All stories start with the same thing: an idea. The trick is stretching and expanding that idea until it’s solid enough to support the weight of an entire novel. Let’s talk about evaluating your premise for its novel potential.
The Four Keys to a Solid Premise
In The Breakout Novelist, Donald Maass says there are four ingredients he looks for in a “breakout premise”:
- Plausibility – could this story happen?
- Inherent Conflict – is there some level of struggle happening?
- Originality – how is this story different from others?
- Gut Emotional Appeal – do people react to the premise alone?
Combining these four elements will help take you from having an interesting idea to developing a complex premise.
Readers tend to care more about stories that give the impression of, “It could happen to me.” Yes, they have the ability to suspend their disbelief in order to get into a story; however, if the idea is too out there to be believable, the stakes are suddenly nonexistent. Therefore, even if you’re writing fiction, readers still need to have that vague sensation that it could happen.
For example, the inspiration for my WIP was a news story I read about archaeologists finding what they believed to be Vlad the Impaler’s (aka, Dracula) tomb. They wanted to open it to make sure and I was like, “Yeah, sounds like a great idea!” Archaeologists unearthing and messing with stuff they shouldn’t is a pretty standard real-world event, so there’s my plausibility!
If you think about it, plausibility is still necessary even in Fantasy or SciFi novels. Whether it’s through human (or human-like) characters, recognizable (if distorted) societies, or an earth-like setting, the most popular stories in these genres still have a nugget of reality that lets the reader see themselves in the events.
Conflict is the driving force of storytelling. When was the last time you read a whole book about happy people enjoying life? Once again, it’s all about stakes. If there’s already conflict built into your idea, then your job is a lot easier. But it’s also not that hard to add a little if you need to.
In my WIP, the inherent conflict is your standard humanity’s curiosity getting them into trouble variety, with a little good versus evil for good measure. I also added a star-crossed lovers conflict to further complicate things.
Conflict can come from a few different places. What are the opposing forces in the world of your story? Are there waring groups or conflicting ideologies present? Character-driven conflict can come from the relationships between your characters or some internal source.
There are seven essential plots. Pretty much every theme has already been explored. So how do writers come up with original ideas? The trick here is to find your particular take on any given idea.
You might have noticed that everything I’ve told you about my WIP premise doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking. You’d be right. If I just left it at that, my story wouldn’t be all that original. That’s why I pushed myself when considering my characters and tried to bring in some topics that I find personally compelling. What started out as an unleashing a monster story has since transformed into a bit of a commentary on religion. (Sorry for being vague, but I don’t want to give away all the good stuff!)
What can you add to your idea that will bring out your individuality?
Gut Emotional Appeal
This is about how others react when you tell them about your idea. If it doesn’t seem to strike a cord with them, then you know you’ll need to do some work on it.
Gut emotional appeal is about hitting your reader close to home. I went with religion because it’s an important part of my life and something I’ve wrestled with for a long time, which also happens to be a pretty universal experience.
Playing the What If Game
Once you have the four keys covered, you can continue to add layers to your premise by playing every writer’s favorite game, “What if?”
One of the best things I did for my own project was to ask myself, “What if the demon wasn’t so obviously in the wrong?” This one question deepened not only my antagonist but also my plot and the theme of the story.
Asking what if of your characters is a great way to make sure they are fully developed. What if you introduce an entirely new type of character to your story? A couple rounds of what if can introduce all sorts of twists and turns to an otherwise straightforward plot. Where can you ask yourself “what if” in your idea?
You don’t have to wait to start writing
All my pantsers just breathed a heavy sigh of relief, am I right? Even though a good premise comes first, you can absolutely start writing before figuring all of this out. In fact, it might be easier to evaluate all of these elements after you’ve been writing for a while.
I was already a few thousand words into my story before I started asking myself about these things. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a simple premise and adding complications as you go.
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