#FirstDraft60 Day 19: Writing/Testing Your Story Premise
Now that we’ve had a few weeks to work on developing our characters, their external attributes, and their internal motivations and goals, it’s time to broaden our focus to the overview of our stories: the premise.
It may sound absurd that we’ve put it off this long, because premise—or what your story is about—is one of the essential elements to being able to write a complete draft of a story. Without your premise in place, how do you even know you have a story to write?
The Difference Between Genre Structure and Premise
For the story I want to write in this challenge, I have two strong characters. And I know it’s a romance novel. I know how Quin and the heroine (who still hasn’t told me her name yet) meet. I know that the bulk of the story will be the developing romantic relationship between these two characters—that there’s an instant attraction but there’s a major conflict keeping them apart. And I know they’ll eventually end up together. After all, it’s a romance novel.
So I know the basics of what happens in the story. But I don’t know the premise—I don’t know the why of the story. Why do these two fall in love with each other? Why is this new love threatened? Why should readers care if they have a happily-ever-after ending?
The Difference Between Plot and Premise
To know the premise of my story—the why—I need to have a broad view of the plot of the story. But I don’t need to know every single detail of the plot. Do I need to know some of the plot? Yes. But the individual plot points—the action beats of the story—can remain murky, or completely unknown, until I discover them while actually writing the first draft.
What I do need to know are at least a few of the main conflicts in the plot. The conflicts drive the plot; therefore, we can draw our premise from knowing a few key conflicts we’re centering the plot around.
So while the premise is tied into the plot—or we can say it’s the basic overview of the plot—we don’t have to know every plot point of the story in order to polish our premises.
Developing Your Premise
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.
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.
- *If you watch Game of Thrones, then you witnessed this in Season 5 when ***SPOILER*** Drogon suddenly appeared to save/carry off Dany to keep her from being killed by the Sons of the Harpy. I immediately said, “Dragon ex machina.”
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 everyday ordinary reality 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 just want it to be realistic.
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!”
Assignment 1: Write out a brief sketch of your story idea—no more than a paragraph, maybe two. Is your premise plausible? Is it realistic without being predictable?
2. 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 that premise is more complex than just having a story idea.
As mentioned above, 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.
Assignment 2: Write out at least three main conflicts (plot points) that you know will happen in your story. Are they deep enough to sustain the story’s momentum by creating additional sub-conflicts that will move the plot forward? Are there enough problems facing your characters to keep readers’ interest?
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, what 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 or feels the exact same way you do about things. So tap into what makes you unique and bring that to your premise.
Assignment 3: What books out on the market are similar to yours in genre, subject, theme, character? How does your premise position your book in the market? Now, what makes your premise unique? Does it bring a different perspective? Different characters? Different themes? What is the mix of elements in your story’s premise that makes it stand out in a crowd?
4. 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.
Assignment 4: What are the emotional stakes in your story premise? How do you want readers to react to your story—do you want to make them laugh? cry? cringe in horror? sit on the edge of their seats? Would you want to read this story if someone else had written it?
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.
Assignment 5: If you weren’t already working all of the above out in your Story Bible, please pause and add everything from the above assignments to a new section (Plot/Premise) in your Story Bible.
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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