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Get Ready: Is Your PREMISE Ready? #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Get Ready: Is Your PREMISE Ready? #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comIt sounds like the stupidest thing to start with, but if you’re going to write a book, you need to know what you’re telling a story about. In other words, you need a premise.

I have a story idea, thanks.

Well . . . story premise is a bit more complex than a story idea. Conversely, premise is not nearly as complex as plot.

Obviously, you’re going to start with an idea. Whether that idea comes from a character or a what if…? scenario running through your head, your mind starts building a story around that idea. Now it’s time to take your story idea to the next level and develop it into a premise.

According to Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel:

The key ingredients that I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are (1) plausibility, (2) inherent conflict, (3) originality and (4) gut emotional appeal.

(p. 40)

Let’s explore Maass’s elements a bit so that you can determine if you have an idea or if you have a premise that will sustain your manuscript through to the end.

How many times have you sat watching a movie or TV show or reading a book and all of a sudden snorted in derision and grumbled, “Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen!”

Whether it’s too many coincidences happening at just the right time to make things work out well for the main characters or a deus ex machina element—something/someone swooping in at the last moment to solve the unsolvable crisis—what you’ve just experienced is a lack or loss of plausibility. If a writer needs to resort to coincidences and/or deus ex machina machinations in order to get through to the end of the story, it’s likely the premise wasn’t a strong one to begin with.

According to Maass, not only do we need to make sure our premises are realistic—“…most readers, me included, need to feel that the story we are being presented has some basis in reality” (40)—we also don’t want them to be so realistic, so ordinary, that they become predictable. One of the reasons we turn to fiction for entertainment is to escape from normal everyday life. We don’t want that in our fiction. We want something to catch our attention by triggering our imaginations and leading us to try to imagine where a story is going. We want to explore “what if…?”

We don’t want a story premise that makes readers say,
“Yeah, I saw that coming.”
We want a story premise that makes readers say,
“Wow! I wish I’d written that!”

Inherent Conflict
Conflict is the driving force of fiction. Without conflict, there is no story.

It’s so tempting, especially for beginning writers, to shy away from conflict, to not want to put our beloved characters in difficult situations. But if you never get beyond that, if you never learn how to torture your characters, you’ll never be more than just a wannabe writer.

When you’re testing your premise to see if it’s worth committing months, perhaps even years, to developing, you need to know if it creates enough opportunities for conflict to actually sustain the length of story you intend to write. This is why I said above that premise is more complex than just having a story idea.

At this point, you don’t need to know every single conflict that will happen in your story—that’s for another stage of development when you’re actively working out your plot. Right now, all you need to do is be able to list two or three major conflicts that could happen in a story based on this premise.

The next question to ask yourself is this: Does the world of my story have conflict built into it? Opposing forces, both strong, perhaps both in the right? If the milieu of the story is not only multifaceted but also involves opposing factions or points of view, then you have a basis for strong, difficult-to-resolve conflict. To put it another way, if problems already exist in your “place,” that is a good thing.

(Maass, 41)

When we pitch our manuscripts to editors and agents, one of the things we’re told to do is include a list of similar titles in the proposal. Where will our story fit into the market? What already-published stories is it similar to in setting, tone, character, theme, content?

And then once that’s established, it’s our job to point out how our story is unique, how it’s not like all of those already-published books. This is where I think newbies attending writing conferences for the first time get really confused, because this is a somewhat oxymoronic situation: tell us how your novel is just like everything else we publish but different. The nuance of it, that usually gets lost, is that publishers want to know that they can market a book the same way they market everything else they publish—but that readers are going to want to read it because it has an original and unique slant to it that no one else has ever done before.

Remember the adage to write what you know? You know what? No one else has ever had the same thoughts and experiences that you have. Even if you’re an identical twin. No one else thinks about or feels the exact same way you do about things. So tap into what makes you unique and bring that to your premise.

What about your premise? Is it truly a fresh look at your subject, a perspective that no one else but you can bring to it? Is it the opposite of what we expect or a mix of elements such as we’ve never seen before? If not, you have some work to do. If so, you may have something there.

(Maass, 47)

Gut Emotional Appeal
The fiction we enjoy the most—no matter if it’s romance, sci-fi, true crime, sweeping family sagas, or fantasy epics—is enjoyable to us because it hits us in that sweet-spot emotionally. Perhaps you like reading tear-jerkers. Or maybe you eschew those for books that make you laugh out loud. Or maybe the type of book you pick up depends on the mood you’re in that day.

As writers, one of our primary jobs is to grab our readers by the emotions and not let go, whether it’s creating sigh-worthy heroes or horrifying scenes of death and mayhem.

When examining your premise, ask yourself what the emotional stakes are. How do you want readers to react to it—do you want to make them laugh? cry? cringe in horror? sit on the edge of their seats?

If a premise has gut emotional appeal, the novel will start to write itself in my mind. The very idea invites me to imagine characters, complications and dramatic climaxes. It gets me. It feels personal. That, I believe, is because it touches emotions that are deep, real and common to us all.

(Maass,pp. 47–48)

Get Ready: Is Your PREMISE Ready?
It’s time to put what you just read into action. Either in the comments or on your own blog with a link to it in the comments here, take your premise and examine it for these four elements. What’s your premise? Is it plausible? What’s the inherent conflict? What makes it original? And what’s the emotional impact you want it to have?

Works Cited:

Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

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