Big Picture Edits

The 5 Key Components of a Strong Story Premise

5 Key Components of Story Premise Header

Will your idea make a good story?

What do we mean by a good story? And what factors make up the story premise?

A premise is ideally a one-sentence summary of your entire story. Would you be able to distill your idea into one or two sentences?

Be aware that nearly all unsuccessful stories fail at the premise. Premise is the foundation of your story, on which all the decisions you make during the writing should be based. Within your story premise are a number of key elements you need to be able to “hit” so your story is strong enough to be able to fly. Having a weak premise at the outset will lead to an even weaker story in execution, so it’s worth taking the time to ensure all the following are present.

The 5 Key Components of a Strong Story Premise

1. Protagonist

Who is your main character? What can you tell us about them? It’s important to make sure that you actually have the right “main protagonist” – it’s the one who the themes and conflicts of the story are really about. You’d be surprised how often final stories turn out to really about someone other than whom you might think at first.  NB even at the premise level, make sure you are specific about who your main protagonist is and their role in the story – just a name on its own won’t be enough or tell you what you need to know.

Do we have to like our protagonists? No, I don’t think we do, although some other writers would disagree with me. I do think we need to be able to relate to them in some way, though. And we need to make life hard for them. Think about the worst possible thing that can happen to this character – and then make sure you throw it at them!

2. Conflict  – with stakes that a reader can identify with, and that your main protagonist is living out throughout the course of the story.

Story is conflict – without conflict, you simply have a list of events. What are the internal conflicts your character is battling with? The environmental ones? The situational ones? What are the choices that your protagonist is torn between? Are they choices that are universal in some way, that would be relatable to your readers? Make sure that the conflict matters, that your reader has a reason to care, regardless of genre.  What is it that your protagonist stands to gain or lose once a choice is made? What exactly is it that they are fighting about at core – and who are they fighting?

 3. Desire/goal that the protagonist has

What does your protagonist want to achieve at the outset? How does that relate to what they need? Will they achieve it or not by the end of the story?

Often, what protagonists want is directly in conflict with what they need to make life better by the end of the story. It’s always worth thinking about, not only their desires, but the things that are preventing them understanding or realising what they actually need if you want to deepen your story.

4. Antagonist or Force of Antagonism

Remember, sometimes what can seem to be an antagonist for the protagonist at the outset of the story, turns out not to be “the real enemy’” at all. Think about all the things that are stopping your characters get what they need as well as what they want – or what they think they do. Who or what is the real enemy? How does that relate to the overall themes and message of your story?

5. A set up that will illustrate the conflict

You need a place, a time, a scenario that makes sense. Where are you going to place your characters to best illustrate the premise you have? What about that set up will accentuate the conflicts and themes you have identified?

 

 EXAMPLE PREMISE BREAKDOWN:

 Story: Don’t Look Now (Daphne Du Maurier)

Premise:

In Venice with his wife hoping to help her get over the death of their young daughter, a father ignores the pleas of two apparently psychic elderly sisters who claim the spirit of their dead child is warning him to leave.

Set up: A married couple away in Venice, who happen to meet two strange sisters at dinner

Protagonist: John, loving husband, rationalist, and recently bereaved father of a dead girl

Conflict: Wanting things to be normal again versus the reality of grief, reality vs false hope, life versus death, ignore the warning or be taken in by it?

Desire: John wants his wife to be her old self again, he wants things to be ‘back to normal’ and the Venice trip is supposed to be part of that

Antagonist: Grief, death, the fact life can never be the same again, seemingly the sisters, their idea of the ghost and John’s wife’s reaction, but in reality, something much darker entirely. John wants to stay in Venice, but he needs to leave.

 

How To Isolate Your Story Premise

 Personally, I’ve always found the following specific questions the most useful when really trying to get to the bottom of my premise:

  • Who is my protagonist and where/when are they?
  • What do they want?
  • What is stopping them getting that?
  • What do they need to realise or understand?
  • Why aren’t they able to realise or understand that thing?
  • Is there a main event that changes everything? What?
  • Where will we find them at the end of the story compared with the beginning?
  • What does that ending imply about life in general?

 

 It’s worth referring back to your basic premise often, while you are in the process of writing. Finding you need to tweak it is fine, but remember if you do, to you rework any key elements so they are all tying in together. You could even keep the premise visible to you as you write; I recently was given the tip of putting it in the header of your piece, so it comes up on every page, and you always have it as reference.

Taking the time at the start of a project to hone a strong premise is time well spent. It will make sure that the story you are writing stays on track and says what you want and need it to say.

 

Looking for feedback on your story? Check out my reader’s reports here!

 

Please follow and share!
error

The Ten Most Common Story Problems To Look Out For

I read a lot of draft stories as part of what I do, as well as from being a member of writing groups. What are the most common story problems I see again and again? And when you’re assessing your own work, what should you be looking out for?

So, so, often, in classes and writing groups, I have found that in the very early drafts of a piece, feedback to other writers still gets focused much too heavily on the minutiae – close, line-by-line editing of the writing – rather than the key elements of the whole reason for doing this in the first place: THE STORY YOU WANT TO TELL.

There is a time and place for close editorial work and red-penning – and it’s way after the first draft.

Close editorial work is about perfecting and polishing a piece of work until it shines. So, it’s  a very good thing – when you are about to submit the piece of work for publication. But close editorial work is not about the big structures and is not what you should be doing the first time you assess a draft. Trust me, if the big structures aren’t there to begin with, no swathes of beautiful description or exquisite phrase-turning or line-editing is going to make the piece stand up or resonate with its readers.  Or at least, not by itself. It risks the work being pretty, but hollow; a bit of nice handwriting, that actually says very little.

Of course, it’s worth noting any glaring grammatical errors or spelling mistakes or awkward phrasing if they jump out at you at this stage, but there WAY more important things to be looking at before that in the early development stages And by “early development,” I mean, for our purposes, the first full draft at least.

The story summary, or synopsis, we talked about in the previous post is a hugely useful at-a-glance look at your entire story from beginning to end. As a synopsis, it should include the most salient features of this piece of work – which means it should start to become obvious where there are gaps or something major is awry.

Questions to ask yourself based on your story summary

  • Does the story have a clear beginning, middle and end?
  • Are the key structural elements in place; the inciting incident, the midpoint, the major plot/turning points at the ends of Acts I and II?
  • Is it clear what genre – if any – the story is or is trying to be?
  • Do we know where and when the story is set?
  • Can we see who the main protagonist is and their basic story arc? Do things change for them by the end of the story?
  • And the antagonist (or other form of opposition)? Is there one? Is it strong? What is the main conflict?
  • Can we see what the basic premise of the story is? Does it seem muddled or vague?
  • What about the theme or themes? What ‘message’ might the current ending convey?
  • Are there any details of the story you thought were in there but that now you look at it, you don’t actually seem to have written?
  • Are there vital questions arising that you seem to have left unanswered?

Go through the list above and make a note of any areas that you think you need to address. As a reminder; you should use the summary to force yourself to look at what you have actually written, rather than what you intended to write. You are giving yourself the information to be able to plug the gaps and what you’ll need to focus on in the next draft.

 The Ten Most Common Story Problems

  1. No clear beginning, middle, end. Most usually,  a LOT of beginning, a flat middle, a rushed, weak or unsatisfying ending
  2. Unclear or confused genre.  I don’t mean hybrids, like literary-sci fi, or romantic-horror. I mean your heartfelt domestic drama randomly turning into an action-adventure halfway through. Intentional? Hmm…
  3. Unclear or split premise. Story meanders or is confusing
  4. Missing theme or point to the story. Who will care about this story and why?
  5. Major  plot points missing
  6. Crucial details missing. (“I want to create a mystery” is not an excuse for not knowing a key part of your own story! And yeah, I’ve used that one too.)
  7. Unsympathetic, unrealistic or un-engaging characters.
  8. Story perhaps told from wrong point of view (obviously, multiples are fine – if intentional.) Or – too many points of view
  9. No real force of opposition
  10. Protagonist doesn’t change (unless that is intentional and a point in itself)

  And of course, you may spot others, depending on your story and your writing practice and style.  Naturally, we all have strengths and weaknesses as writers; that is totally normal. As you may have gathered, I’m a big picture girl at heart. So I can be a little “detail schmetail”, especially in first drafts.

Personally, I have the most problems deciding on endings, which I’ve learned is because I often struggle to really isolate what the core of my story is really about (I often develop stories from individual scenes I’ve written, and end up on a journey of discovery – often with many wrong turns and ill-advised decisions) and therefore can get lost in indecision.

So – make a list of the problems you’ve identified in your piece that you think you’ll need to address. Oh, and pat yourself on the back for the things that you think are working well! It’s good to remember your strengths.

In the next post, we’ll start getting  into more detail about the specifics; and more importantly, what you can do to resolve, including the various resources that are available to get you learning more about them in depth.

Please follow and share!
error

What’s Really On The Page? How To Assess Your Own Work


How do you know if what you think you’ve written is what you thought you had? Could your mystery masterpiece be devoid of mystery, your heartfelt drama be worthy of an oft-derided soap opera, your heroic characters be coming across as flat or pretentious, your clear riff on a classic myth missing any discernible links to the original for your readers to get their teeth into?

Happens to the best of us,of course.

So what’s the solution?

Summarising the story as is has been the single most useful way I’ve found of of forcing myself to distance from the work and see what is really there, rather than what I hope is there. It does take a bit of discipline, however.

STEP 1

When you’re ready, and preferably when some time has passed since you wrote it sit down and read your story or chapter through once. Do not start editing and fiddling. Do not pass Go. Just sit and read it through.

OK? Done?

How was it?

If there is anything that struck you about the piece there and then, a major flaw for example, make a note somewhere but put it aside for now. You can deal with it later.

Take a deep breath. What do you reckon? What did you think of it?

A. You’re horrified at what you just read and think it’s crap?

Doesn’t matter. That’s why you’re working on it now

B. So-So – you like some parts but can already see some areas that will need work?

Completely normal, and the work that needs to be done can range from the “extreme” to the “needs a few tweaks”. Either way, you need to give yourself a roadmap for how you’re going to move forward with it next.

C.  You’ve just surprised yourself with how good it is?

Great! Bask in that feeling for a bit. It’s a fantastic feeling of achievement and satisfaction that should be celebrated. It’s the Holy Grail. Enjoy.

And when you’re done enjoying, and assuming of course that you have not already decided that this piece is ready to go (it may be) carry on with that little extra bit of work to help make sure it is going to be as good as it can be.

 

STEP 2

From memory, write a short summary of what you saw written on the page of the story from start to finish. (NB if this doesn’t work and you start putting what you want the events to be in it, stop. Swap with another writer, get them to do the summary. Do not ‘pitch’ your story – this isn’t the time and this is a task for later anyway. Right now, we are all about pragmatism. This is about what IS , not what might be).

Imagine if you can that this is someone else’s story. Your summary should be about 500 words.

For example (first lines of a summary of one of my own stories):

A young woman called Eva is driving a hired car on a motorway. She is tense – the tightness of her coat and boots are mentioned – and she seems to be running away from something. On the road, she is passed by other cars that seem threatening – ‘lights like eyes, looming’ – and she is unnerved by a middle aged male driver seemingly yelling swear words at her as he drives past. A shaken Eva pulls into a lay-by and checks her directions on a piece of paper. She is on her way somewhere as yet unrevealed, but there is ‘a woman’ mentioned whom Eva seems to be late for…

 Carry on until you’ve reached the end of your story. Don’t peek at it again just yet, just try and remember.

How much of it did you get?

 

The purpose of this exercise

This is about picking up on the most salient features of what you have on the page.

Ask yourself this: How many times is a reader going to be reading your story? With a film, you really only have one chance; fiction readers, particular of short stories, may well read more than once just for the pleasure of it, but unless you’re one of their favourite writers, you can’t expect that they will go over it again and again. With novels – even less likely, and someone going through a slush pile will certainly not be bothering to read it more than once. So getting a feel for those salient features and the one chance you have to grab them are crucial.

Now, read the story again more slowly, and fill in any essential gaps.

Do NOT analyse – now is not the time for this. This is all about What Is There Now.

This kind of summarising is different from creating a logline, which is something we’ll look at separately. Creating a logline is a way of actively creating a spine for your story which you can then use as a guide while you are writing.

Doing a summary of what is already there is showing you what is already in the work. It gives you Big Clues as to the overall picture of the work , where it is currently succeeding, and the areas you might have to work on to improve it.

Now go and get a cup of tea.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at some of the most common problems to look out for at this stage – and what you can do about them.

How do you get distance from and assess your work? Feel free to leave comments below.

Please follow and share!
error