Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Premise

Let’s start off Writers Wednesdays with the big one. Premise. The word has lots of definitions, but mine is essentially this: the core idea of your story.

When revising, some writers choose to wordsmith, others add and delete scenes, and the brave ones go to work on their characters. Admirable, I agree. But something is being overlooked here.

Premise.


I think it’s time to go to work on that big idea. The truth is most people treat their book idea like a quarter from the tooth fairy. They don’t know how it got there, and even though it won’t buy a stick of gum they’re out there bragging about it, getting it framed, and showing it off to all their friends. This is the first mistake. Don’t settle for the tooth fairy’s lousy pittance and spend the rest of your writing career defending an unsalable idea.

The myth: “It just came to me.”

The truth: “You came up with it.”


And you can come up with a better one. Let’s take charge and make ideas, rather than taking whatever quarter’s tossed at us. But how? Creativity can’t be forced, you say. You’d be surprised. But before we get to how, though, let’s look at what. Here’s a few good premises:

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling: A school of witchcraft and wizardry, boarding school style.

Gone, by Michael Grant: In an instant, everyone over age fourteen vanishes.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher: A girl who committed suicide has left behind a series of tapes blaming thirteen people.

You’ll notice something in common. A premise often fits nicely into the space of a single sentence. But I missed stuff, right? Harry Potter is also about good and evil, magic, and coming of age. Yeah, but those aren’t unique ideas. Hogwarts is unique, and that’s what sold the book. Likewise, suicide is a bland premise. Jay Asher added spice.

A premise is what’s different about your idea. Books are full of ideas, but there should be one main idea in your book that has never been done before, or at least never been done quite like yours.

Here’s how.


  1. Gut-wrench factor. What twists your insides into a knot? What events stick in your mind long after they’re over? Identify a story or event in your life that gave you that hollow, unsolved feeling. Something you had to stay up at night thinking about. Distill that down to its essence, and ask yourself, what about this makes it hard to swallow? Then put that in your book.
  2. Simplicity. If it takes over thirty seconds to describe it, it’s too long. Slim it down. Just keep the bare essentials. If, after you’ve whittled it down to a sentence or two, you find there’s nothing of substance left, then you’re writing the wrong book. Start from scratch and come up with a brand new idea. It’s like losing your last baby tooth. You’ll feel liberated.
  3. Instant Appeal. When you describe your premise in a sentence, people should go “ooh, I want to read that.” Practice the art of mixing. Take our Horry Potter example—boarding school + Magic = 400,000,000 copies sold.
  4. Try. If you will take some time and try to think of something good, you will. The moment we assume creativity is out of our control, our brain assumes it’s off the hook.

So before you write another word of your book, I urge you to reexamine your premise. Is it strong enough? Will it create “buzz” in the publishing industry, have editors using words like ‘high-concept’ and ‘big book?’ Will it get you a $2,000,000 advance?

If your premise lacks strength, no amount of character development, plot twists, and writing skill will make up for it. If, on the other hand, your premise is a bombshell, you might find editors, agents, and readers sweeping all your other shortcomings under the rug.

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Dan Rix, author of Entanglement

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