Ideas come to us every day, from big bolt-from-the-blue inspiration to smaller “what if” musings. What's sneaky about ideas is that they're easy--it’s figuring out the story behind the idea that can be the hard part. I’ve had many a premise get me excited, only to discover later that I didn’t have a story, much less a plot, that would go with it.
This is one of the reasons some novels stall after fifty or a hundred pages. The writer gets an idea, dives in too soon, and then the story go splat.
Same with a premise (and I've talked about the trouble with premise novels before). These can be even sneakier because they often feel more like a finished book idea. You can even write an entire novel off one of them and them find yourself yanking out your hair trying to figure out why the book's not working--or worse--not selling.
Idea, premise, and plot are often used interchangeably, but they each serve a specific function and have subtly different meanings.
Ideas are those moments of inspiration that first excite or interest us. They can be broad or specific, but something about them hits us and sets our creative wheels in motion. We think, “wow, that would make a cool book.”
- A story set in an alternate-history China
- A story about a girl named Lila who can heal by touch
- A story about an estranged couple in a zombie apocalypse
(More on brainstorming and ideas here)
A premise is the next step to developing that idea. After you’ve let the idea churn in your head for a while, you’ll probably see a larger framework for it to exist in. The first hints of what kind of story this idea could turn into. The premise is a general description of the story you plan to tell, and what the story is about. A key factor in a good premise is a hint of the conflict that will drive the plot. This is the story problem the book will explore over the course of the novel.
- An undercaste member in an alternate-history China fights for freedom against his tyrannical masters
- A girl who can heal by touch is forced to use her gift to help the people who murdered her family
- A man considering divorce is thrown into a zombie apocalypse with his estranged wife and the woman he wants to leave her for
(More on going from idea to plot here)
Plots are all about the specific conflicts that illustrate the novel’s premise (that focused idea). The plot provides concrete and external problems to be solved. Plots have the classic story structure elements that drive every scene: goals-conflicts-stakes. A plot tells you what the novel is about—what the protagonist has to do to win, who or what he’s up against, and what will happen if he loses. The plot is what makes your novel unique.
- An undercaste member in an alternate-history China fights to overthrow his tyrannical masters to save his wife from an unjust execution
- A girl who can heal by touch is forced to use her gift to help the people who murdered her family seize control in a civil war, but works from within to bring about the demise of their house.
- A man in an unhappy marriage tries to get rid of his wife during a zombie apocalypse so he can be with the woman he loves, unaware that the two women are secretly plotting against him.
(More on internal and external core conflicts here)
The StoryStory is the reason for the book. It's the journey of the characters and the core conflict driving them. The theme and the emotional connection to the readers. Stories show the motivation and why someone is doing all this.
- An undercaste member in an alternate-history China must overcome his lack of self-confidence to overthrow his tyrannical masters to save his wife from an unjust execution
- A girl who can heal by touch is forced to use her gift to help the people who murdered her family seize control in a civil war, and must learn to put her past behind her in order to work from within to bring about the demise of their house.
- A gullible man in an unhappy marriage must learn to think for himself when he tries to get rid of his wife during a zombie apocalypse so he can be with the woman he loves, unaware that the two women are secretly plotting against him.
The easiest way to look at story is that it's the internal struggle the character goes thorough to resolve a personal issue. The plot is how they accomplish that struggle. (Special thanks to Lisa Maxey for her comment, and her examples)
All three (now four) play useful roles in developing a story, but skipping a step in the process can lead to frustration. So next time inspiration hits you, take a moment to consider if it's just an idea, a premise, or if you have a fully formed plot.What makes up your story?
And if you have a novel that's stalled at page fifty or languishing in a drawer, take a peek and see if it just never made it to the plot stage before you started writing.
Do you have any stalled or languishing stories? Where do you think the problem might lie?