practice for their wedding the next day. Even in an arranged marriage, that actually seems strange to me, since I gathered from other stories I’ve read that you at least get to meet your future spouse a handful of times before the ‘I do.’ Emily and Victor make such a nice couple, too – and Emily would deserve love after what she went through to die.

    About #4: Of course there are Elven queens (sorry, can’t say much about Shannara). In my mind, though, Elves have a matriarchal culture…

  2. Bronze Dog

    I can certainly attest to Voyager’s problems. The ship being easily repaired was something that always gnawed at me. Without a Federation shipyard, I would think the ship would eventually look more patchwork over time, as they used alien replacement parts.

    Heck, I can imagine a spotlight episode where the engineers have to deal with the stress of making incompatible systems play nice with each other. Could even be a potential replacement for the negative space wedgie of the week: What systems will break down, causing trouble for the crew?

    Need an expensive replacement part? The nearest alien culture has strict regulations on that part, so the crew has to deal with the ethics and/or fallout of purchasing it on the local black market or making a deal with a crime lord.

    Salvaged a part from a derelict warship? It registers on the locals’ scanners and now the crew has to either avoid contact or convince the locals they’re not working for The Enemy.

    Get a sophisticated piece of equipment with its own internal computer. Something triggers it, and the ship’s systems start malfunctioning as the part’s computer tries to “repair” the strange main computer it finds itself connected to.

    • Cay Reet

      There could have been some great episodes coming out of that.

  3. GeniusLemur

    Further evidence “Corpse Bride” was supposed to end with Victor and Emily’s wedding:
    The title is “Corpse Bride.”

    • Cay Reet

      Well, Emily was killed and buried in her wedding dress, which means she was a corpse bride from the beginning.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    I would say the other fundamental problem with Voyager was that they didn’t see anything new and essentially stopped exploring.

    In TNG, Q summarizes the ethos of proper Star Trek almost perfectly: “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you’d better just go home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, filled with wonders to satiate desires both subtle and gross, but it’s not for the timid.”

    The problem was that starting with DS9, the writers of Star Trek seemed to really be running out of ideas. TNG was usually pretty good about showing new things, with the Borg as probably the best example, but as they were used more often they became a known entity. In DS9, this was less noticeable because they focused on the political drama that made the story work regardless. But with Voyager, in which they were in an entirely unexplored region of space, it became readily apparent that they were out of new ideas.

    Besides the obvious graphical limitations, this is also the fatal flaw of Mass Effect Andromeda, that despite appearing in an entirely alien galaxy, everything is oddly familiar. In their attempt to run away from the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, they failed to come up with anything new for their new galaxy.

    Though like with DS9, the problems actually began with ME2 and ME3, in which the threat of the Reaper invasion largely took away the sense of exploration of the first game. It was just that the Reaper invasion(or Dominion) was a sufficiently interesting antagonist that it mostly worked regardless.

  5. John Ferguson

    I disagree with most of your thoughts on Deathly Hallows. I think it might be more a matter of not being the story you wanted it to be than being afraid of its own premise. I think being cut off from the action and isolated from the rest of the wizarding world is sort of the point has Hermione and friends struggle to do the work that nobody else could do. It’s a spy/covert ops story, moving stealthily because the entire country is behind enemy lines.

    Slow moving until Ron drops everything in their laps though, I’ll give you that.

  6. Steven

    Beauty and the beast isn’t meant to be about a visually ugly beast but redemption from within the beast itself and becoming a better person because of selfless love

    If your first thought is that the beast isn’t ugly enough than you messed the point of the Disney version entirely

    • Cay Reet

      The premise is that a beauty(-iful woman) is locked into a castle with a beast which is monstrous enough for her to want to avoid it. If you look past the Disney version (which, like all Disney fairy-tale movies, is watered down a lot), the premise is not that the beast has to change, but that the beast, despite being something to be afraid of, must make Belle see that it is human and worthy of love. Redemption for the Beast is not possible by only loving Belle. The point is that Belle also must love the Beast back. To make that a challenge, the Beast is not allowed to be easily lovable. The original novel and most books based on it make a point in telling the reader that the beast is monstrous and that everyone with half a brain cell would not want to be too close to it.

      If the story only were about redemption, making the prince is some other way suffering from a curse would be enough, he wouldn’t have had to lose his humanity (by being turned into a beast/monster). 1001 Nights makes do with a king cursed to kill his wife on the morning after the wedding night until Sheherazade as his new wife breaks this curse by keeping him entertained thoughout the titular 1001 nights. The monstrous side is an integral part of the story of Beauty and the Beast.

  7. C. R. Rowenson

    But the only person with selfless love is Belle, so why does that make the Beast a better person? I guess I’m just missing something.

    That said, I Shrek and Shrek 2 are perfect examples of what Beauty and the Beast could have been. There is a painfully common trend to have a character fall in love with someone that is hideous, deformed, or just a terrible person and have it all go away once they have someone’s love. The Shrek movies hit me so hard because Fiona wants Shrek to stay the Ogre she fell in love with.

    It hits me right here every time I watch them.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, the first two Shrek movies are a great example of how to subvert a trope well. First we have that whole ‘love’s first kiss, love’s true form’ thing. Fiona expects what you would get in a regular fairy tale: once she meets her true love, she’ll stay a human princess forever. But her love’s true form is the ogress, because her true love is an ogre.
      And the second movie actually goes a step further. Fiona has the choice to turn Shrek into the human everyone expects the princess of Far Far Away to be with (who even is good-looking in a way), but she chooses the ogre she fell in love with (and the form she took when she fell in love with him at first). It’s going completely against expectations.

  8. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    One movie I (personally) think committed this fallacy a bit was Moana. Moana’s storyline was good, but I didn’t get what they were trying to do with Maui. He gets a tragic backstory, believes he’s worthless, and emphasizes multiple times how his hook is what makes him important. He sacrifices his hook and says how he doesn’t need it… then he gets it back. I would have enjoyed the movie more if Maui had some power (besides being a good sailor) that he used to defeat Te Ka. The thing is, Maui actually has no powers without his hook. He does very few things without it, and for a story trying to show how he can do things without his hook, he does so little without it.

  9. Alyssa

    I actually found the end of Corpse Bride to be a refreshing twist to usual expectations. You assume Victor is going to end up with colourful and spunky Emily, she is more interesting than Victoria and we (and Victor) spend more time getting to know her. The audience falls in love with her and so naturally we want her to get the guy. But if you think about it, are not Victoria and Victor well suited? Does Emily not diserve someone as energetic and optimistic as she? Does she truly have to settle for someone who stumbled upon her in the woods and gave his word he would marry her?

    I think we deny Vicoria and Victor because together they seem dull and awkward. We, as an audience, want passion and excitement in a relationship such as Emily offers. But Victoria and Victor are two quiet, shy people, is a more blatant expression of love really necessary from them? Can they not be warm but low-key companions? Is that not love to some? True, they don’t know each other very well, but I don’t think he knows Emily enough to marry her at that point either. Love is different for many people, but more often the interesting and exciting kinds are shown on camera. Their type of relationship is rarely seen and perhaps should be shown more.

    I also like how Emily does not marry in the end. Her whole life and most of her death had been defined by the prospect of getting married. In reality, she doesn’t need marriage to be fulfilled and I feel like the ending says that.

    I didn’t think this first time I watched it. I felt cheated Emily didn’t get her happy ending with Victor. But on further analysis I came to respect the decisions made and love the movie all the more because of them.

    • Cay Reet

      My problem with the ending is not that Emily is more spunky, but that we hardly see Victor and Victoria interact. There is no real base for a marriage between them. If they had been childhood friends or had met before, perhaps without knowing their families planned their marriage, things would have been different. But like this, Victor spent a lot more time with Emily, learning things about her. He hardly spent time with Victoria and it seems odd to see him ending up with her. Not because they’re both a little shy, but because they hardly have a common base or an understanding of the other one.

  10. Michael

    It’s “Maquis”.

  11. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    An interesting article, I have some slightly different perspectives on some of the points, but like the majority, the spiky haired elves on motor bikes VS dwarves in power armour sounds amazing as well.

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