2.1 STORY PREMISE
Plot is not premise. You can change aspects of the plot around but the premise should stay the same – it’s the heart of the story. If you get writer’s block, move around the plot, or go back and remind yourself of the premise.
James N. Frey, “of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story.”
- “A proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion,” according to Dictionary.com
- “The fundamental concept that drives the plot,” according to Wikipedia
In Techniques of a Selling Writer by Dwight Swain, there are five aspects of a story:
Character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster
Story premise is the foundation that supports your plot.
Remember to ask yourself:
- Who is your character?
- What do they want?
- What obstacles are there between them and what they want?
- What do they have to sacrifice to get what they want?
Protagonist + goal + crisis/obstacle
You can start anywhere with your book. It’s YOUR book. Some people start with a title; a line of dialogue; an event; a character.
If you’re struggling, a good place to start is with a one-line pitch.
A one-line pitch can also be called an elevator pitch. Essentially, it’s a persuasive sales pitch that has to pack a punch because, if you were stuck in an elevator with a potential agent, you’d only have the short duration of an elevator ride to impress them with your story idea.
In other words – a pitch is a short summary of what makes your book unique. It’s Unique Selling Point, in sales terms.
But why start the writing process with an elevator pitch if it’s a sales tactic? Surely that should come at the end, when you have to sell your book?
Writing an elevator pitch will help you understand whether you have a strong concept. A strong concept will make your book marketable. Most commercial novels have a strong concept.
As you’re writing your novel, an elevator pitch can also stand as a reminder as to what’s at the heart of your book. If you’re stuck for ideas during the writing process, come back to the elevator pitch. Often, writers’ block isn’t because you don’t know what to write, but because you’ve deviated too much from the book’s initial idea and got yourself knotted up. Re-reading and reflecting on your elevator pitch can be a good way to overcome to block.
Once you get to the submission stage, an elevator pitch will also form part of your query letter, something we’ll discuss in that module.
The elevator pitch can be between 20-50 words.
It’s an achievement, as a writer, to mould thousands of words into a full-length book. However, it’s also a discipline in itself to be able to condense an entire book into a single sentence. It forces you to make every word count.
At the start of the writing process, the elevator pitch doesn’t have to be perfect. Just try and see if you can get your ideas into one or two sentences. Does this seem like a great concept? Start writing!
If you want more help on how to perfect an elevator pitch, we go into more detail in our that module.
TASK: Write a one-line pitch for the following books.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Cat in the Hat
The Hunger Games
The Fault in Our Stars
Have you got any story ideas that could be condensed into an elevator pitch?
TASK: TEST your elevator pitch out on people. Do they get an overall picture of the story? Does the idea grab them? Do they wish they had come up with the idea? Can they see where the story is going?
You DON’T have a premise if…
- The problem in your story has an obvious and direct solution
- The problem in your story doesn’t reveal anything about your character
- Your character and their circumstance begin and end in the same place
Inciting incident: changes your character’s life, pulls them unexpectedly out of their ‘normal’, and starts the story. Normally this inciting incident coincides with what your character fears the most, or conflicts with what they want the most.
TASK: Write down what your character wants/ Then create an event that takes this away from them or threatens to take it away from them.
CONFLICT + ACTION + RESOLUTION = PREMISE
Premises: PART 2
So now you have an idea or hopefully many ideas!
But do all ideas make a great story? Unfortunately, not.
Now, this is the stage of writing where I feel I’ve improved the most over the last decade. My very first story idea was underdeveloped, but I went ahead and wrote the book anyway.
104,000 words of it! And an MG, no less!
Hopefully that word count is sending alarm bells to you all. But even more alarming is the fact that I spent well over a year on that novel. Based on a very weak and undeveloped premise.
I had an idea, but I didn’t have a story and I learned the hard way that if I’d only spent just a little more time on developing that idea at the start, I could have saved myself a year of wasted (well not, wasted as no writing is ever a waste, but you know…)
So, how do we know if an idea will make a great story? This is where developing a premise will tell you.
Donald Maass, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, names 4 elements to a strong premise:
- inherent conflict
- gut emotional appeal
Your premise is your story idea, succinctly described in a few sentences.
A very basic premise would be:
- boy meets girl
- good takes on evil
- hero goes on journey
These are VERY generic and not really premises at all. They could be a million stories that we know.
Let’s get more specific:
- youth meets mentor who trains them
- hero must defeat epic enemy to end terror to a people
- boy time travels to different times in girl’s life
A little more specific, perhaps but each could still describe a million stories.
So, let’s get MUCH more specific – this is where we see an idea developing to a premise. I’ll use an example from one of my WIPs.
The first girl born on Mars must save her Dad when he is trapped in a mine.
MG Sci-Fi. The Martian meets Sword in the Stone.
Mars. 2045. 13-year-old Eva is the first Martianborn Human and a type 1 diabetic. All she wants to do is go to Earth, where she’s the most famous person in the world, a poster girl for the New World. But when she gets told she’ll never be able to leave Mars (as she can’t survive on Earth) and then pulls a Sword from Martian rock, the act nearly kills her and destroys her artificial pancreas.
With no means control her condition, she turns to the sword to give her the power to stay alive. So, when her father gets lost in a far-off mine on Mars, Eva steals a rover to rescue him and must overcome the harsh Martian elements and work out how to control the power of the sword before it kills her, and her father is lost forever.
Not perfect but it’s certainly a development on the original idea.
When I worked with Kate Brauning on this, she suggested the following criteria, extended from the Maass 4:
- Inherent conflict
- Gut emotional appeal
- Immersive setting
- Imaginative hook
I like addition of the last two, as it gives you license to have fun with your setting and set-up. They are the flashy things to your premise, probably what you’d put in a blurb or pitch.
Anyway, now it’s your turn!
Can you describe your story in a few sentences? Try it.
Once you’ve finished, look at the list of elements above. Does your premise have any/some/all of these?
Post your premise (if you wish) on the Slack group chat and ask others what they think?
Now look at other peoples – do they contain the 4 elements?
If you’re still struggling with this, and even if you’re not, I’d really recommend reading the chapter in the Donald Maass book on developing your premise. I promise it will save you heartache and a LOT of work in the long run by getting this right now.
I always find the stronger my idea and the more developed my premise, the easier a pitch becomes. So, if you’ve been successful in the first two parts of this first chapter, you’ll find this a walk in the park!
What is a pitch?
Well, there are many variants, such as a Twitter pitch, a blurb, an elevator pitch and the length will also vary depending on the circumstance. But what do they all have one thing in common: they portray the heart of the story and the key conflict/challenges faced by your character.
Twitter Pitch: 240 characters to summarise the heart of your story? You’ll have seen these on twitter – if you haven’t, check #PitMad – but they are very hard to get just right. Everyone struggles with the condensation of the whole story into so few characters. So why not go the other way – start with a couple of key words or a key event (inciting incident is often good) and simply build up from there. For me, that’s an easier process as adding is always much easier than taking away.
Elevator Pitch: Much like a Twitter Pitch but less restricting in terms of length. It can be a sentence, or 2 or 3, depending on circumstance. The irony of an elevator pitch, of course, is that you should never pitch to a publisher, or agent, in an elevator – professional boundaries and all that – but if invited to give one, this is what we’re looking for. I would use a similar approach to the Twitter pitch, selecting main conflict and framing that as a challenge, something which we will want the character to succeed with, to root for them.
The key formula for all pitches, which I use:
CHARACTER GOALS + OBSTACLES = CONFLICT
Conflict is at the heart of every story and what makes us turn pages. Without it, no matter how exciting our story or how brilliant our words, your reader will not turn those pages.
Blurbs: Found on the back of a book cover, it’s much more of a promise or tease of the story. An extension of what you would put in a pitch. To get a feel for these, just pick up your favourite books and read the back or go to Amazon where all the blurbs are just below the main description.
The elevator pitch – choose five words which embody your story – make them specific, so much so that they could belong to no other story. Now put them into a one sentence pitch.
I’d suggest coming up with at least 3 story ideas and produce a pitch for them. If you don’t have 3 of your own ideas, use published books/films and produce your own pitch for it. It’s good practice.