Welcome back to Storybuilder Inc.
Last week I talked about a premise and how to make one by connecting to your character. How did that go? I’d love to hear about the characters you connected to when you asked those questions.
Today, with Step Two, I will talk about how to put your premise through some important crash tests before it’s ready to zoom you away into story land.
Do you really know your premise?
So you’re ready to move to the next step. You asked the 6 questions I recommended, you spent some time sifting through the answers to find the best one, and now you have a statement that tells you about your character, his or her conflict, and what happens as a result of it. Now you’re ready to go. Right?
Possibly. First, there are some tests to take to make sure your story is ready for some of the walls you might encounter.
Crash Test #1: is your premise unique?
There are so many stories. Because there are so many, there’s no way to stop them from overlapping, but you can always give yours a spin. Here is an example of how you might innovate your design:
Hazardous: “A man meets a woman and they fall in love.”
Passable: “A marathon runner discovers his tender side when his recovery from a car accident sees him in the care of his nemesis.”
Ultra safe: “A depressed marathon runner discovers joy when an injury sees him in the care of the woman who was to blame for his family’s death.”
Powerful storytelling is concrete and specific. A good premise is no different. Make sure your story germ isn’t a square, red car, but instead a 16-valve 2013 Honda Civic Sedan with a crystal black pearl exterior.
Crash test #2: Does your character’s conflict have a clear resolution?
Do you know the ending? A good story is an ending, with a gripping beginning and middle to propel you toward it. When you develop your premise, make sure you discover the ending that you want to build toward. If you see a man in a room who decides he must cut his hand off to get free, then ask yourself what would bring him to that point. (If you’ve seen the movie Saw, ten you know the answer to this question. As a fun exercise, try writing that movie as a premise and see what you come up with.)
Hazardous: “A bounty hunter must go out and catch the bad guys.”
(this is just a beginning)
Passable: “A bounty hunter goes out to catch a notorious criminal, only to discover that the criminal is actually him.”
(this is a beginning, with a middle)
Ultra safe: “When a bounty hunter bent on capturing the bad guys finds out he’s the bad guy everyone’s after, he chooses to forge a new identity and abandon his quest for justice.”
(now we know the end)
Crash test #3: Is your premise focused on your character and his or her conflict?
You might have something unique, and you might know the ending, but remember that a premise is about a character, not a city or an empire or a bowl of soup. Readers are pulled into stories that they relate to, especially if they feel like the experience of the character could just as well be theirs.
Hazardous: “A kingdom uprises against a tyrannical ruler and turns him into a puppet.”
Passable: “An woman frees her people against a tyrant king when she worms her way into his court.”
Ultra safe: “An elderly woman discovers her lifelong dream to free her people against an insane king when she worms her way into his court and turns him into her play-thing.”
As the writer, you are going to create characters who your reader will relate to. This means you need a premise that is highly personal and vivid, connecting you to the deepest emotions of your central character and the many other characters he or she is connected to.
Crash test #4: Do you focus on relevant details?
You might know your character’s name. You might know what kind of eyes she has, or what kind of house she lives in. You might know that the final encounter will take place in a wood with a crystal orb called the Veil of Brem that steals three souls for every one it generates. Great! That might help you when you start your 3-part outline. It doesn’t belong in your premise, though.
Hazardous: “The city of Ellanor is great and mighty, with golden domes and snake-tamers, and wonderful conflicts are soon to abound, awaiting the unwary slave girl Ellan Dor, who keeps the city’s only dog hidden under her table (except when he comes out to eat bacon, or scones on Tuesday) and will soon prove to be the key to her success over the underground slave-masters called the J.J.R, because the dog contains a spiritual enchantment that the dictators of the first dynasty tried to eradicate to cement their reign.”
(an elevator pitch that ends in awkward silence for the rest of the ride)
Passable: “An unwary slave girl overthrows her city’s dictator government when she discovers that her dog’s bloodline is enchanted.”
(an elevator pitch that elicits a nod from your prospective agent or editor)
Ultra safe: “When a slave girl discovers her connection to an ancient priesthood, she destroys her nation by becoming the very enemy its leaders subjugated its people to vanquish.”
(an elevator pitch that results in an invitation to submit)
When a premise is loaded with detail, it is easy to miss obvious flaws. If you expect your reader to believe that a dog will defeat tyrant rulers because it has a spiritual enchantment, then you might be in for disappointment. On the other hand, if we trim away all the unnecessary garnish, we realize our premise isn’t very practical. A premise must be unique and interesting, grounded emotionally in a character, and coupled with a resolution, but above all it must be plausible, or your story will go up in a puff of smoke.
Crash test #5: Are your themes implicit?
A good story explores deep themes and bundles up memorable experience with profound meaning. You might realize your story is about ambition vs. humility and the seeming contradiction that the latter is more productive than the former. But as a writer in the day of modern fiction you want your themes to peek from between the lines, not offend your reader with earnest words of their presence.
Hazardous: “The Merchant’s Shop is about power and humility, centred on a craftsman who unintentionally takes on a position of power, while his eldest son’s schemes to supplant the king lead to his beheading, thus invoking the age-old message that true success comes unintentionally, while the ambitious enjoy it only for a season.”
Passable: “A craftsman unintentionally takes on a position of power, while his eldest son’s schemes to supplant the king lead to his beheading.”
Ultra safe: “A humble craftsman is beheaded for treason after he raises a rebellion to stop his son’s attempted usurpation of the throne.”
Themes that are implied deepen your story, making simple actions meaningful. Trimming away descriptions of what your story should invoke forces you to craft actions that show rather than tell, and your reader will thank you for it.
Your spine gets stronger
Last week we talked about your premise as a spine. This week we talked about it as a car. Either way, it will need to withstand many adverse forces. I hope this helped you take the premise you began with and hone it further. You will not have a perfect premise yet, but putting it through these 5 tests will help prepare you for the next stage of storybuilding.
Next week, we will talk about Step Three: the 3-Part Outline.
Keep your evolving stories to yourself it you’d like, or share them here. Feel free to post your progress, and jump in at any time.