Friday, August 26

It's An Idea: Taking Your Novel From Premise to Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes a heavily revised look at crafting a plot from a premise. 

I didn't know it at the time, but the first real novel I ever wrote was a premise novel. I had a cool idea, and the entire book was about illustrating that cool idea, without a plot in sight. I had no solid protagonist, no narrative drive, no personal stakes, and no chance at selling that book.

Because a premise is not a plot, and a plot is what makes a novel.

My experience isn't uncommon for new writers (and even professional writers can struggle with a premise novel from time to time). I've read a lot of queries that describe an idea, but there's no sense of a protagonist doing anything to solve a personal problem. Often, these novels are a lost cause because they're too inherently flawed to fix. But sometimes, it's just a matter of finding the plot within your premise.

So what is a premise novel?

A premise novel is one where the idea is what's driving the story, not a character with a problem. It frequently has multiple points of view (and a lot of them) because it's trying to show all the various aspects of the idea and look at those aspects from all sides. The stakes feel high, usually the "save the world" type, but when we look at the characters, none of them have anything to lose except maybe die. But everyone has that same thing at stake, so it doesn't feel important, and the stakes never escalate. They start out life and death and stay life and death the entire time. Since novels don't typically kill everyone off, those "high stakes" aren't high at all. The reader knows they won't happen.

Think of it like a blow-out sporting event. One team dominates the other, and even though there are people scoring left and right, and all this excitement on the field, fans know how it's going to turn out and they're leaving before the end of the game so they don't get stuck in traffic. They stay until they get bored, or it's not worth their time and then go home. Nobody wants this for their book. We want readers salivating over reading how it all turns out.

How can you tell if you have a premise novel?

If you can't describe what your novel is about in one sentence (even a bad sentence) using the standard "protagonist has X problem and she needs to do Y to win Z or A happens" then you might have a premise novel. Or, if you describe your novel by talking about the idea behind it, and not any one or two characters who are driving it. Or, you describe it by the theme alone.

How do you fix a premise novel?

The reason it's still a premise is because it has no protagonist with a problem. Once you figure out how your cool idea affects characters and the world they live in, your plot will start to develop. Examine your premise and:

Find the core conflict behind this cool idea: Look for a tangible problem that must be resolved to prevent/trigger/avoid/whatever this idea is about. What is going wrong in this story? What is the one thing that must be resolved or else? What's at the center of your premise?

(Here's more on building your core conflicts)

Pick a protagonist: Someone in your story is in a position to solve this core conflict. Better still, she's affected by it, so solving the conflict matters to her. Something bad will happen to her personally if they don't fix this problem. If the protagonist acts fast, she can prevent (or cause if that's the case) this "disaster." This person will be in a position to affect change in the novel by the choices she makes and the things she does.

(Here's more on what makes a great protagonist)

Pick an antagonist: Who (or what) is standing in the way of your protagonist solving this problem? Who has something to gain from this core conflict? Who has an agenda about this problem and is at odds with the protagonist's goal? It's not unusual for the antagonist to be the one who created the core conflict problem, so that's a good place to start looking.

(Here's more on creating a great antagonist)

The plot will unfold as the protagonist tries to solve the core conflict problem and the antagonist keeps getting in the way. Two personal forces clashing against each other. Both will have things to lose if they lose. Both will have things to win if they win. If you took both out of the story, the story would fall apart.

That's key. A premise novel is often one where you can take the protagonist out, and the story still happens, often with little or no change.

Determine the motivations: A lack of reasons why the protagonist would try to solve the core conflict is common in a premise novel, so you'll likely have to brainstorm here. But look for reasons why your protagonist needs to solve this problem (beyond the "or they die" type stakes). What's personal about this problem? What would cause someone in their position to undertake this task?

(Here's more on finding your character's motivation)

Determine the stakes: Whatever the core conflict is, not resolving it will cause big problems. The stakes don't have to be actual life and death, but they'll feel life or death to your protagonist. A teen wanting to get invited to the "cool kids'" party matter deeply to that teen, and if she believes her entire high school experience depends on her going, not getting an invitation is earth-shattering. As you consider your stakes, think about what matters to the protagonist.

(Here's more on discovering what's at stake in your novel)

Reasons You Might Resist Fixing a Premise Novel

1. I'll have to cut so much!

Probably. Premise novels have piles of extra information in them, but think of it as research. You created that background to understand your story and now you'll be able to pinpoint exactly the best parts in it. Plus, any scenes you truly love can be salvaged with your protagonist or antagonist. Just rework them so they fit the plot and not just the idea.

2. I'll have to rewrite most of it!

Maybe, but a lot can still be used. And with a solid protagonist and clear goals, the rewriting will go much easier. You'll have a plot driving the novel and characters acting with solid motivations to achieve interesting goals.

3. I'll have to get rid of half my characters!

Yes, but that's a good thing. Too many characters, especially point-of-view characters, dilute the story and make it hard for readers to connect to any one person. If they don't connect, they don't care, and if they don't care, they don't read.

I know, it'll take a ton of work to revise. It might even require trashing the whole thing and starting over. You'll have to get rid of point-of-view characters you love, trash subplots you find interesting. It'll be hard, but in the end, you'll have a much better novel. Isn't that the goal?

Ideas are the hard part of writing. No one can teach you how to come up with a great premise. I can suggest ways to trigger creativity all day, but there's no guarantee any of them will spark an idea or if that idea would be any good. So if you think about it, a premise novel gets the hard stuff out of the way first. You have the idea already, and probably a pretty darned fleshed out one at that. Now it's just a matter of finding the right plot.

And that I can help you with.

Have you ever written a premise novel? Do you have one you're struggling with right now?

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. How did I not know about your blog? How?? :-) This is a fantastic post, and perfectly summarizes something I was trying to tell a new writer recently. Thanks!!

  2. This is a helpful reminder at just the right time for me. I've come to the conclusion that I think in terms of premise as a first instinct. With the WIP I'm shopping around, I think I ultimately fixed that, but the hard way--by cutting and rewriting and bleeding all over it and an eternity of revision. But while I wait for agents to get back to me--and while I continue to tweak--sometimes I need a break and I've been working on my next novel on the backburner. This time I want to do it right--or closer to right--from the get-go. And I've been struggling specifically with how to make my protagonist not just a generic stand-in, but how to make him compelling. After reading this, I think I need to focus more on my protagonist's conflicts. Thanks. :)

  3. I think I am queen of the premise novel.

  4. Joe, if you peek back through the labels, (in the menu bar on the right) you'll find lots of posts on plotting and developing your story you might take a peek at. Maybe something will help you on that next novel and save you some headaches :)

  5. I think this is exactly whats wrong with the cozy mystery I'm wanting to write. Thank you so much!


  6. Hmm. I'm gonna have to think about this one... I definitely started as a premise novel, but I *think* I also have personal stakes. But it's more of a person-vs-situation than person-vs-person conflict, so I feel kind of lacking in antagonists, which is kind of worrying me.

  7. Janice, I love this post, and I'm laughing because I did an obliquely related post (much shorter!) on precisely this same topic. Nice!

  8. Rebecca, that's a great topic for a post! Thanks. Sometimes stories do have non-people antags.

  9. Oooh, if you did have time to do a post on that, I'd love to read it!

  10. Janice! Your blog is so informative. It's great to have so much practical advice. Thanks so much.

  11. Oh, I've definitely been exploring your archives. :) You and Jim Van Pelt provide the most useful advice of any blogging authors I've found!

  12. This was my first novel. I even started a project to salvage it (essentially scrapping the original text and rewriting everything entirely from one character's viewpoint). But there's a lot of development needed that I've never gotten around to doing.

    Maybe someday. And when that happens, I'll have to come back to this post. :)

  13. Great post!
    I just spent the last year breaking down my premise novel. I deleted two POV characters and their back stories. The storyline is tighter now, a fast-moving river compared to a meandering stream. I used many of my deleted scenes, just tweaked them here and there. I agree with the other poster about hoping to do avoid such pitfalls with the second novel. As much as I hate to write this, there is a good chance that my "debut novel" was nothing more than a caterpillar-to-butterfly writing primer. I'll have a better chance of selling my second book.

  14. I have spent time reading great wonderful novels. Its really a good way of increasing and knowing about something. Thanks for sharing it.

  15. Ha! Wish I'd known this a year and a half ago. It took me a year to realize that this was exactly the problem I had. And yes, I scrapped nearly the whole book and rewrote it. It still might not have been enough, but its a lesson I won't ever forget.

  16. *facepalm* This is EXACTLY what was wrong with the first draft of the novel I'm currently rewriting. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. Knowing what the problem was helps so much to counter it in this next draft. Truly. Thank you :)

  17. Glad I could help! Good luck with your story :)

  18. Oh noes, I'm w/Amy on this for my current first draft. :( Thank you so much for this. Time to brainstorm and get the editing scissors.

  19. Most welcome! good luck with the brainstorming :)

  20. I can't believe you're not somehow charging for this info. I feel like I found a free course on everything I need to know to make my novel work as a whole. No wonder your books are so good. I feel that an awesome how-to book is in your imminent future. Thanks again!

  21. Thanks! I do have plans to put lots of this into ebooks, I just haven't been able to yet. :) Hopefully soon.

  22. Oh man I think I'll have a lot of work to do. My current project sounds like a premise because when people ask me what it is about I can't tell them anything. I have a loss for words. But I'm going to keep writing it until I finish. I think I'll end up figuring out what I need to keep and what I need to cut.

  23. Crystal, that does sound like a premise novel. Sometimes you do have to write out the idea and see where it goes. But now that you know it might be a problem, you'll be able to keep an eye out for how to fix it. Good luck!

  24. Janice, I wish I'd found this post years ago. Every single idea that I've ever come up with has been a premise novel. No wonder I've never finished writing any of them, because they're going nowhere. Thank you for pointing out my problem and giving me such a clear solution to fix it.

  25. Melanie, well I'm glad you found it now at least :) Good luck with turning those ideas into plots!

  26. Yet another solid piece of advice on what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs.

  27. *sigh of relief* managed to answer alot of those points making it more than a premise, but still showed the areas that need work, thanks for that :)

  28. Brimshack, aw thanks! Glad to help.

    SJP, yay!

  29. I remembered reading this post and came back to it. This is exactly what I'm up against in my WIP. You spoke to my issue spot on. Thanks for this. Great post. And I'm glad I reread it rather getting disheartened again.

  30. Michelle, me too! Glad you remembered it :)

  31. This is the story of my writing life. Thanks for the solid tips on how to rework my great ideas into actual stories.

  32. thanks for this. just added it to my student's wiki as required reading!