The Good Seed

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

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    Donald, thanks for these great insights. Building a setting and characters that support the premise makes the writer’s job easier. There is a synergy among all the elements that leads to a coherent and vibrant whole. I always appreciate and learn much from your posts. Thanks again.

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    • says

      CG-

      Glad to hear you say that. So many authors *think* they’ve fully developed their premise but haven’t. I discover that when I read their manuscripts later, or in workshops where I point out useful stuff (like themes and ironies) that they missed. They smack their foreheads–doh.

      I’ve often wondered why so much latent potential in manuscripts goes undiscovered. I believe it’s because of anxiety: the drive to get going, rack up pages, finish, submit and get validation.

      When you speed down the highway you can’t really experience the landscape around you.

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      • says

        Did you write this post before or after you talked about premise development Sun morning in Hood River?!!

        And I think you’re exactly right about the role of anxiety in the creative process: we often grab the first idea we think of and pursue it, when maybe we need to slow down and consider the opposite — and be willing to make big changes in revision.

        Thanks again for a marvelous week. Off to the page now!

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  2. says

    Now that someone’s brought this up, I’m thinking about it, and I feel that I did it subconsciously before I began to write the story, without setting myself an intentional check-list. To me it just felt right to have all that stuff ready before I went headfirst into a draft. But it’s definitely a GOOD thing to have done before writing beings.

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  3. says

    For good or ill, I picked a controversial setting. The group involved is either unknown or lives under the shadow of bad press. I knew I had to create likeable characters to give the story a chance. Even the bad guys have some charm. At least, that’s the plan. Let’s hope I can pull it off. :) Thank you for letting me know I’m on the right track, Don. See you in Massachusetts at the NE Sisters in Crime workshop.

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    • says

      Rhonda-

      I like the sound of that and I’m sure you can pull it off. Hey, if Nabokov can make a palatable protagonist out of Humbert Humbert then anything is possible.

      And, yes, see you Massachusetts! Say hi at the workshop.

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  4. says

    I really appreciate the questions you give that allow a lot of the work to be done in the beginning (a sapling instead of a seed). I’m the type of person that likes to know where I’m going before starting out with writing a draft, but don’t always know what to consider to get my map started. Your questions always help me to get a picture in my mind of which direction to head!

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  5. says

    Thanks for the helpful questions to guide us through the “inception.”

    Another thing that I think helps is simply time. As you said, ideas are seeds, and letting them grow into sprouts can help writers determine whether or not they have what it takes to truly blossom. My journals are full of seeds that never managed to burst out of the ground — but I would never have known that if I hadn’t planted them there first.

    I also like combining different seeds — this character + that setting + this theme — and seeing if I can make one cohesive garden out of them.

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    • says

      Time definitely helps the little seeds we all have stored away grow into saplings. Often I’ll think of a story idea–a seed–but realize it needs more time to develop, so I store it away for a while and work with a different sapling. When I come back, surprise! that seed has become a sapling on its own.

      Great post like always, Donald. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  6. says

    Thank you, Don.
    Another great post.

    In my view, pantsing is problematic for developing premise, among other things; character arc, symbolism, themes. Sure, there will be times when I’m in the writing flow and unforeseen events or plot twists force themselves upon me (in a good way). Those are exciting moments. But it seems the more we know about the elements of our WIP before we’re in too deep, the more likely we’ll be to create a masterful story.

    Other than a just a generic outline, I love your idea of making a manual of questions to construct the framework for those slippery components that are so crucial to a masterful story.

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    • says

      Heather-

      I’m so glad that as a “pantser” you’ve weighed in. Premise development can sound like “planning” or “mapping” or just “over-thinking” to writers who are organic and intuitive. Who wants that?

      Sometimes the whole idea is to just explore a story in draft one and see what it brings. Again, why try to push an idea when that feels like it will kill the creative process?

      I get that, but what I’m talking about here is *mental* exploration. This is worth doing early, or at any stage really so long as it’s done.

      I’ll tell you honestly, the process for pantsers sometimes can be one of trying to “fix” draft one. What’s supposed to be exploration turns into an archival preservation of the good bits and a draft two that’s somewhat different but not better.

      To put it differently, outliners and pantsers alike can focus on pages rather than story. Pushing a premise means not writing down but turning inward, imagining and allowing the story’s potential to sprout.

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  7. says

    Wow, this is a fantastic post. I especially like the end bit about small elements growing from the beginning into something more. I’m thinking of a friend’s manuscript where a Dr. Pepper can became a plot point, and my own work in progress where a hair tie is becoming more and more important. It’s funny how that works.

    You have a way of looking at writing advice from a new perspective that is enormously helpful to me. Thanks very much for the advice. I’m bookmarking this post, and I can’t wait to see the next in this blog series!

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    • says

      Annie-

      Dr. Pepper? I believe it. Any small thing can be a starting point for plot growth, parallels, associations and even themes. You only need to look at what’s right in front of you and see its vast latent power.

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  8. says

    I write historical fiction and when I start my research in an era, I’m often struck by similar issues let’s say a young couple might have that sounds like today and things that clearly are not. I get my seeds from there.

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  9. says

    Thanks, Don! I’ve printed this out and am hanging it on the wall next to where I sit. Loved the above comments re: pantsers vs. outliners too. I’m a pantser who lets my own anxiety try and turn me into an outliner, meanwhile my story sits there going, “Anytime you want to wrap up your little existential crisis and focus on me I’ll be here, drinking Dr. Pepper.”

    This post as well as the past BONI weekend has done a lot to help me relax about my writing technique and focus instead on my writing. Thank you!!

    -Birgitte

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  10. Jeanne Kisacky says

    I’ve always wondered why some authors are like one-hit wonder bands. I’ve come up with several totally lame theories–the “X” factor for writers is fickle; the writers themselves have changed during the writing process; the particular inspiration for the winning novel’s mood has faded; the astrological alignment is no longer favorable . . . etc.
    All of those are outside of the writer’s control, so if you’re offering an explanation that puts the writer back behind the wheel, I’m on board. Thanks!

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  11. Cathy says

    Exactly the kind of post I need to read and file on my computer desktop for later reference. Looking forward to the upcoming installments. It’s like a mini-workshop in my own home!

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  12. says

    I couldn’t agree more; I write urban fantasy/sci-fi and I’ve found that the best way to engage the reader is to find the concrete and real details that ground the fantastic.

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  13. says

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    I only wish I’d read this before a brainstorming session with a writer friend last night. We’d definitely have made more headway if we’d had your questions on the table between us–instead of a glass of wine. :-)

    Thank you.

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    • says

      Well, at least you had a glass of wine! Not sure if there’s a strong correlation between strength of alcohol and strength of premise, but it’s worth an experiment.

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  14. says

    I’ve lived in three very different parts of the USA and recently talked to someone that stated that USA is all the same, and used Walmart as an example. I was surprised by this statement and thought about it.

    Pittsburgh Walmart had mostly older model Dodge and Chevy mini-vans in the parking lot, usually decorated with black and gold of the Steelers/Penquins/Pirates. The drivers are surprisingly polite unless they’re late for something. It’s open 24/7 as are many of the local diners — and there will be a good number of customers at 3 am. At New Year’s Eve, the big seller is sauerkraut. The McDonalds offers a breakfast burritos but its usually badly made as no one really knows how to make burritos. As you walk through the store, you will only hear English, usually spoken by WASP or African-American.

    Boston Walmart had SUV, often Lexus with a sprinkling of Land Rovers. While Red Soxx bumper stickers were common, more common were ones that stated something like “vote yes on #3” or “vote no on #2.” The drivers are very aggressive and rude. Everything rolls up the sidewalks at 9 pm but they need to kick out the shoppers. At New Year’s Eve, the big seller is Chinese food and butternut squash. The McDonalds offers a lobster roll during the summer. English is not the most common language of the customers — expect to hear anything from Russian to Spanish to Portuguese.

    Hawaii’s Walmart has 80% pickups in the parking, usually with lift kits to make them ride monster truck high, and a pitbull sitting in the back. Almost every window has some kind of decal, usually of the state map or sea turtles or hula girls. The drivers are so laid back and polite that traffic often comes to a standstill as people do a “after you,” “no, no, after you.” The store stays open as late as 10:00, but most of the shoppers are done for the day at 7:00 pm. At New Year’s Eve, the big seller is tons of fireworks. In the grocery aisle, half the food is imported from Japan and has little English translation stickers. The McDonald’s inside offers “local plate” of white rice and fried spam for breakfast. For some odd reason there is a steady flow of tourists off the cruise ships, many of them are Japanese. All the local customers speak everything under the sun, but usually using a thick pidgin.

    Certainly in every area there might seem to be bland cookie cutter landmarks, but if you look closely, the differences are huge.

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  15. says

    Thank you for this post, Don. I appreciate the notion of “mental exploration” and of the spark of ideas from newspapers, people-watching, and everyday life. I’ve always thought and thought about the premise, but you’re right in saying it’s the turning inward and pushing a premise to its max that brings a story to its full potential. Thank you for helping to put this unglamorous phase of writing into words and giving it a name. Very helpful, and excellent food for thought.

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  16. says

    Don, I’m currently reading your Writing The Breakout Novel–just finished the Premise chapter and working on Stakes now–and I cannot tell you how much you’ve helped. Yes, the premise is everything, and I discovered–the hard way–that a half-developed one is indeed not a shortcut but a recipe for disaster on the road ahead.

    As a pantster (and a newbie novelist at that), I sat down and wrote. Wrote, wrote, wrote–115K words in three months, little or no sleep, sketchy meals, social interaction down to below zero. The premise, *in my head*, was so strong and so important, so life-changing, that the story wouldn’t let go.

    But as I revised that first draft (or draft *zero*, some would say), I realized there was no focus to that wonderful initial premise. The story was all over the place, and although beta readers liked it and were hooked by what was going to happen next, it wasn’t for the right reasons. The message, the theme, wasn’t coming across. I wrote close to twenty drafts trying to get it “out”, but I realize now I had no clue what I was doing.

    I was lucky to get interest from a few agents at the San Francisco conference last February. And I was also lucky to get amazing feedback from a few editors there–including issues about the premise, though it wasn’t worded quite like that :) And then I saw your book for sale (I live in the Caribbean; our bookstores have very very limited variety).

    I decided not to send anything out (and thus probably burn good chances) until I finished your book and revised accordingly–and then had the MS professionally edited. It hasn’t been easy, that digging deep, that objective and dispassionate evaluation–but your book gave me the insight I needed, the goals I had to work towards.

    Don, if my book ever gets published, it’ll be 99% thanks to you. Even if it doesn’t, I’ve grown so much already by reading you, by applying these principles you took such care to verbalize and explain, that I’m sure at some point, some day, something of what I write will indeed get published. So thank you. Again and again.

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    • says

      You’re welcome, thanks for the kind words. I hope others will take comfort (and a lesson) from your journey. The road from “draft zero” to book deal is a long and curving one, but you’ll reach the destination if you stay open.

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  17. Julia says

    This was very enlightening. I’ve done everything that you said to do so I know I’m on the right path.
    Thank you much!

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