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How Far Your Premise Will Take You

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

So you have a premise for some story you’d like to start. You’re all excited – so much so that you take out your pen and paper, or laptop, and you get down the first word… then the first paragraph… then the first page.

You’re writing a novel!

That’s awesome, and I’m sincerely so very happy for you. But before you get too far, you might want to ask yourself one little question that could have very big consequences for your premise’s path.

Writing a novel takes a lot out of a guy or gal. A lot of time. A lot of effort. A lot of thought.

It also takes a lot of help from your personal muses... who don’t always feel like cooperating.

They’re temperamental little minxes when they want to be.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. Despite all that time, effort, thought and “musing,” writing a novel is an awesome endeavor. It can even be fun and worthwhile if you run out of steam part way through.

Nonetheless, isn’t it ideal if you make it all the way through?

Assuming your answer is yes, let’s talk about what writing a novel really takes.

As acknowledged in Tuesday’s post, when it comes to writing a novel, I’ve had plenty of premises stall out on me.

In some cases, there were other stories I wanted to tell more. In others, I started them, got a certain way through, and decided I’d had enough for one reason or another.

Whatever it was, the premise was there. But the full-fledged story was not.

To try to keep you from falling flat as much as I have, here’s a little tip to try out.

Ask yourself whether your premise is strong enough.
You don’t actually have to know the answer to that before you begin, particularly if you’re a panster (someone who writes by the seat of his pants). There’s no premise-related rule that says you have to start what you finish.
But if you’re a plotter (someone who first maps out what he’s going to work on), you might as well add this to your to-do list. As you’re working on your outline, make sure that your characters have enough to do with your story “basis or inspiration.” You’re better off that way.

As you may know by now, I’m a pantser. I start a story and see where it goes, whether to dead-ends or five-book series. Due to my exact writing nature, I just never know.

But you? There might be hope for you in this regard. If so, here’s how to claim it.

Plotters, before you begin writing a novel, try writing an outline. We’re not just talking about one of those plot-related diagrams here that shows the beginning... rising action... climatic moment... falling action... and ending…

Don’t worry. These are all terms we’ll cover in depth later on, particularly between May and July.

Right now though, for the purpose of this blog post, forget all about them. We’re looking at writing a novel from a different point of view.

For starters, where does your protagonist(s) begin and where does he/she/they end? What obstacles are going to get in their way? What sub-obstacles? What tiny triumphs can they have before hitting another brick wall?

Make a list, evaluating each point to guess how many chapters it can cover. You don’t have to give more than a sentence or two per bullet point, but you do want as many bullet points as possible so that your outline looks something like the one featured below.

As a pantser, you have no idea how painful it was to make the partial outline below. I’d rather tie myself up with duct tape and waste my time trying to escape than do this again.

(No, really. I did that while researching one of my novels before, and it was quite the engaging activity.)

I hope this labor of love proves how much I care about you writing a novel you can actually complete.

You’re welcome.

OUTLINE: Why I Said I’d Puppysit, I’ll Never Know

  • Main Character (MC) decides to go for a walk at a local state park on a beautiful day. Strolls along minding her own business when she starts to hear people frantically shout out a name: “Tory.” Sees a puppy dashing her way, assumes they’re calling for said little critter and grabs a stick to distract it until they can arrive. (It’s so cute!)

  • Couple arrives out of breath to see Tory safe and secure. Perhaps a little crazed with relief and seeing MC cuddling said puppy so sweetly, they ask MC if she can puppysit for them over the summer – in three and a half weeks. MC says she’ll think about it, they give her their number and leave.

  • MC originally thinks they’re crazy, but when she goes out for drinks with her two friends, Damon and Meghan, after a long day at work, they convince her that her life is too sad and lonely not to have a dog in her life, even if only for a week. After one too many long-island iced teas, MC decides that, yes, she’s going to go for it.

  • Couple drops puppy off, and mayhem soon ensues. Tory is way too energetic and soon makes a mess out of MC’s apartment. In order to try to work that energy out, MC takes Tory for a walk.

  • Tory gets excited by a squirrel and tries to chase it, dragging MC off her normal walking route toward a bad part of town right as a drive-by shooting occurs. Completely terrified, MC nonetheless gets a very good look at the perpetrators.

  • The cops arrive to get a statement from MC, she goes home to try to deal with the emotional aftermath of seeing someone die.

  • Goes to the grocery store the next day before work, only to almost be shot herself. The cops arrive again and tell her that she might want to keep low for a while, and they’ll have a patrol car swing by her place several times a day for the next week to make sure everything’s alright.

And so on all the way 'til the drama’s conclusion.

Right there, you have at least eight chapters, since bullet point 3 can be broken up into two: the bad day at work and the night out with friends. If each chapter is about 2,500 words and your goal is to write a 90,000-word manuscript, then your job is to figure out another 20-28 bullet points.

Not for this story premise though. This one is mine, even if I only did get eight chapters in before I quit years ago. You never know. Someday I might just get back to it.

Your job is to take a personal premise and work on writing a novel of your own. Which, incidentally, is a perfect segue for Friday’s post.

See you then!

Editor’s Note: Read the next post on premise here.

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