Welcome to Storybuilder Inc.
I approach is like a craftsman. Developing procedures and watching a story develop as I follow them is part of the fun. I’m a planner, but I make things up as I go, so the plan helps keep me on track, and gives me a good framework for when making things up requires a clean-up crew.
Today, with Step One, I will talk about the first step I take when I build a story: developing a solid premise.
“What’s your story about?”
This question often makes writers stutter, especially when a prospective editor or agent is asking them, live time, at a conference. Now is your chance! And what do you say? “Oh, you know, it’s about lots of things…”
Stop. What is your book about? It amazed me, when I wrote failed manuscript #1 and failed manuscript #2, how, despite all the writing and thinking and revising, I had never found a way to describe it in a simple statement. Oh, I could tell you what happened, but there was just too much going on.
I didn’t have a story. I had a collage.
What ties it all together
If a story can be thought of as a skeleton, then its spine would be the premise. That’s what ties is all together. One simple statement that embodies the essence of the story. Like all spines, there are weak ones, crooked ones, broken ones, and good healthy ones that make you stand up straight. So, too, there are bad premises and powerful premises that make a book buzz in a reader’s hands.
The first step I take when I build a new story is to make sure my story’s spine is strong, healthy, and ready to take me on a trip to story-land.
The strongest premise is grounded in a character, sometimes two or three, but at least one. It gravitates around this character’s conflict. Who is your character? What is his or her conflict? What is going to happen as a result of it? These three questions become the seeds for the beginning, middle, and end of your story.
My first task, when I begin a new story, is to meet my character and explore these three questions. The first question is not hard, but the next two get difficult. “What is your conflict?” leads to lots of different answers, then, “What happened?” leads to even more. Before I know it, I’ve got potential stories spinning all over the place.
Making it unique
My goal, when I develop a premise, is to emerge with a unique story. A truly unique character will have a truly unique conflict and a truly unique story will unfold around this conflict. The trick is discovering it.
If you are a writer and you want to try this method out, then spend the next week answering these three questions and picking the most unique story you can find.
Here are some more specific questions to ask your character I’ve found helpful:
1) What are you afraid of?
2) What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?
3) What’s your earliest memory?
4) Do you consider yourself a hero?
5) Who is your best friend?
6) Who do you hate?
When you answer these questions, be quirky, creative, and wild. Dig for those answers that lurk on the edge of intuition – that’s where the gold awaits.
It grows in the telling
Remember, this is the start. You will move onto step two and find your premise changes a little, then likewise with step three. In fact, you’ll move on to the final stage of revision and find it needs some further tweaking. That’s okay. If you start your journey with a strong spine, then you will only need to adjust your posture on the way, not fix it at the end when you are hopelessly hunch-backed.
Next week, we will talk about Step Two: preparing for the 3-part outline
If you decide to create your own stories, feel free to share them here in the comments. I would love to see them develop as we progress.