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?
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).
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