Does Your Story Premise Hold Up?
Today’s Writing Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is all about premise. And I’m just going to warn you now... It’s going to be near-impossible for all but the bravest, most committed pantsers to do.
If you’re a plotter, however, you’re in luck. Because this is right up your alley.
As we already discussed on Tuesday, a premise is a basis, an inspiration, a purpose to write. It’s the starting point for a story. The spark that strikes the fuse that makes your narrative go BAM!
Or think about it this way: You know that old C+C Music Factory song, “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…”? Well, that title is pretty much the definition of a premise.
Now, creative writers can come up with four different kinds of Hmmmm…s, as it were:
A good premise that holds up
A bad premise that holds up
A good premise that doesn’t hold up
A bad premise that doesn’t hold up.
Have no clue what I’m talking about? That’s completely understandable. Let’s break it down a bit further.
Good story premises are ones capable of capturing readers’ attention. They’re intriguing, engaging and at least somewhat original. (I say somewhat because it’s impossible to be completely original in the creative writing world today. There really is nothing truly new under the sun when it comes to book plots.)
Bad story premises are just the opposite. They’re dry, shallow and trite.
Yet the thing about both is that they can still go the distance. A premise needs to be strong enough to hold up for 70,000 to 120,000 words depending on the genre. And there are plenty of really bad ones that can drag on that long. Or longer.
Surprisingly enough, there are also really good ones that just don’t make it.
For instance, once upon a time, I was walking along a perfectly pleasant neighborhood street lined with historic-looking stone and brick houses, and tall, tall trees. It was in that picturesque setting that I was struck with a premise, which turned into a title: Why I Said I’d Puppy-Sit, I’ll Never Know.
It was going to be the story about a woman who agreed to take care of an adorable but precocious puppy for a week, only to get literally dragged onto the scene of a gang shooting and have to go into protective custody because of it.
Now that’s a good premise, if I do say so myself. But I only got 20,000 words into it and haven’t touched it since July 26, 2010. For whatever reason, my creative steam ran out and I set it aside. Who knows if I’ll ever pick it up again.
I’d love to give you some way to without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt determine whether your story inspiration will take you all the way or not. But in the end, it’s really up to you, your creative muses and the fickle finger of fate.
There is, however, a way to give it a test drive without spending hours and hours and hours of your life only to find out that, oops! It doesn’t actually have what it takes.
Again though, this trick is really for plotters only. If you’re a hard-core pantser, you probably have to figure it out by trial and error. Sit down, start typing and see how it goes.
For anyone who’s not deathly allergic to creative organization though, this is what you do. Take your premise and expand on it as much as you can, mapping it out chapter by chapter to see whether it gives your characters enough to do from start to finish.
That Puppy story, for instance, might have looked something like this mapped out:
Chapter 1: Tracy is out walking in the park when she almost gets knocked over by the cutest puppy ever. When said puppy’s owners come over to apologize, the conversation quickly leads to a plea to puppy-sit, since the owners are about to go out of town for a whole week. A little weirded out by the randomness of the request, Tracy nonetheless takes their number and says she’ll think about it.
Chapter 2: Tracy has a really bad day at work and comes home to her empty apartment. In her current state of blah-ness, craving someone or something she can cuddle with, she gives the owners a call and agrees to puppy-sit.
Chapter 3: Taking temporary possession of Aries, Tracy comes to quickly regret her rash decision. She should have bought a bucket of ice cream instead, since that requires a lot less upkeep and doesn’t chew up her favorite pair of comfy flats.
Chapter 4: Tracy takes Aries out for a walk along a beautiful suburban street that just so happens to connect with a much busier, more seedy throughway. Her intention is to get nowhere near that intersection, and she succeeds in that goal. Mostly. Aries does drag her further down the road than she wants to go, but she’s still a good half-mile away from the no-go zone when she catches sight of someone running hard, looking over his shoulder in terror. Ducking behind a tree, she’s horrified to witness a drive-by shooting.
Chapter 5: Calling the police, who quickly appear on the scene, she finds out that the murder victim was a scheduled witness in a major Maryland trial against a local gang slated for next week. And guess who just became a new source of information for the state?
I’m going to stop there for two reasons, one being how I never actually finished the story. But more importantly than that, I’m one of those hard-core pantsers I mentioned above and therefore absolutely despise plotting. It kills every ounce of creative motivation I possess.
Therefore, the five-chapter outline above is proof of how much I want you plotters and your premises to succeed.
For my fellow pantsers, what I can offer you is this. Go ahead and send me your story idea at JDiLouie@InnovativeEditing.com. I’ll be an extra – free – pair of eyes to tell you whether it has full-story potential or not.