Sunday, January 09, 2011

Plot or Consequences: Using Your Premise to Create Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When I first started The Shifter (the first book in my trilogy), I didn’t know it was going to be part of a series. But as the story developed, I saw the bigger picture and where the problem my protagonist, Nya, could lead to. As that story continued, I focused more and more on Nya’s journey, because stories are about the characters in trouble. But by the time I got to book three, I’d forgotten something, and my critique partner Juliette was the one who pointed it out to me.

I was ignoring the broader implications of my original premise.

Nya is a “Shifter,” someone who can heal by shifting pain from person to person. This includes pain of her own, so anytime someone hurts her, she’s able to shift it right back into them. (Which made for some fun fight scenes). In the first draft of book three (Darkfall), Nya was doing this almost without thinking, and while she struggled over the moral aspects of shifting, getting hurt was no longer an issue for her.

This was all wrong. Nya should have been becoming more reluctant about getting hurt, because she’d endured far more pain than a normal person. The story was about enduring the unendurable to save those you love, fighting on through hardships and oppression. Nya’s reactions to pain needed to follow the same themes I’d first suggested in my premise.

Once I started revising with this in mind, the story became much richer and all the better for it. Nya’s physical fear of pain mirrored her emotional fears of pain. It tied in better with the overall story and allowed me to do some interesting things to bring the series–and the character--full circle in the end.

So how do you apply the broader aspects of your premise to your stories?

Look at your themes
For me, it was about being trapped (in book one) and escaping (in book two) and taking a stand (in book three). I thought about how Nya and her abilities connected to those themes over the course of the series. Then I let them all come crashing down on her in book three. She was trapped by her own abilities, trying to escape them, but to overcome them, she had to take a stand against those trying to destroy her because of them. All of this also connected to her pain shifting and how she dealt with receiving all that pain. Look for places in your story where you can explore your theme as it connects to your premise.

Look at your character arcs
This was really where I was missing an opportunity. Nya’s growth over the series had, quite frankly, petered out in that first draft of book three. She’d accepted her abilities and I wasn’t letting them affect her as much as I could have. By thinking about the larger ramifications of her abilities, I was able to kickstart her growth and give her a much stronger arc for the book–and the series. Her skill at enduring pain was so much more than just physical pain. It became a metaphor for her whole character. How might you deepen your character arcs through your premise?

Look at your plot.
What your characters do and the problems they’re trying to solve all connect back to your premise. Chances are, you chose to do X over Y because it fit your premise better, or showed off something about your world or conflict. Maybe you can push those things even further. With Nya, the plot problems became more interesting when I started thinking about how they also affected her growth and the story premise. She might solve her immediate problem, but that also put her in situations where she had to face dealing with pain again. And that fear could in turn, affect what decisions she made and how far she was willing to go. (another theme of the series) What do all those individual goals and problems mean on a grand scale?

Your premise probably holds a lot more information than you might expect. There’s a reason it resonated with you, why you wanted to write about it, and why the idea is driving you and your characters. Try taking a closer look and see if it can also take you places you didn’t anticipate.

How much do you think about your premise when you plot?

Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Talk To YoUniverse


  1. This is important stuff I haven't seen addressed before. Thanks!

  2. I'm starting to think about the sequel to my novel, and this helped a ton! Thanks. :)

  3. This is a great post. It's nice to be reminded to look at motivation.

  4. Jess: Thanks!

    Anne: I hadn't really thought about it before until my friend's comment. But it's a great tool and helped a lot.

    Shallee: Great! I found it quite useful for the trilogy.

    Chicory: Thanks! We're so focused on what we want to do as writers, it's easy sometimes to forget what the characters want :)

  5. My WIP is nearly ready to go out to agents and while it is a stand-alone, I feel like it might be wise to have follow up options in my back pocket and this post will definitely help me feel prepared. Thanks!

  6. This is an excellent post, and I especially enjoyed it after just finishing a similar struggle with my WIP.

    I'm not an outliner... I'm an SOTP writer, and sometimes, when you write like that, you're premise can get lost as you're writing, or get watered down, or completely change... or you might not even realize what it really is until you've finished several drafts of the book. The later is what happened to me. I had my character act one way at the beginning of the book, but by the time I finished the draft I had a better grasp on who the character was as a whole. It was my beta reader who pointed out the inconsistent premise. With the growth and realization of my character throughout the book, the original premise was just slightly wrong. It had evolved into something greater than I had at first envisioned... the ending stayed true to it, but the beginning now needs to be redone.

    For me, this feels like a tricky situation. I have the original "polished" draft under submission to a publisher who is considering it, but now the inconsistencies are very, very clear in my mind and I know how to fix them, but it will take some work. If the publisher decides to accept my work, I hope he asks for a revision... I'm going to be tweaking anyway. If he wants it the way it was, I'm afraid of what I should do... Now that I recognize the problem, I just won't be happy if it goes to print so flawed.

    So anyway, that's my little story on premise. This post was excellent in every way, and I loved the fact that I could relate. And, of course, I learned from it. Thank you so much!


  7. Cat: Follow up options are always good. You never know when that multi-book deal will come in.

    Star-Dreamer: It really can get lost in there. Shifter 3 was a much more SOTP type deal that I've ever done before, and it took me a few drafts to find that premise again, even though I knew it so well from the start. And don't worry, odds are your editor will have you edit more if you sell it. I've always been able to tweak right up to the end.