Monday, July 01, 2019

Understand Your Premise to Understand Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A great premise is a great start, but there’s more to writing a compelling novel than having a cool idea.

There’s a strange phenomenon in Hollywood where two movies with the same premise appear at the same time. Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Armageddon and Deep Impact. Sky High and Zoom. This isn’t new, and goes back as far as Gone with the Wind and it’s twin, Jezebel.

Maybe it’s movie espionage, maybe it’s the same inspirational triggers in the air, maybe a studio hears about a cool new script in the works and wonders if they have any options of their own like it.

What’s interesting to me about this, is how many examples it gives writers for different ways to approach the same premise. You can take the exact same premise and craft completely different stories. Just look at all the Romeo & Juliet clones out there.

(Here's more on The Difference Between Idea, Premise, Plot, and Story)

A Huge Freaking Rock from Space

I’m a huge fan of disaster movies, and Armageddon and Deep Impact were both on my to-see list the year they came out. But even though they’re both about giant asteroids hurtling toward Earth, they’re really very different stories.

Armageddon is an action-based team adventure about the unlikely heroes sent to save the Earth from total annihilation.

Deep Impact is a character-focused look at how different people face the end of the world.

One is about saving the world, the other is about the people in it.

The premise, “what happens when a planet-killing asteroid is about to hit Earth?” created two completely different stories, in essentially two different subgenres. They’re both science fiction disasters, but one is an action movie and the other is a drama.

How you handle your premise will shape what story that premise becomes.

(Here’s more on Is Your Novel All Premise and No Plot?)

What Do You Want Your Story to Be?

When a great premise hits you, you have a plethora of options for turning it into a story—even within the same genre. The premise is just the first step to get your imagination working, and after that, the real work comes in.

Let’s look a little closer at our two asteroid stories:

We’re Under Attack! Heroes to the Rescue.

Armageddon is the action film that focuses on saving the world and the steps taken to achieve that. It starts with asteroids hitting the Earth and causing major damage and loss life, but aside from setting the scene, what’s going on in the world doesn’t matter to the plot. The story doesn’t care about the effects of the situation. It cares about the heroes sent to stop it.

Even though it has an ensemble cast, there’s no doubt that the heroes are Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton). Dan is the NASA guy faced with finding a way to stop the asteroid and Harry is the oil driller who can do it.

It’s essentially a fish out of water tale, with Harry’s unconventional roughnecks having to train as astronauts, because drilling is an art, not a science. Harry doesn’t want to go into space, but he has to to save the world. Dan would rather send trained astronauts, but he doesn’t have much choice either.

There’s not a lot of character arc growth, or much character exploration beyond what’s needed to make you care about this group of drillers in over their heads. Many scenes are played for laughs and the humor in the absurdity of the situation. It’s a fun romp and everyone knows it.

The plot is straightforward, though they do throw in some twists and turns to keep it interesting. But it starts with a problem (asteroid), works that problem to find a solution (hey, what if we drill into it and blow it up?), and then shows the drillers and astronauts struggle to execute the plan (the bulk of the movie).

The premise of Armageddon is explored through “how do we save the world?”, and thus becomes an action movie about saving the world.

(Here’s more on Is Your Novel Exploring an Idea or Solving a Problem?)

It’s the End of the World, and We Know it

In contrast, Deep Impact starts with a discovery of a comet by high school students, and the deadly threat it poses is shuffled off to the side. We know the threat is there (we saw the trailers), but the focus is on the people and their problems as this threat looms ever closer.

The driving force behind the “what’s the threat?” subplot is reporter Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni), who thinks she’s pursuing a political scandal, but has really stumbled onto the plan to prepare for the asteroid and keep it a secret as long as possible. 

Her storyline follows exposing the truth and what happens after the truth goes public and she becomes the public face of it. She also has a personal subplot involving her divorced parents and an estranged father, which takes up a lot of her storyline.

The next subplot is high schooler Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), who becomes a mini-celebrity when the comet he discovered is named after him. Later, he faces personal choices when it’s revealed that the government has dug caves to hold one million people in the hopes of rebuilding civilization after the asteroid hits. His family is chosen, but his girlfriend’s is not. His story revolved around saving the people he cares about.

The third subplot is about the astronauts sent on a mission to destroy the comet, focusing on veteran “Fish” Tanner (Robert Duval). He’s the voice of experience and the calm influence on a team with the literal weigh of saving the world on their shoulders. They’re tasked with saving the world, but it has a very different tone than Armageddon’s crew.

The three character pieces intertwine to tell the larger tale, but that tale is about the people and how they face the end of the world. Stopping it is part of that, but even the astronaut prep scenes are more about the people and what they’re risking than it is the mechanics of how they’ll accomplish their job.

The premise of Deep Impact is explored through its character journeys, and thus it becomes a drama about how humanity faces the end of the world.

(Here’s more on It's An Idea: Taking Your Novel From Premise to Plot)

How You Choose to Explore the Premise Determines the Scenes Used

Each movie took the same premise, but chose plots and scenes that supported the type of movie the writers wanted to write.

Your premise will also have multiple options for the kind of story it might be. 

It’s important to think about what you want from an idea, and what kinds of plots and subplots best serve that story. You might have a deep and meaningful character arc in mind for your protagonist, but if you really want to write Armageddon, it might not work with that action-based hero plot.

Think about what you want and the scenes that most excite you. 

You don’t need to throw every idea you have into one story—especially if those ideas contradict each other, or yank the premise in two different directions. Understand what you want from your premise, then write the scenes that best support that.

Don’t just explore the premise. Serve the story behind it.

The sheer number of similar-premised stories out there show that it’s not the premise, but what we do with it that matters. A good premise can support a myriad of vastly different story ideas. It just depends on what story we want to tell.

Do you have multiple story ideas for a single premise? How have you handled it?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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