So You Want to Build a Story... | IDEA TO PREMISE

Hi there, Writing Wizards & Witches!

—I’m going to call you wizards and witches from now on because writing is such a magical experience—

Today marks the beginning of a new blog series focused on the different elements of story crafting. I’m hoping to provide you with a blueprint to building your own story - though, of course, there isn’t one right way to do it!

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We’re starting this series with the foundation:

THE PREMISE


Before we start..

I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again…

There is no right way to write a story!

There are many paths to take you from A to Z. Everyone is unique in how their brain works. I’m just offering one potential way in contemplation of what it takes to build story (and revise said story too). Ask any author and they’ll give different insight on crafting — some will even use different techniques depending on the book they’re writing. So don’t worry if these ideas don’t work for you. Go out there and find the way that does.

OKAY! So to the actual point of this post…

No matter how the road to the end differs, all stories start with the same thing: AN IDEA.

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Maybe it’s a specific character.
Maybe it’s a climatic scene.
Maybe it’s a cool twist.
Maybe it’s a swoony romance.
Maybe it’s a quirky voice.
Maybe, maybe, maybe…

Each idea is different and each idea is inspired by something just as unique. These ideas can strike without warning (which is why I never leave my house without a notebook, though today it’s easy to jot down anything on a smartphone—but I will die on the hill of the good ol’ notebook).

An idea, however, is just the starting point. A story is bigger than an idea—and we’ll get more into that as the weeks progress.
What I want to stress in this post is that not every idea will a story make.

For example, the other night I was rewatching SPEED—which is a great class in writing tension and stakes—when an idea came to me. The idea was two characters and a unique narrative framework. But two characters and a narrator are only two slices of a story. Without plot or purpose, it will never become a story.

Ideas fuel stories. They are testaments to our creativity, to the inspiration strike. But to find the idea that will guide the story at your heart, what you really need is…

A PREMISE

“What’s that?” you might be asking. I’m so glad you did.

Lots of writing books (I’ll link to those resources at the end) that I have read over the years seem to agree on this:

John Truby has a great definition that comes from his book The Anatomy of Story.

It is the simplest combination of character and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.

- Truby, Anatomy, p. 16

Basically a premise is that sentence which answers the question ‘what is your book about?’

It details the main character, goals, conflict, and stakes. Who your story is about. What they want. What/who stands in their way. And what they stand to lose.

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Here are a few examples…
(please note that these are not official premises, but my own interpretation to best highlight how to create your own)

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas — When her childhood best friend is unjustly killed by a police officer, a girl from two different worlds is called on to share the truth of his death even as it pits her and her family against local drug dealers and cops who prefer to keep the truth buried.

Character: a girl from two different worlds
Goal: share the truth of her childhood friend’s death
Conflict: drug dealers and cops
Stakes: her life and her family’s life


SPINNING SILVER by Naomi Novik —
The daughter of moneylenders steps up to replace her sympathetic father in the task of collecting their due and earns the reputation of turning silver into gold, a reputation that draws the attention of a winter king who seeks to exploit her abilities.

Character: the daughter of moneylenders
Goal: to collect the money owed her family
Conflict: a winter king
Stakes: her freedom


RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE —
after a physical altercation with a British prince, the son of the American president fakes friendship with the prince to salvage his mother’s reelection campaign, only to discover new feelings blossoming, feelings that could threaten the election and the prince’s royal image.

Character: the son of the American president
Goal: to salvage his mother’s reelection campaign
Conflict: falls in love with the prince
Stakes: the election (and by extension, the prince’s reputation)


THE LAND OF YESTERDAY —
a clever, brave girl embarks on an adventure to Yesterday, the land of lost souls, to save her family from the grief of her brother’s death before her soul and theirs are lost too

Character: a clever, brave girl (a sister)
Goal: to save her family from becoming lost souls
Conflict: the land of Yesterday / grief
Stakes: her parent’s souls and her own


**challenge yourself to write the premise statement for one of your
favourite books, and share it with us on Twitter by tagging us
@inkysquidedits and using #premISEpractice. We’ll enter all
participants in a giveaway for a free query and pitch critique. Three winners!
**


Now that we have some examples in our belt, let’s discuss how you can take your idea and formulate a winning story premise of your own!

Before we get to specific steps, I want to stress how important it is to take your time and be patient. Don’t craft only one premise sentence. Craft five or ten or fifteen. Keep working at your idea and the potential of it so you can be sure that you’re leaping into writing your story pursuing the most promising narrative.

STEP ONE: IDENTIFY YOUR LEAD CHARACTER

Maybe at this stage you already have a cast in your mind. Maybe you’re still considering the right character for the plot idea that struck. Wherever you are, it’s crucial that you pick a character with many layers, a character who will catch the reader’s interest, a character you would love to spend time with. This doesn’t mean—and really shouldn’t—finding the sweetest character possible. Antihero(in)es are very popular—see Baru Cormorant, Amy Dunne, Kaz Brekker. What makes for a memorable character is not how nice they are, it’s how strong and relatable their motivations are. We’ll talk more about motivation when we discuss characters in a later post, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind: A story is centered on a character who wants something. Why they want that something is key to getting a reader invested in their journey.

NOTE: if you have multiple main characters, you’ll need to consider the following steps for each of them.

STEP TWO: DETERMINE THE PRIMARY GOAL

So you have your character. Now it’s time to ask yourself the question: what does my character want? When we talk about a character wanting, we’re talking about a physical goal, something that can be realized on the outside. It differs from a need which we’ll talk about more in our study of character building. This want, this goal, will determine the action of the plot.

Many times, the goal will be determined by the genre.

IE: In mysteries (Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Janet Evanovich) the goal is to solve the case
In high fantasy (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, NK Jemisin) the goal is to overthrow a tyrant
In romance (Mary Balogh, Lynsay Sands, Beverly Jenkins) the goal is to win someone’s love

Of course, those are all just starting off points. Let me illustrate further with a couple of examples.

In The Room on Rue Amélie, Ruby’s goal is to aid in the rescue of allied pilots
In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Bee’s goal is to find out where her mom disappeared to
In The Poet X, Xiomara’s goal is to be heard and understood by her parents
In Song of the Current, Caroline’s goal is to deliver a crate in exchange for her father’s freedom

STEP THREE: DISCOVER THE CONFLICT

The conflict of the story is one of the most crucial parts of your story. You need something or someone to stand in the way of your character achieving the goal. Otherwise there is no story. A character can simply do as they please. And no one wants to read that.

The thing about conflict is that it can be very subtle. Sometimes the character is standing in their own way. Sometimes another character is. Sometimes it’s a natural disaster. Sometimes it’s a government organization. What you have to ask yourself is who or what will provide the greatest obstacle to your character achieving their goal.

Let’s go back to our examples above to give you an idea.

In The Room on Rue Amélie, the conflict Ruby faces takes the form of the Nazis
In Where’d you Go, Bernadette , the conflict Bee faces takes the form of secrecy and deception
In The Poet X, the conflict Xiomara faces takes the form of her parents—especially her mother
In Song of the Current, the conflict Caroline faces takes the form of pirates


STEP FOUR: FIGURE OUT THE STAKES

Your stakes should rise organically from the character, goal, and conflict. Ask yourself the question: what does my character stand to lose if the conflict they face stops them from achieving their goal?

Whatever it is (life, love, family…) must be something personal, something crucial to their existence. This is the best way to ensure that your audience sympathizes with the character. They need to be rooting for your protagonist to succeed because they fear what will happen to them if they don’t.

Let’s finish off again with your examples.

In The Room on Rue Amélie, at stake is Ruby’s survival
In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, at stake is Bee never seeing her mom again
In The Poet X, at stake is Xiomara’s individuality
In Song of the Current, at stake is Caroline’s father’s life and her own freedom


Developing your premise will help you not only focus your plot, but it will serve as a guide every step of the adventure. If you lose your way on the road, all you have to do is refer back to your premise to remind you of the heart of the story.

Craft as many as you need until you finally get to the most compelling premise sentence.

To help you test your premise, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this story sound original? (i.e. has it been done too many times, can it stand out of the crowd)

  2. Does this story sound plausible? (i.e. can you imagine a logical progression of cause and effect from beginning to end)

  3. What problems can I see this story provoking (ie. plot holes, required research, necessary foreshadowing, possible plants and payoffs)

    • this can also serve as a great chance to get ahead of problems. it doesn’t mean your story needs to change, just that some extra prep can help you write a cleaner first draft

  4. Is this story complex enough to fill a novel?

    • Alternatively, is this story simple enough to resolve within a novel?


And that’s it for today, fellow Writing Wizards & Witches!

I hope this post has been helpful and that you’ll stick around for the next ones to come to help you on your journey to building a story!

Write on!

Faith