Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Power of the Premise

Early in my writing career, I went out to lunch with a friend. She knew I was working on a novel, so she said, “What’s your book about?” And then, because she’d obviously had some experience with aspiring novelists, she quickly added, “I don’t want you to spend the next half hour telling me the story; just give me an idea what it’s about in two or three sentences.” All I could do was stare at her in stunned silence. Reduce four hundred pages of tangled events and characters to two or three sentences? Impossible!

What she was looking for, of course, was my story’s premise: setting, characters, goals, conflict, all wrapped up in a neat coherent package. Any writer out there who doesn’t know their story’s premise had better sit down and figure it out, because they’re going to need it when pitching their story to agents and editors—and when answering the questions of inquisitive friends. But the best time to nail your premise is before you start. Why? Because changing two sentences around until you come up with the most powerful story is easy. Changing four hundred pages is HARD.

So, let’s take a look at some premises:

Convinced his life has been a failure, a banker and family man decides to commit suicide; but can he succeed when he has his own personal guardian angel determined to talk him out of it? (It’s a Wonderful Life)

A crusty Green Beret and his by-the-book replacement must cooperate to win back the allegiance of a village by transporting an elephant through miles of enemy-infested jungle. (Operation Dumbo Drop)

A misogynistic out-of-work actor pretends to be a woman to get a job; but can he succeed when he falls in love with his leading lady? (Tootsie)

And here, for the record, is the premise of THE DEADLIGHT CONNECTION: Remote viewer Tobie Guinness and cynical CIA agent Jax Alexander must work together to track a missing Nazi U-boat before its deadly cargo can be used to launch a catastrophic terrorist attack on America.

As you can see, the conflict is so inherent in some stories that it often doesn’t need to be spelled out. The conflict in Operation Dumbo Drop comes, obviously, from the North Vietnamese soldiers in the jungles trying to stop our Green Berets (as well as from the inevitable conflict between the crusty and the by-the-book heroes). In The Deadlight Connection, the conflict comes from the organization determined to keep their terrorist plot from being foiled. But the conflict needs to be there, so that anyone reading or hearing your premise can to “get it” right away. Because it is the conflict—internal, external—that makes your story interesting.

Once we’ve nailed our premise, every writer then needs to then sit back and ask himself or herself one important question: is this story strong enough to interest a lot of people? Does it have commercial appeal? Yes, you need to write first and foremost for yourself, but if you write ONLY for yourself, you won’t sell many books. I have zillions of ideas spinning around in my head; I will never, ever have the time to write them all. So it makes sense to devote the months or years a book requires to those ideas with the best chance of selling well.

But terrorist attacks are so ho-hum, you might say; what makes you think DEADLIGHT will sell? Because it has two X-factors: the remote viewing angle, and the Nazi sub. People love Nazis. What’s the X-factor in It’s a Wonderful Life? Religion, and the belief that we all have someone watching out for us. In Operation Dumbo Drop, it’s the elephant. In Tootsie, it’s the comic appeal of a man who despises women having to dress and act like a woman.

But that’s a subject for some future blog. Enough about premises. Next time I’d like to look at adapting Hollywood structure techniques to the novel.

6 comments:

eliza said...

Writing my query letter after I'd finished the 0-draft of my NaNoWriMo novel was probably the best thing for my book. I won't need it for some time still, but I'm now a big advocate of writing a premise, a summary paragraph, and a summary page after nailing down the basic ideas.

Steve Malley said...

Yeah, like my post said, I am *so* all about the premise right now!!

Thanks for this one!

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm reading your posts on screenwriting tips for novel writers with great interest. Thanks for the information. That must have been a great session you attended in Houma.

liz fenwick said...

As always a brilliant kick up the backside to do things in the correct order! It's a bit late for the previous books but for the new one perfect timing. Thanks :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

A good lesson to pay attention to. I need to be more precise in doing this myself.

Lisa said...

Yikes! Between Steve Malley's post and this one, the reason I'm stuck right now has become crystal clear. Thank you.