Posts Tagged ‘Premise’

Fascinating stories

In the midst of all the things we’re supposed to do as writers, sometimes we blow past the most basic. We work and rework our plot, deepen our characters and fret about pacing, to name a few story aspects.

But let’s step back and ask a simple–maybe stupid–question: Is my story inherently interesting?

Of course it is, we may (defensively) answer. Plenty of conflict, good characters, well written and it really moves along. That’s great. But I have to ask, is the story fascinating? Is the setting or the situation one that the reader will be drawn to in some dramatic way? Will he repeat the gist of it to a friend? And what, by the way is the gist?

Tell yourself in a phrase or a sentence what the most fascinating part of your story is. That’s the gist. It may be a high concept or it may be an insider’s view of some memorable place or era. And if a place or an era, is it really fascinating? In this simple exercise, we are trying to pinpoint the excitement of your current story or guide you to a better next one.

What kinds of story elements create fascination? It might be world building (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series.) Or it might be a shocking premise (an abused women protects herself with violence in a self-satisfied culture–Steig Larsson trilogy) or a man’s experience in the witness protection program–Jess Walter in Citizen Vince. Each of these examples gives us a story to lean into. It seduces us by virtue of being exciting. It takes us somewhere emotionally and perhaps physically that we would never experience otherwise.

I’m on this kick today because I just spent the week traveling with friends, and though each of them was interesting, one person had stories that held us all riveted. Why were his stories so fascinating? Because he had met hundreds of celebrities. (He wasn’t trying to impress us. He’s a sound engineer, and his contacts were humble. But we were riveted.)

I’m not suggesting that your story needs cheap thrills.

What I’m trying to say is that this is the first off-stage glimpse I’d ever had of public figures like Jimi Hendrix, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley and Madonna, and these were stories that I would never normally get to hear, and what’s more, they were ones that I would love to have been present for, even as a fly on the wall.

It struck me that there was something to learn about story here. How our next story can be better, and why seemingly weak stories sell a million copies.

And what I concluded is: Beyond the usual things we think of in building a story,  one magic ingredient is simply outright fascination. It may come from the smallest thing (celebrities I have touched elbows with) or it may be major (the Hogwarts school of wizardry) but it makes us lean in closer. We can hardly wait to hear. . . something. Something fascinating.

That’s my goal for my next story. I won’t forget all the components that add value to a novel, but underneath it all, there will be one element that is outright, undeniably, unabashedly fascinating.

It makes you lean in closer, waiting to find out what happens. It is an allure, a promise, an extreme, or an exquisite surprise. Furthermore, if it connects with readers in this manner, they will forgive other weaknesses in the story. Despite all that I’ve said in this blog about character and story execution, one great dab of fascination, and you may make the sale to an editor — and to a hundred thousand readers.

((And for those of you who are striving for such an allure in your world building, here is my post on the power of setting. ))

Dying by the side of the road

Some days do you think, why the hell am I writing, anyway? The industry is hard, have you noticed? A dozen reasons not to write spring up immediately: bad back; family neglected while you’re thinking of plot; lousy pay.

We claim that we soldier on because we love to tell stories. We love to write. But is this the truth? I guess it is for some who are addicted to their own words on a page. I don’t intend to be particularly snarky when I say that, but if I’m being provocative, I have a reason. I’m calling on us to remember the real reason we write so that when the tough times come we won’t plague ourselves with thoughts of giving up.

It ain’t easy

We should be writing stories that matter. They don’t need to be pretentious and preachy, but they should say something. If our stories aren’t more than popcorn entertainment, would we really want to endure all the demands of the writing life?

What demands? To name a few:

  • to write every day
  • to meet our publishing deadlines
  • to promote our work on the web and through social media
  • to maintain visibility with appearances
  • to understand business basics and the publishing industry in particular
  • to stay abreast of the books coming out from friends, role models, and different publishers
  • to refresh our sources of inspiration through paying close attention to the world, popular culture, current events
  • to pay it forward in the industry, helping others gain a foothold
  • to manage one’s writing desk, taxes, contracts and electronic tools

Let’s stop. I’m getting cranky just thinking about all I haven’t done today.

The purpose of writing

Writing is not fun. In this self-promotion-obsessed world we may create on-line fantasy images of the writing life, but every writer who reads my Facebook page knows that what I put up there is not the full story. Writing is an art and a craft, and we sacrifice a lot to stay in the business. That being the case, it sure seems to me that it’s not enough to entertain thoughtlessly. There should be more to it than turning our brains into kudzu-producing fiction machines.

You knew that, but sometimes a challenging reminder helps to clean up the cobwebs. You know, those days when we’re lost for a premise, or tempted to immediately roll over when a publisher says, “Write me another like that last one.”

I’m thinking back to May when Bob Mayer spoke at Write on the River. He gave a fabulous example of writing stories that matter. For days I couldn’t get the lesson out of my mind. Here was his example:

In the 2005 movie Walk the Line, Johnny Cash (played by Joaquim Phoenix), auditions a gospel song in front of a guy from a music label. The rep isn’t impressed. He tells Cash that his heart wasn’t in it. Cash says, “You saying I don’t believe in God?” The rep says he’s heard gospel songs a million times. He tells Cash to sing a song like it’s his last chance. As though his truck rolled over and he’s dying on the side of the road and he needs to let God know what he felt about his time here on earth. “One song that would sum you up. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”

In that moment in class I remembered why I write. To find meaning, to say what I’ve done with my years, what I know and what I wish I knew. Maybe, like me, just remembering this truth can bring you to the heart of your story or show you a story that no one else can write.

Gosh, this all sounds a bit serious. Like everyone, I do love a good beach book and one that will fend off numbing boredom on a long plane ride. I might even write an occasional book or short story like that. But I’m here to say, such books are only interludes between the real work we have before us: the songs that God wants to hear when your truck dumps you on the side of the road.


For more on the topic of “heart,” here are some previous posts:

The Heart of Your Story

The Heart of POV

The Heart of Your Story

Today I’m putting down yet another book that I hoped would grip me in a dramatic embrace. Nope, it didn’t. I’m quitting on page 80. If the author hasn’t snared me by now, she never will.

While there are a slew of reasons this heralded steampunk novel didn’t grab me, the most important is one that seems minor to many people, but is central to me: passion. The protagonist is quirky and courageous. But those qualities feel like trappings. The novel is tepid reading. I think the reason is that this story has no hot conviction, no basic truth at its core.

It has nothing to say. Read More…

More on Concept

Last time I asked you to blurb your book. To state what your book is about in a sentence.

Hard, isn’t it?

I said that on the basis of that sentence you may prick the interest of a publisher; it will tell him something of how to position your book. It will inform your cover art. Even more, it will keep you on track for the months you’ll be writing.

I didn’t get any takers on trying to figure out the concept for Prince of Storms–Book Four of The Entire and The Rose–from the cover art. But here it is: A soldier is offered a kingship he despises but cannot refuse.

Now look again at the cover; it’s all there, I think. Note the throne on the left. It is abandoned and the sword is laid down. The stairs the king must mount are confining, leading to a leaden throne. It is undoubtedly a seat of power. But it is also a prison. The soldier gazes out on the wide land, yearning for something. The fighting is not done; he still wears his armor. But he doesn’t want the spoils. Read More…

What a Concept

If you had to blurb your novel in progress, what would you say?

Go ahead, I’m all ears.

Not the plot, we don’t have time for that. Not the theme–nobody needs to know that except you. We’re talking about the concept, the premise. They say that we should be able to state our concept in a few sentences. For really high-concept stories, a phrase. (Dinosaurs reanimated from DNA preserved in amber.)

If you are struggling with this, I don’t blame you. Your novel is complicated and rich. How can you sum it up in even a longish sentence?

Thing is, you really need to.

The concept is the basis upon which a publisher will buy your novel. It will also be their hook for selling it. Your premise will appear in some form on the cover art and on the jacket copy. (Look at Prince of Storms. What is this book about? (If you haven’t read it, send me your guess.) My next post will expound on this cover. (Lucky you.)

Go Power

The concept tells you if you have a story with energy, with go-power.

Therefore the concept question goes beyond  marketing issues to something even more profound: What do you want to spend the next few months of your life writing? Will it be a story with the power to light up your characters, your theme, your pages? If not, you’re stuck with slogging through each page trying to force meaning and drama into it. And each page will be differently powered.

Because you don’t have a premise.

Working Your Premise

It’s best to work on premise early in your novel planning. You might start with character, that’s OK. Or like me, with setting–always critical in science fiction. But don’t delay too long before you search for a dramatic concept.

And hey, it’s not unusual to have a weak premise at first. Great concepts don’t come all at once, gift-wrapped. Successful writers work at them. They develop them with the care you show in making the perfect pie crust or planning your dream vacation.

If your concept way back when was dinosaurs from amber, at that point you were done with premise. But if your premise is not high-concept, I suggest taking premise a little further. Make sure it is emotionally gripping. The concept should be a frame within which you can develop meaningful action. These actions will have consequences with which we can empathize.

The Stories You Love

Think of your favorite novels in the world. Tell yourself the premise of each one. Did you love The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick? Shogun, by James Clavell? In a sentence, what are the concepts of your favorite all-time novels?

This is not only great practice, it teaches us something crucial:

Lasting stories have gripping premises. They can be told in a sentence.