PhotobucketLast month we began to look at premise development. I argued that developing a premise through writing a first draft is a natural practice, one that most authors follow. Yet a bit more attention to deepening one’s premise at the beginning of the process will both enrich that first draft and avert later shortcomings.

The second way to work on a premise is to create a central conflict that’s bigger than the main character, or universal. You might think that all conflicts are, in a way, universal. Who doesn’t need to grow, heal, journey, surrender to love, enact justice or slay a bunch of big bad demons?

That’s true, but many manuscripts feel narrowly focused and small even when the fate of the world is at stake. Conversely, there are novels in which the setting is local, the protagonist isn’t anyone important and their problems are unique. Even so, those novels sometimes seem to be talking about us all.

How is it that big scale stories can seem small, while small scale stories can feel big?

Here are the relevant principles: Fate-of-the-world stakes won’t feel truly big until they’re also scaled down to affect your protagonist personally. Meanwhile, small-scale stories become bigger when they grow more particular.

In other words what truly makes global-stakes stories gigantic is not the global stakes: it’s the protagonist’s personal journey, or arc of change. Small-scale fiction achieves universal meaning through distinctive detailing of the main character’s life, times and problems. Everything’s larger under a microscope.

Is your WIP plot-driven and high stakes? Try developing your premise with these questions:

  • How does the Big Problem affect your protagonist personally, in ways that it doesn’t affect other people? What’s the ultimate cost? (It must be paid!)
  • If the Big Problem isn’t solved, what’s the worst way in which someone close to your protagonist will be hurt or destroyed? (Go there!)
  • There are big principles in play here, naturally, but what core belief of your protagonist is being challenged? (Undermine it!)

Is your WIP character-driven, with wholly personal stakes? Push your premise as follows:

  • How can your main character become more unique in three ways?
  • How can your main character’s family, friends, town, times and way of seeing each become less ordinary?
  • How can the problem he/she confronts twist in three utterly uncommon ways?

When a main problem or central conflict gets personal, it gets strong. Make it strong enough and we readers will begin to make it our own. That’s how to make a problem bigger than your protagonist—even universal.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Rakka

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.