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That’s a premise

Lajos Egri. That’s the man.

It was he who said you must always believe in what you write. If you don’t, he says, how can your writing have any feeling of authenticity? And if you are not authentic, the reader will find out very quickly.

As I write satire, the temptation is always there to stick in some outrageous barb aimed at my satirical target. But, thanks to Egri, I have learned that jokes have to have a purpose (if not, they are what Ricky Gervais calls ‘decapitated jokes’), and they also have to be true to the story. If they’re not, they have to go.

“Kill your darlings,” said William Faulkner. In other words, don’t ruin your consistent voice for a the sake of a snappy phrase.

Egri had an even more direct rule, which is simply:

“Every story must have a premise.”

Say what?

Egri said that if you can’t sum up your book in 10 words or less, then you don’t know what your own book is about, so how can you expect to write consistently?

“If there is no clear-cut, active premise, it is more than possible that the characters were not alive. How could they be? They do not know, for instance, why they should commit a perfect crime. Their only reason is your command, and as a result all their performance and all their dialogue are artificial. No one believes what they do or say.”

I was about one month into writing Forward O Peasant when I came across this advice, and it stopped me in my tracks. What was my story about?

Following Egri’s guidelines, I was eventually able to sum my book up in the premise: “Greed contains the seeds of its own downfall.” Suddenly, I knew what my book was about, and all the characters’ actions began to make more sense.

Egri, by the way, never wrote plays or novels, and was a true nuts-and-bolts writing mechanic. He wrote two famous books: The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing, snippets of which can be found lurking on the Web.

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