PhotobucketYou know how in relationships everything you need to know was, in retrospect, revealed in the first twenty-four hours? It’s the same in pitch sessions. Everything important is revealed in the first twenty-four seconds.

Ask the question, what’s your novel about? One of two things happens. Either a numbing blow-by-blow plot summary begins or you hear a statement of theme that’s both vague and grand. My novel’s about life!


Plot summarizers may have lots of story to relate but they can have a hard time saying what that story means. Theme ministers may have high aspirations but the impact of their pages usually is low. Both would benefit from the third principle of premise development, but each needs to try a different approach.

Here, then, is the third principle of premise development: turn problems into characters. Or, conversely, grow through your characters the conflicts that will make your story universal.

Characters embody conflicts that everyone knows. Envision this character: mother-in-law. What do you immediately imagine? Meddling, nosy, clingy, pushy. I’m against stereotypes, as you know if you’ve taken my workshops, but this one illustrates my point. Characters stand for something. Magnify it and make it more obvious and your story will have greater impact. Reverse your readers’ expectations of what a character stands for and you’ll have a character they’ll never forget.

You can enact this technique the opposite way. Say that you want your story to be about life! Well, you can immediately see the flaw in that idea. It isn’t specific enough. What particular aspect of life is, for you, the most interesting, challenging or painful? Start there. That’s the core conflict.

Let’s say that conflict is wanting an environmental law career when your mother-in-law wants a grandkid. What forces tug your heroine in two directions? Two instincts: killer and maternal. To generate story events each force needs a champion. Hand out briefs, assignments or a mission. Story happens and your theme (life!) becomes active. From her firm’s fearsome senior partner your heroine will learn the depth of a father’s love; from her mother-in-law your heroine will learn the tactics of red-in-tooth-and-claw victory.

Here are some ways to embody problems in your characters, or to have your characters enact universal conflicts:

  • List your cast. Make each the embodiment of an idea or principle. Don’t tell the reader. Instead create moments in the story so strong that your reader will know, without being told, what each character stands for.
  • Pick a character who’s in danger of being a stereotype. List things associated with the stereotype, especially a way of interacting with people. As your story begins, demonstrate the stereotype. By the end reverse it in that character.
  • List your themes. Express each as a human conflict. For each side, appoint a character to represent it in the courtroom of your story. What is each character’s shining Atticus Finch moment?
  • What’s the biggest emotion you want your readers to feel? Which character in your story feels it the most? Who feels it the least? Work until each feels, at least in one moment, like the other does.

Stories are not about ideas they’re about people. Or–? Maybe people in stories have the most impact when they stand for ideas. Whether your inclination is to be obvious or to be artful, the characters in your stories will stick in your readers’ minds when you do more with them, and when what they do carries meaning.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Neal.


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.