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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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