Tuesday, June 21, 2011

16 Building a Better Novel Premise

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer.  But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. 

Building a Better Novel Premise

Last week while I was writing my list of Forty Questions for a Stronger Manuscript, I mentioned that I had written my elevator pitch and logline before I even started plotting my new novel. That may seem strange, but I wish I'd caught onto that process sooner. I would have saved myself, and my critique partners, soooooo much grief. It's a lot easier to tweak a pitch than it is to change an 80,000 word novel. Seriously.
And there are reasons to tweak the premise. However well we write, however creatively we move our characters across the storyboard, if the basic idea we want to convey isn't worth reading about, we're facing too much competition from other authors and entertainment options to hold a reader's attention.

Before I started my current manuscript, I wanted to be absolutely sure I'd made the premise as strong as possible. I've read dozens of posts and books on that elusive "high concept" beast we've all heard so much about lately, and I started thinking through how what the experts said related to my favorite books. Basically, what I've gleaned is that for me, there's a difference between gimmick and high concept.  And there's a BIG difference between high concept and well-executed concept.

A gimmick is something with a WOW factor, but once I've heard the WOW, I'm done. It loses its appeal because after I unwrap the shiny packaging, there's nothing much inside. It's like the wizard standing behind the screen in Oz. Once he's visible, all the magic fades.

With a great concept, there's a great wrapper, a WOW factor, but there's layer after layer of solid goodness underneath. And isn't that the key to any great piece of literature? Layers? Depth? Great characters? Beautiful writing? Universal appeal? Connection?

Yes, a great concept has to contain a "hook," but that's just the ending point. To make the hook resonate, the premise also has to have: 
  • At least one fascinating character: Someone bigger than life, who cares very deeply about someone or something and is willing to fight for it.
  • An interesting setting: A location or world where readers have never been but want to visit either in our dreams or in our nightmares.
  • An inherent conflict: The situation that pits the fascinating character against someone or something that is going to keep her from getting what she wants--while keeping readers at the edge of our seats unable to guess the outcome.
  • An emotional appeal: The reason readers understand the stakes, care about them, and connect to the events and characters on a personal, heart-deep level.
  • A universal or familiar idea: The connection to something we already know something about or have previously wondered about.
  • An original twist: The aspect of the story that makes it different from any other story--the way ordinary things are combined, slanted, spun, and stacked to take the universal or familiar idea and warp it into something unique and unexpected.
  • A piece of coolness: A tool, ability, artifact, or something in the character, setting, or situation that makes our jaws drop.
  • A high-impact inciting incident:  The situation that catapults us all into the story with no way back.
  • High stakes: The reason it matters if the fascinating character loses, not just to her but to other people. The actual consequences of failure that the reader can't bear to contemplate.
  • A great title: A word or two or three that intrigue and sum up the book.

Notice, there's no "hook" in that list. For me, the hook is the innate simplicity of the premise--something that lets us take all those things I've just listed and sum them up in one or two easily-understood sentences.

Beyond that, if the premise hits at least one or two of the following "it" factors, so much the better:
  • A topical or current subject or event.
  • A controversial, sensational, or heretical topic or subject.
  • An alternate view or explanation for a known person, event or potential event.
  • A mythological connection.
  • A primal fear. 
Simple, right? Let's all jump get on it and come up with some best-selling ideas.

But one more thing--and this one's critical: I think the best-selling idea, your best-selling idea, has to make you care. It has to have elements you want to explore, characters you absolutely love. Otherwise, the heart will be missing from your writing. For me, that's just as important as concept, and a lot harder to define.

So what do you think? Is high concept or a hot premise important to you? Can you think of any other way to beef yours up? What do you ask yourself before you sit down to write a new idea?

Are your favorite books high concept? What "high concept" books do you want to read over and over again?
Happy writing,



  1. You just asked the perfect question: What do I ask myself before I sit down to write? I needed to hear that right now. I have two MGs, both half written. I'd put them away about 9 months ago and have decided it's time to revisit. I like some of the work (ideas) but others...not so much. I think I need to ask myself a few key questions to weed through this muddle. :)

  2. Nice post--but I tend to over think and over-worry everything. I have migrated to a single philosophy: Make EVERY scene interesting. One of Leonard's ten rules: leave out the boring stuff.

  3. This is a fantastic list. I'm bookmarking this post!

  4. This post is very timely for me. I'm at the beginning of a major rewrite and tweaking now will save me a lot of grief later. Thanks!

  5. What a great list! Every Monday I write reviews of MG lit and the two main areas I discuss are: the premise and what keeps readers reading. The list fits somewhere in those two categories. Applying them to my own work is sometimes harder...

  6. AWESOME list. And I think it's totally spot on. Thank you!

  7. Awesome post! I know I don't always comment here but I've been lurking. Love your extremely helpful and informative blog. Good job!

  8. This is a really great post and something I've been thinking about for my WIP. I'm almost done with my first draft but before I dive into revisions I'm going to go through these questions and see where my premise stands. Thanks for linking to all of these books!

  9. Great posts and links. I've been thinking hard before I start my new project on what will make it special. Your ideas are giving me things to consider. Thanks.

  10. I love this list. Perfect timing b/c I'm plotting this summer! And thanks for linking to my post. :)

  11. Good questions and explanations. For me reading and writing are all about the emotional connections I make.

  12. Argh, yes, it is definitely much easier to tweak at ground level than after the novel is written! Thanks for the cool list; I will definitely use this whenever I get to my next novel. ;o)

  13. Yet another AMAZING post! So much awesome. You are right on every single count, and what a great way to break it all down.

  14. I can't believe I missed this one this week. I'm behind in checking my inbox, apparently.

    Great post!

  15. Holy cow, I can't believe I missed this post. Thankfully Stina had it on her round up! I love the idea of creating the pitch before the book is written. So smart!

    I hope you both are enjoying your summer :D


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)