Monday, November 02, 2020

3 Ways to Deepen Your Novel’s Premise

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The premise is the core of the novel. Make it a solid one.

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 characters in trouble. But by the time I got to book three, I’d forgotten something.

I was ignoring the broader implications of my original premise.

Nya was a “shifter,” someone who could heal by shifting pain from person to person. This included pain of her own, so anytime someone hurt her, she’d able to shift it right back into them. (Which made for some fun fight scenes).

In the first draft of book three, 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.

Which was all wrong.

Nya should have been more reluctant to get hurt, because she’d endured far more pain than a normal person and wouldn't want any more of it. Getting used to it went against my premise and my themes. 

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.

Worrying too much about the plot can overshadow and weaken the premise of the whole novel.

And this is so easy to do, especially for plot-focused writers like me. We get caught up in how to make things worse, how to throw in more and more obstacles and conflicts, how to escalate the stakes, that we lose sight of what the point of the book was in the first place. We lose our premise.

Let’s look at three ways to deepen the premise in your novel:

1. Mine your themes for all they’re worth.

The theme is what turns a plot into a story. It’s the lessons your protagonist learns and the emotional core of the novel. If you’re not looking for places to illustrate this all throughout the novel, you’re missing opportunities to deepen that novel.

I miss these opportunities, too. For The Shifter, the theme is about being trapped. For Blue Fire, it’s escaping. In Darkfall, it’s about taking a stand.

As I revised Darkfall, 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.

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.

And it all fit so beautifully to what the series—and the premise—was all about.

Explore the ways your theme connects to your premise, and take advantage of that.

(Here’s more on What Every Writer Should Know About Theme) 

2. Embrace the emotion in your character arcs.

The internal struggle of a character is where a wealth of emotion lies in a novel. This struggle is a huge reason readers care about the character and the story, particularly in a series, where change often happens over a longer period of time. The longer that struggle goes on, the more profound the change and the harder it ought to be.

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 kick start 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.

Pull out as much emotion from your character arc as you can.

(Here’s more on The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc) 

3. Let your plot provide opportunities to show how the theme and the character arc support the premise.

What your characters do and the problems they’re trying to solve all connect back to your premise. Those individual goals and problems mean something on a grand scale, and aren’t just “things that happen in the plot.” Chances are, you chose to do X over Y because it fit your premise better, or showed something about your world or conflict. Push those connections even further.

With Nya, the plot problems became more interesting when I thought how they also affected her character growth and the story premise. Sure, she might solve her immediate problem if I did X, but what if I also put her in a situation where she had to face dealing with pain again? That fear could, in turn, affect what decisions she made and how far she was willing to go—another theme of the series.

Connect the theme, character arc, and plot into the premise and craft a novel that feels meaningful as well as exciting.

(Here’s more on Understand Your Premise to Understand Your Novel) 

When plot and premise work together, the novel becomes something more than just a great idea.

Your premise 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. Look at how it might take you places you didn’t anticipate.

Once I started revising Darkfall with these thoughts in mind, the novel became much richer. Nya’s physical fear of pain mirrored her emotional fears  that also caused her pain. It tied in better with the overall story and allowed me to bring the series—and the character—full circle in the end.

Plumb the depths of your idea and take advantage of every opportunity it provides.

Take five minutes and explore how these three concepts might affect your novel’s premise. It’s a lot, so maybe take five minutes per concept—theme, character arc, and plot.

How much does your premise contribute to your novel?

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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