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I've been revisiting my stash of books on how to write a novel, doing a refresher course on premise for myself while I revise my current WIP and prepare to start a new one. I always love the insight I get when reading a craft book and thinking about a specific manuscript I'm working on.
If you've read my last few Tuesday posts, you'll know that I kicked off this new series on craft exploration with premise/concept and deep conflict, the two aspects of story setup where small changes can create the biggest payoff. Tweaking premise and deep conflict before we've put words on the screen is also relatively painless. After all, we haven't had a chance to fall in love with our characters, setting, and plot choices yet. If you missed the two earlier posts, they're here.
In those earlier posts, I introduced two craft books that I am going to reference again and again: Lisa Cron's WIRED FOR STORY and Larry Brooks' STORY STRUCTURE. As Lisa Cron pointed out, setting up the conflict and the story question really begins from our first sentence, and if we don't know what that is going to be, we're probably not quite ready to start writing even if we are pantsing it. If everything comes down to the story question, then the success of the book ultimately begins and ends with that question. But how does premise tie into that question? Are they the same thing? Or slightly different?
The premise or concept will include a number of different elements. We can define it for like this:
When EXTERNAL STORY QUEST forces CHARACTER to confront her INTERNAL PROBLEM or STAKES, PLOT illustrates the THEME.
Note that the premise isn't just about the theme. We have to start with the external story quest. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner pointed out that one of the most common mistakes she sees in queries or hears in verbal pitches is that writers have a hard time conveying the actual story in their novel. She explains that it's critical that we make sure "the character's emotional journey is illustrated in the real-life action of the story." One feeds off the other. The internal problem complicates the external story quest and leads to the growth of the protagonist. The protagonist's journey, in turn, develops the main theme, which further facilitates our choices in the obstacles we throw at her.
The "And so?" Test
Lisa Cron suggests using "And so?" as a test of relevance as we plot a story. "What does this piece of information tell us that we need to know? What's the point? How does it further the story?" What consequence does it lead to?" Any time that something happens and we can't tie the answer to "And so?" back to the main premise, we are derailing the momentum of the story, which "should follow a cause-and-effect trajectory beginning on page one so that each scene is triggered by the one that preceded it."
Does everything in the story's cause-and-effect trajectory revolve around the protagonist's quest (the story question)?
That's another great test question from Lisa Cron. And, of course, it leads back to story question.
What Is the Story Question?
It's the ultimate test of whether a premise is compelling. It's the premise boiled down to the thing that the reader has to know, the reason the reader keeps turning the pages to the end.
Will Katniss Everdeen survive the Hunger Games?
Will character overcome the opposition?
For "overcome," we can substitute any verb that suggests conflict. And here we are, back at conflict.
Note that the example from THE HUNGER GAMES is very specific and external. Because Suzanne Collins did such a great job setting up the conflict in the first book of her trilogy, we all know what the Hunger Games are by now, so I didn't need to define it. If "Hunger Games" was instead "the Zombie Circus" and you or I were trying to pitch that to an agent, on the other hand, we would need to be able to boil down the idea in a few succinct words. The closer we can come to nailing that explanation in a single, compelling sentence, the more likely it is that we've nailed the premise.
Rachelle Gardner suggests that before we pitch to an agent, we make sure our book has "a protagonist with a choice to face (a conflict), obstacles to overcome, a desired outcome, and consequences (the stakes) if the goal is not reached. Again, that's easier to set up before we've written. And chances are, that if we haven't done a good job setting it up before we've written, summing it up after we've written is going to be more difficult. Blogger and YA author Lydia Sharp does a great job illustrating that with some common query problems she's run across.
The "What If?" test
In STORY ENGINEERING, Larry Brooks suggests checking to see how many "What If" questions we can find in a premise. Let's take another whack at HUNGER GAMES – yes, again. It's my go-to because so many of us have read it.
What if in a post-apocalyptic society children were forced to fight to the death as a spectator sport?
What if one of two children forced to fight each other to the death was in love with the other?
What if while two children were forced to fight each other to the death, one had to preserve the other's life?
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Any way I want to slice the story, it comes down to a compelling read because as a reader, I want to know the answer.
The "So What?" Test
In ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING – CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT, Orson Scott Card, the brilliant author of ENDER'S GAME and a number of equally compelling books, suggests that readers actually search for the answers to three different questions while they are reading. "So What?" the first of these questions basically demands to know why the premise matters, why it is different from what readers have already read a thousand times.
Applied to the premise, the "So What?" test helps us ensure that the premise has a hook—something intriguing to make the reader choose to read this book, to buy this book, instead of one of the many other choices on the shelf. If the premise itself doesn't pass the "So What?" it's probably not time to write yet.
The "Oh Yeah?" Test
The "Oh Yeah" test is one of plausibility. It grounds the premise and forces us to lay the groundwork. Why would the things that happen in the story happen? Why couldn't they happen any other way? If there's anything unfounded in the story, anything that happens only because the author needs it to happen that way, then the reader will sniff it out. Plot holes kill a premise no matter how compelling that premise may be. And plot holes can usually be patched by laying solid groundwork from the beginning. If the premise itself doesn't pass the "Oh Yeah" test, well . . . you get the idea.
The "Huh?" Test
The way Orson Scott Card explains the "Huh?" test, it applies to anything in the story that the reader can't follow—anything that doesn't make sense. And that goes for the premise as well as every, single sentence in the book. If the reader can't follow the idea, can't follow the action, can't tell who is speaking or what is going on, then he or she will quickly stop reading.
If the premise doesn't fit into a simple, compelling format, it probably isn't distilled enough to work yet. It can sometimes help to try writing it in different ways to see what pops.
A Few More Ways to Examine Premise
Once we have a really solid premise, it's easy to restate it in any number of different ways and have it always hold up. Here are a few more formula we can use to examine a premise and see if we can add something or change something to make it more compelling.
One sentence mistaken belief:
Character believes misconception or twisted life view, until discovery and series of events that result in disaster.
Two sentence inciting incident:
When inciting incident launches character on quest to avoid consequence, she must overcome her obstacle to success before she can defeat antagonist, save loved one, or retrieve the MacGuffin.
A character must do something to keep antagonist from doing something else or else reason why we care?
Story action launch:
Book title starts when character discovers/is pushed/something happens leading to dire consequences.
First page set-up:
On the first page of Book Title, something strange leads character to question/discover/investigate something previously taken for granted which leads to consequence.
Ticking clock premise:
Will character discover/expose who (antagonist) is doing something bad in time to save herself or some other poor schmuck from dire consequence?
Quick reminder, these last ways to examine premise are just for us while we're noodling around trying to get a handle on what we're writing. I wouldn't necessarily recommend using them as your ultimate pitch. Many agents have stated that they don't like rhetorical questions in query letters, and throwing a premise question into a query might be too close for comfort. Bottom line? Do your research into what specific agents like and don't like and let me off the hook. :)
About the Author
Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.