PhotobucketWill you ever run out of story ideas? What a laughable question. Of course not! There are more stories in your cocktail napkin collection than you’ll be able to use. And new story ideas–? Just read the newspaper. Cull from family lore. Do some research. Or just live life. Novel ideas are everywhere.

True enough. The abundance of story ideas isn’t a problem. So why is it that there are so many weak second novels, series flat tires and mid-career crashes? Are those novelists somehow choosing the wrong vehicles? Or is it a matter of how you drive them?

Rushed or careless writing can ruin any good story but the problems can start on day one, when the premise itself is selected. Is one premise better than another? Not really. Okay, then is it a question of nailing it in draft one or of relentless revision? Those are important but aren’t what I’m talking about.

Many authors choose a story idea that grips them, that feels big enough, and that’s as far as it goes. An outline or initial draft soon begins but there’s a step missing: the development of the premise itself.

Wait…isn’t that what outlines and first drafts are for? You’d think so but I can tell you from being involved in hundreds of novels from their inception to their delivery, in their eagerness to get underway many authors fail to spot what’s weak or missing in their premises. That results in problems down the line, problems which get increasingly hard to fix as roll down the runway toward publication gains velocity.

A fully developed premise includes: 1) A setting, milieu or world that is intriguingly different or unique; 2) a central conflict that’s bigger than the main character, or universal; 3) a conflict that’s personified (turned into people); 4) a powerful inciting action; 5) choices for the above and all the story elements to follow that eschew the obvious, go for what’s less obvious, take a counter-intuitive approach or simply are the opposite of one’s first choice.

Over my next several posts I’ll explore each of those premise development areas, starting with this: the arena in which the story will play out.

We all love to go somewhere different. Historical and exotic settings are delightful. Imagined story worlds that are convincingly built and authentically alive allow us to dwell there happily. While we’re reading fiction we also like to learn new things, which explains why protagonists with unusual professions and special abilities are so popular.

But what if you’re writing about now, as in the real world and everyday reality? What if your main character isn’t a demon slayer, Navy Seal, forensic sculptor or circus performer but somebody regular? Is your premise doomed?

The truth is that exotic settings and unusual professions by themselves aren’t the key to a killer premise. Nor is a hyper-reality automatically awful. The task is to work on exotic settings until they feel real and recognizable. Real settings by contrast need to become distinctive, which means finding in them what is local, uncommon, odd and contradictory.

Here are some ways to begin to work on your theatre of operation:

  • Is your setting and milieu historical or exotic? Work until you find one thing we’ll recognize from our own reality. What’s the generation gap like in Victorian England? Does your society of demon slayers have a long-standing fight at their meetings over refreshments?
  • Is your setting by intention ordinary? Find things in it that are peculiar, local and contradictory. What’s the food found nowhere else? What’s the odd annual festival? What local legend is unquestioned? Who’s at war on a miniature scale? What’s a big irony in this social realm?
  • Is your protagonist unusual or an expert of some kind? Give him or her a personal challenge or family issue that anyone might have.
  • Is your main character at first unremarkable or regular? Find a quirk, gift or exceptional quality to give them. What’s her unique system of classifying people? Is he a collector of confessions?

When you push your premise into yielding some of its ore right away, a couple of things happen. First, the interesting bits you would otherwise have found later on make their appearance in your story sooner. Also, those elements will grow. The fight over refreshments leads to issues of low iron levels in demon slayers, which leads to uncovering a link between global famines and infestations of demons, which leads to a battle strategy in a cosmic war and, in turn, to a theme.

Think of premise not as a seed but as a sapling already reaching for the sun, its roots pushing deep and its branches opening wide. Push it to grow early and you’ll enjoy the shade later.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s mike@bensalem

About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.