THE CANARY IN THE COAL MINE FOR WRITERS

“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that…”
– Harlan Ellison

 

In January, I focused on a few ways to light that spark of inspiration. Continuing the collections that you started is important. It’s not as though we are finished collecting ideas, but it’s time to move on to the next step.

In February, we will tackle the controversial topic of the outline. To outline or not to outline, that is the question. It’s a topic that writers debate with great passion. You have probably heard of the plotters and the pantsters. The plotters, of course, being those in favour of planning everything out prior to beginning to write and pantsters being those who prefer to fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants so to speak and write as the spirit moves. Is one approach better or more effective than the other? It’s a good idea, regardless of which appeals to you more, to consider the virtues and pitfalls of each before deciding how you will proceed with your manuscript. But…

Let’s back up for a minute. You’ve got an idea that popped up in your morning pages or maybe it came to you in a dream., or from a character you saw standing in line at your local coffee shop. Something inspired you to write a story, maybe even a novel around this idea. How can you tell if this burst of enthusiasm will last through a lengthy project like a novel? After all, you don’t want to get 30,000 words in and realize the it’s not actually a story after all. It’s more like a collection of scenes going nowhere.

According to Jeff Lyons, developing your story’s premise is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer. How true! And how I wish I knew this before I started stumbling around in the dark with my first novel.

What is the premise of the story? The premise of the story is that defining statement , the core of what your story is about and to whom it happens. In his article, How to Structure a Premise for Stronger Stories,  Jeff Lyons claims that when properly conceived, the premise delivers the essence of your entire story in one or two sentences.

Why write a premise? When it comes time to send out those query letters,  you’re going to want to have an effective premise line to pitch to the publishers, editors and agents. But why would you start with this? Even though the premise is a succinct, neat and tidy couple of sentences, it will take you a lot more writing to get there. But here’s the thing. Once you have worked through all the pieces to include in your premise, you’ll know whether or not you have a story. Under pressure from the publisher to get another book written, I wrote a collection of scenes regarding the historical story I wanted to tell. It was as though I figured if I had enough scenes to make up the word count, I’d have a story. How wrong I was! I didn’t give up on that particular historical novel, but I did have to start from scratch and completely rewrite it. Ouch!! If I had taken the time to craft the premise statement, I would have recognized what was needed to turn my historical situation into a historical novel, BEFORE I wrote all those scenes. A premise statement is not detailed like an outline, but it is an excellent road map to prevent you from wandering aimlessly through the forest, not going anywhere in particular. 

How to write a premise statement?

  1. LIst all of the main ideas about your story. Include all the ways you would describe this to someone asking what your new book project is about.
  2. Who is the protagonist?
  3. What is the situation in which the hero finds himself at the beginning?
  4. What does the hero want at the beginning of the story? (that makes him take the action that sets the plot in motion)
  5. Who stands in the way of the protagonist attaining this goal?
  6. What complication develops as a result of the protagonist attempting to achieve her objective?
  7. How does the hero react to the complication?
  8. What conflict results from the hero’s reaction and how does this conflict continue throughout the story?
  9. What change or growth occurs in the protagonist as a result of this journey?

Now, include these details as you write several sentences describing your novel. Next, cut, cut, cut, until you have a couple of carefully written sentences that tell the premise of your story.

TO DO:

Write a premise for an idea you think you may want to develop into a story or a novel. Use the above steps as a guide to help you. Congratulations! If you completed the steps above, I’d say you’re on your way! You will probably find that the premise needs fine tuning along the way, but you’re off to a great start!

Write On!

COMING UP:  To outline or not to outline. That’s the question!

Published by Lois Donovan

Author of historical time travels, THE JOURNAL and WINDS OF L'ACADIE, Lois is in demand as a speaker/presenter at literary conferences and young writers' conferences and teachers conventions. Lois grew up primarily in Riverview, New Brunswick, but has called Calgary home for many years. Currently, Lois enjoys life in Calgary with her husband, daughter, son and daughter-in-law.

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