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I am used to stories which have one premise which through sequential events is proven by the character. A few stories like war stories can have several premises each linked to a specific character, and no general premise.

Here is my issue, one of the stories I am developing has multiple main characters, each sequential scene is told from the POV of a different character who is a passenger on the same train. I start before the train boards and use a new character to sequentially narrate the journey leading to a train crash, which is told from a new POV.

(The main point of the story is how each person sees the world differently and interprets the objective reality through subjective lenses)

After the train crash, I am kind of stuck.

I could finish each character’s premise through the character’s arcs, but that seems unsatisfying. I feel that I need something bigger, a main story premise, yet it eludes me.

I am not sure this is a proper SE question, but I thought to ask anyways. Do you have any suggestions?

P.S. Just writing to see where it leads it not an option for me; I am a heavy plotter and need most of the story to be well defined and structured before I write the first word.

Here, it is more a character driven story in the sense that all the initial characters till the train crash are already fully formed in my mind and have a vividly unique take on the world. But, as I said, although I know what happens till the train crash, It is a blank afterwards. i need to know where it goes afterwards.

N.B.

Also while I understand the need for character arcs, in this particular story I am not certain it is right. the general advice for multiple POVs stories is to limit the number of characters to less than ½ a dozen, in which case returning to a character in scenes throughout the novel is needed and developing the character arc is essential.

In this case, I see the scenes as each told from a different perspective. The reader having been in the head of the people surrounding the present POV character can follow what happens to them through the present POV external observation. Yet, I am afraid to confuse the reader with as many characters as there are scenes, and lack of a unified premise.

EDIT see @what answer's comments for premise-less stories discussion.

EDIT 2

I added a bounty for story suggestions.

Maybe if I am more specific it will help:

  • I start with a jihadist suicide-bomber who is ready to sacrifice his life for a "greater cause”, I explore how he came to be here, his reasons, and inner struggle.
  • I switch to an elder person who comments on the persons surrounding him, most notably a young teenager who evokes paternal feelings in him and nostalgia for an earlier time.
  • I switch to the teenager, who is trying to figure how to scam the other passengers, most notably she thinks she can get good money from the elder person by manipulating him and blackmailing him with a pedophilia accusation.

There are other characters, but these are the main key story-line ones.

  • The teen may also call on an adult conspirator to play the role of the mother to make the pedophilia accusation more profitable.
  • The bomb explodes, with a possibility of first going back to the suicide bomber to see his doubts resolved and purpose reaffirmed.
  • The crash is described from the conductor perspective; or may be omitted going directly to the aftermath.
  • The teen is busy scavenging wallets from corpses and unconscious victims, the other characters seeing her think she is helping, or trying to resuscitating them.

That’s about where I am stuck.

(my main goal is exploring the suicide bomber POV and social anomie with the teen)

The problem with character arcs is that I want to fully explore the predatory teen and the bomber... with an arc, the teen would have to mellow, be transformed by the tragedy and maybe help the others…

  • I love this question. – Amin Mohamed Ajani Jun 20 '15 at 17:55
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    A quick comment: Firstly, as a dedicated plotter, my personal experience is that this kind of story doesn't work (for me). I spent years on a similar project and had to give up because the single storylines didn't fit together at all. I coudn't find the premise. In other words: I had several stores, but nothing to say. I still believe each of the stories can work out in their own right, but bundling them together just because the characters were attached to each other by family ties was a horrible idea. – Filip Jun 24 '15 at 9:32
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    Secondly, based on your approach, I would think your story would make for a good society portrait in the spirit of the movie Crash, although Crash exhibits character arcs. What you can try is this: Tell not the story of individuals, but the story of a societal upheaval. The train crash is an act of terrorism. How does it change the well-defined society on the train? Use the characters you have and show how they change under the influence of a changing society. I don't say this is easy, but if executed right, this could become a very interesting novel. – Filip Jun 24 '15 at 9:34
  • Great advice about the storylines, you may be right. – Reed Jun 27 '15 at 2:46
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+50

Focusing on the theme can help immensely. You described it as:

(The main point of the story is how each person sees the world differently and interprets the objective reality through subjective lenses)

All prior stories I am familiar with that explore this theme use overlapping timelines, e.g. the same event told from 4 different characters' POVs. You have the impressive goal of conveying this theme with no overlapping timelines (if I understood your description accurately). So, in addition to character jumping, it would help to develop the theme through other means. This includes asking tough questions like: why a train crash? Why not some other major event? Does a train have associations that support your theme? Maybe not, but those sorts of questions can lead to other things that do flesh out the theme. A couple possible images that point at subjectivity, as examples: fractured windows (not a mirror, that usually lends itself to a theme about Identity/Self); the "telephone" game - as in, perhaps in the crash aftermath a series of miscommunications occur due to characters' subjectivity.

Not coincidentally, this should also lead to further plot and character development.

From the limited description, I would suggest that the crash is not the climax; instead, it would be the first turning point in the plot. There could still be a series of increasingly dramatic turns, before the climax. The climactic scene would reveal the theme's effects, which means that you may need to expand the theme one step further: is the main point that subjectivity merely exists, or that it is good, bad, necessary, humorous, etc? I have a suggestion that I'll describe after one more point.

I disagree that the teenager's character arc would require her to mellow and help the other passengers; it is entirely plausible that the character's reaction to a major traumatic event could be apathy, or even a further inclination toward harming others. As you think through the thematic elements and use that as a creative source for plot and character development, it's also crucial to fully "know" your characters separately. I'm guessing you've done this, but I find it helps to write out much more of their backstory than will ever find it's way into the story. Understand their personality type. Understand the way they think and process things, from simple mundane activities (what type of driver are they?), to how they'd react in a train crash. When pondering a character's personality, I like to purposely create a contradiction, for example an extrovert who loves to code software. Then I think of how that contradiction could resolve (maybe they bring their laptop to bars and code while chatting with strangers). Every real person I know has contradictions like this. You seem reticent to let the characters have arcs, but perhaps instead you just need them to have the "right" arcs at the right times. ("right" to you). Understanding them more deeply will help.

So, one suggestion: perhaps the predatory teenager with "social anomie" learns that the crash was caused by a suicide bomber, and she becomes intrigued enough to join a terrorist cell. Unlike her fellow terrorists, she is there not because of an intensely passionate, deeply held belief system; instead, she is attracted to the idea of causing destruction to others and herself in a dramatic fashion. Meanwhile, perhaps the "adult conspirator" you mentioned could be the teenager's aunt or similar mother-like role. This character might at first be cautiously supportive thinking it was some sort of long con, but then becomes justifiably concerned. The climax could be the teenager successfully bombing a major population center like a mall or something.

Thematically, when describing the climax, the teenager's experience leading up to the event is euphoric, seeing the objective event in a positive way. Immediately afterward, the aunt character could experience the event in a highly negative way. By so doing, you wouldn't violate your non-overlapping timelines rule, but would still illustrate the same event in two diametrically opposed subjective POVs.

This is just one suggestion, but hopefully it illustrates a method of using your theme to weave together a large number of characters' perspectives in a cohesive manner without trying to resolve every unique premise.

One last note: you mentioned two things that compete in my mind: on the one hand you seem to have set up a story rule for yourself that every scene is told from a new character's POV. On the other hand, you would like to fully develop the jihadist and teenager POVs. I ran with the latter concept (and chose the teenager since the jihadist dies). Using my suggested plotline as the example, one possible resolution would be to tell the teenager-joins-the-terrorists story via all the surrounding characters: a friend, then one of the terrorists, then a mall-shopper, etc. That way, you focus on the teenager story without violating the "every scene shown through a new character" rule.

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A book has a moral premise. A character has a goal.

You can have as many protagonists and parallel storylines as you want, but your book (or series) still only illustrates one single moral premise.

The moral premise is what bundles a bunch of otherwise unrelated narrative strands that would better have been presented as separate publications into a meaningful whole.

If you want you can view the premise as a proposition and the novel or short story or movie as an argument for its truth. As in any other kind of communication you do not argue for two different things at the same time. (It is not quite correct to consider the premise as a "message" by the author as the author does not necessarily have to believe in his premise and may only use it because it attracts the reader and lends purpose and structure to his writing. The premise is a literary device.)

  • what you are saying is true most of the time, here I was asking about multiple premises as mentioned by james Frey, please refer to the edited Q – Reed Jun 15 '15 at 0:01
  • I disagree with Frey (as you summarize him). If the stories are in any way related – which they are perceived to be, if they are published as part of the same work –, they are part of a whole, and that whole has a structuring principle and therefore a premise, if only by implication. And this global premise overrides any premises any substory might have. – user5645 Jun 15 '15 at 6:17
  • alright, you make a good point. here is my original Question EDIT: That is true for most of the stories, maybe even 99% of them. There is a central premise, and character goals, no matter how many characters. Yet, there are stories with no central premise. Like disaster stories that affect different people each with his/her own premise and no global unifying premise, or stories narrating the life of siblings, where there is no unifying premise other than the fact they are related. – Reed Jun 21 '15 at 15:53
  • this is discussed in the advanced writing second book by James N. Frey's; “How to Write a Damn Good Novel II”, and here is a site that briefly mentions these premise-less novels. Frey writes: "Every story has a premise. A novel can have more than one story: hence, more then on premise." To paraphrase, a novel with more then one story becomes a container. The stories within that container are usually share a similar genre, theme, character, time period..etc.” absolutewrite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-235856.html – Reed Jun 21 '15 at 15:53
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An interesting option I have noticed used, in mostly older movies, is the late introduction of, ultimately, the most important character. For instance, there might be a multi-character story set on a moving train in which various characters act out their specific issues (one's nervous about seeing family, another's heading to a new job, etc.) and they each react to universal events on the train (someone's murdered, there's a shortage of food, etc.), until the final scene(s) in which that important character makes a dramatic (or mysterious) introduction. They can either tie everyone's arcs together neatly, or expose (to the reader) something poignant about their behaviour. As for your specific scenario, the train crash can lead to one character taking over perspective because the other's are caught up in the chaos, or they could provide a higher level understanding of the day.

Going another way entirely, you could have the arcs gradually gravitate toward themselves until all the characters realise something or the other.

It entirely depends on the genre and flow of the story itself, with mystery and heavily flawed characters favouring my first suggestion and more drama and complex characters favouring the second.

As for your last point, I think a distinct tone of voice, even in the writing, could help make the prose as much a mark of a character as the dialogue. However, in that situation, compelling suspense might be necessary to carry the story.

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With these types of stories, they need be worked on from the ending to the begining. The idea needs to start with a point or a premise for it to work. There must have been some ending you had in mind. If there is no point to your story, why write it in th e first place? I'm only inciting you to find meaning in what you write. If your work lacks meaning then there's no point in writing. Draw from personal experiences. If this particular story is for entertainmwnt primarily then you would have no problem with developing a premise (because the point is entertainment) But given that you're stuck, I would say... Your stuck because you see that the subject matter relevant and real and its not about entertainment. Therefore the only way for the story to continue to develop is if you draw from things that are real in your life. Then you will find a premise.

I hope this helps', Damon Leishman

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Consider that there may be no central character premise, and that the story does not conclude by delivering a moral. (Typo'd as "amoral".) Perhaps the central premise is the train crash.

Within that context, how are the characters changed, individually? If they interact, is their world-view challenged? Is their sense of certainty and self worth strengthened or ruined when they rise or fail to meet the challenge? Did they lose a limb or a loved-one?

Then, step back. Do these threads weave together in harmony with each other, or is there discord? (My personal preference is to hear discord before resolution.) The story can be a meditation on how a calamity sends similar people onto vastly different personal trajectories without pandering to the (imagined) need to deliver a "message".

P.S. Try imagining the train crash as a character, and write from its perspective.

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Either I'm misunderstanding what you have said or I think you need something to tie various people together. I was just thinking of the disaster movie 'Towering Inferno' and obviously what tied really diverse people together was a fire. However, all the individual reactions to it, including the many deaths, were eventually subsumed by the putting out of fire and the focus on a relatively small number of people. Not all of the people develop: some of them just die.

Compare this to 'The Poseiden Adventure'. A very similar thing happens: a large number of people are affected by the ship turning over. Then it narrows to the few who try to escape.

Simply presenting a number of different views on a train journey is really more like a series of short stories with a common motif, rather than a novel. I would suggest that your crash needs to be a focal point from which some people can develop and others disappear: dead or just unimportant. It is a structure that draws the reader/viewer in.

As for specific plots, that will depend on where and when you are setting the story. If it was set now in England a crash in the Chanel Tunnel with some opting to go towards France and others towards England, would be a possibily. If you had the train travelling through a remote snow covered part of Europe and the crash happened just before (or during) a blizzard that ruled out rescue efforts, you have room for characters to develop. If you have a steam train being robbed in the Wild West (the thieves remove a rail on a bend to make the train crash so they can rob it and leave the surviving passengers to die) you can show how different characters react to the situation.

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The problem is that the complexity increases exponentially with additional points of view.

Ideally, you'd have only one point of view, the teen. At most, you should have two, the teen and his mentor, who increases the complexity by two squared or four.

The people on the train should not be "point of view" characters, but rather minor characters. To use multiple points of view is a big job that requires a seasoned writer. Wait until you are "world famous" before attempting such a task. The last time it was done successfully was in the "Big Chill," which came out in 1983.

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I like the characters and I think it would make a really engaging story. What you have running there is a pretty good style and if done right, the readers won't put down the book. But then again, having just a style is usually not sufficient if you want the novel to be commercially hit. Most commercial novels have a generic structure - those three acts- the beginning, the middle and the end. More about the 3-act structure here and here.

What you may want to do is introduce the teen, the elder and the jihadist as the key characters and come up with their individual story goals and their individual conflict. For example, why would the teen frame the other guy? Why does she need his wallet? Can you come up with anything that happened to her in the childhood that she never talks about? Perhaps that made her the teen she is today, framing and stealing from people. What does she want to do with that money? Introduce the jihadist and come up with his problems and the way he thinks that it will be fixed should he sacrifice his life in the way of his god.

You can then make the elder talk to the jihadist. And you can start the novel with the jihadist having second thoughts. And those second thoughts can increase page by page. Do it right and you have a little of suspense going on here. You can make the teen thinking that this may be her last theft. That perhaps she is going to quit. Do it right and you have another slight suspense situation going on here.

Once you begin writing (or plotting your novel) after taking all these into consideration, you will know where to go. Place the blast in the end of the novel (and show how the jhadist gave way to his inner battle) or do it in the middle of the novel (and then explore what the teen does after survival) or don't crash the train at all (and show how the jihadist overcame his inner battle because he heard the teen and the elder talking about something and that made the domino tick). Play around with your characters. The kind of situation you have, I'm pretty sure it would turn out to be good.

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    the teen is a girl, i though that was obvious "[...] she thinks she can [...]". I suggested an edit converting male to female. the characters are already fully developped, and have backstories, otherwise some potential leads. – Reed Jun 28 '15 at 1:49

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