Thursday, May 29, 2014

4 From the Archives - Building a Better Novel Premise by Martina Boone

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. Thanks for reposting this! Kristen Lamb defines high concept as something that occupies a lot of mental real estate with a lot of people. Love is high concept, along with work, family, laundry, meals, friends, and so on.

    I'm also pleased to note that my WIP fits neatly into all of the above categories.

  2. This is a great list to consider when building a story. Thanks!!

  3. Another terrific, useful post. Thanks.

  4. From the archives--and I TOTALLY needed this. Again. Great reminder.


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