The Lesson: Successful Story Premises
Welcome to the first craft lesson post for my new venture, The Writer's Apprenticeship! The second week of every month I'll be posting something I'm learning about craft that I hope will help you too. I'll be starting from the ground up as I feel like I want to relearn this process from the ground up. So we're starting at the very beginning today with story premise: what it is, how to find yours, and what makes for a successful one.
I love the initial stages of story, when an idea pops into your head and it feels important at a visceral level, exciting and attractive. It's like love at first sight--or thought. The world is suddenly full of possibilities and brighter than it was a few moments before. I have an idea and I am certain it will make an amazing story. But will it? I can't know for sure, but the first step is taking it from idea to concept to premise so I can start to find out.
What is a story premise?
It is an interesting concept that introduces the story's hero, central conflict, inherent obstacles and stakes, as well as the forces that oppose them and can be expressed in a sentence or two.
Sounds easy enough, right? But in my experience, getting your story down to it's essence like this can be one of the most difficult challenges for writing a successful story. The initial idea can seem so big, so full of possibilities and inherent themes and enticing details that it is hard to focus all of that inspiration into one or two sentences. It's easy to add too much or forget to add all we need to. But I'm starting to realize that if I can nail the premise bit BEFORE I write--not just express a general idea or concept (the idea is your first thought, the concept gives rise to plot, but lacks character and details), I am much more likely to focus better from the beginning.
Quick Disclaimer: I am a plotter. I mean a detailed plotter...right now. I'm not saying it will always be this way and it's not how I wrote my first book, but as I'm moving through learning about craft, I am embracing the mechanics and structure of outlining and character construction and extreme planning for my work in order to understand all aspects of craft better. I think it's a worthy exercise for learning my own process and what is going to work for me long term. If you aren't a massive plotter, no worries, glean from these posts what you will and carry on in the way that serves you best!
So how do you find your story's premise?
I think the easiest way to illustrate it is to show you the difference between an idea, a concept, and a story premise through their definitions and a real time example. Then you can apply it to your own idea. Everything I'm writing about here is inspired by Larry Brooks's books: Story Structure, Story Engineering, and Story Fix. If you haven't read them, GET THEM. They are the most practical books I've ever read on process and craft.
An Idea: General. Lacking specifics about conflict or hints at character.
Example: A murder mystery at a private school.
A Concept: Gives rise to plot and begins to suggest the basis of a story. Can be expressed as a "what if" question.
Example: What if a murder was committed at a private school during winter break?
A Premise: Adds in character, a sense of conflict, obstacles, and stakes as well as an opposing force.
Example: A teen girl's best friend and roommate is murdered at their private school when they, along with a handful of other students and faculty are stranded by a massive snow storm before they can leave for winter break. As more murders take place and the storm worsens, the girl must figure out who is behind them and why before she becomes the next victim.
See how the last one gives all of the basic details you would need to begin creating the actual story? It's a concrete way of explaining your intention to a reader, an agent, or an editor so that they fully realize the potential for conflict while also introducing the main character.
You have a foundation for a story here. But often this isn't enough. This is a critical moment to ask yourself if the premise you have is good enough and worthy of the time and energy it will take to write the entire story. If it's too familiar or "done" it won't get the attention of the publishing industry or readers. So how do you know? Well, first you read a lot in your genre and get familiar with what's out there so you know what's been done to death already. Then you look at elevating what you have.
Elevated Premise: Going High Concept
The above story premise while okay, is not the stuff of breakout hits. It's been done before. The private school, the enclosed space with a murdered on the loose. It's compelling sure, but new and exciting and agent attention-grabbing? Probably not yet. The way to get it there is to push it either by making it something that has never been done before or by giving a new and fresh take on it so it doesn't feel like such familiar ground anymore. You can do this by:
Strategy One: Make the protagonist more unique or by giving her some sort of inner demon that will significantly affect her ability to handle the situation. The protagonist could be an insomniac with such severe sleep deficit that she's begun hallucinating, so she can't trust what she sees and the people around her don't find her trustworthy. It could also make her the prime suspect and be a mystery in itself: why can't she sleep? Did something traumatic happen that sparked it? Something that directly relates to the murders at hand?
Strategy Two: Make the setting new and different. YA novels are full of private school settings. How can I make this one stand out? Or should I change it completely? Instead of a private school in a wintery area (done, SO DONE and so often) what about an experimental school at a deep water sub-station with a hurricane brewing above that keeps the students trapped...as well as a dwindling supply of oxygen? Immediately the potential for higher stakes exists. It's also novel enough to pique reader curiosity. What would it be like to go to school underwater? And it plays on our fears of drowning and creates an even more claustrophobic setting which ups tension. Leaving is nearly impossible.
Strategy Three: Introduce a theme you can explore within the context of the story that could deepen the story and raise moral questions for the reader to ponder. Or introduce a psychological phenomenon that deepens the way the story is told/puts the reader into the character's head and on the journey with them. Right away with the change of setting for this idea we could explore what extreme isolation does to human psychology. But we could also make this school a prototype, an experiment and maybe the folks who run the school have an agenda to test out and the murders are all part of their plan somehow. If the experiment is based on advancing society somehow, are the resulting murders acceptable? It's a compelling question, one that readers will want to explore and discuss.
These are all things I've been really meditating on lately in a quest to up my own story premises. I'm starting to realize that a breakout story has to start with a breakout premise, so it's worth spending some time on this stage of development since everything that comes after builds on it. I'm going to leave you with the checklist I've developed for myself as I work on my story premises. Hope it helps you too!
Checklist for Story Premise Success: Questions to ask yourself
Does it have the basics: character, hint at plot, obstacles, stakes, and an antagonist?
Does it have a story set up that's unusual enough to make it stand out? Or is it a fresh enough take on a familiar one?
Can you express it in one or two sentences?
Does it lend itself to the exploration of themes?
Is it focused around the biggest conflict in the story? (What the protagonist has to overcome and his main story goal)
Now go forth and brainstorm your own stories. And if you'd like to share your story premise in the comments, I'd love to read it!