Wednesday, September 16, 2015

11 Tips for Formulating a Powerful Premise

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So this also comes from the LUW conference, specifically from Clint Johnson, who is a fantastic speaker and writer. I actually went to two of his classes and was greatly enlightened by both of them. 

Actually, I think he said some of the most powerful, memorable things I heard at the conference. 

"Originality is the sum total of a man's thinking or his writing."

So he talked about how the brain works and what is actually happening in our brains chemically when we come up with a new writing idea. He says that when we think of something, our brain recognizes it as something alien; something we never thought of before. Almost instantly there's the maybe-that's-a-stupid-idea-and-no-one-else-will-like-it backlash. But that's just because it went from being new and alien to us, to being something our brain recognizes now as part of our universe. 

"The fact that you want to tell a story means that it's a story worth telling. There are no stupid premises."

We also all know that there's no such thing as an original story. All stories can be boiled down to their component parts and really there's only something like six individual stories. The rest is all in the details, the world-building, the characters, and the overall execution of the premise. 

"Law of the Premise: Success is a matter or execution, not premise."

Formula for a Powerful Premise:

Specific + Authentic + Meaningful = Powerful Premise

Specific: Refined to a the particular, rather than the generic. God is in the details, people.

Authentic: Reflects lived emotional reality. You know that saying, "write what you know?" Clint talked about it and I agree with what he said. "Write what you know" is a good place for first time authors to start, but more seasoned writers will branch out to write what they don't know. It's a natural part of the creative process. So how do you still make it authentic? By extrapolating emotions from the reality you HAVE lived and infusing them into the fiction that you haven't. If you can do this, you can make your story feel as real as if you really had lived it, whether it's a coming of age story, a murder mystery, or a world full of dragons and warlocks. 

Meaningful: Write what you care about. It will come through your writing and grip people. If you don't care, they won't either. 


11 Points for Where/How to Find Good Premises

1. A premise starts as a seed. Just a thought. It simply what stands out to YOU, what is meaningful, and what you care about. Record these stray thoughts as they may develop into compelling premises.

2. A good premise is made up of several seeds all put together. Look for patterns, rather than points, and don't rush the formulation of a premise. (Sources can include: life's meaning, otherness, paradoxes, etc.)

3. Craft your story BEFORE writing. 

4. Invest time in your creative thinking. Even if you don't hit word count, don't be negative. Judgement and creativity come from opposite sides of the brain. Too much judgement strangles creativity. (I'll talk about an exercise for this below.)

5. Build a base that's specific, authentic and meaningful. Only once you have this should you start writing.

6. At some level, even if it's unconscious, every story is character-driven. The soul of your story is about the emotional change of your characters from beginning to end. 

7. Don't struggle with whether it may or may not be good. Clint talked about the "inevitability of disappointment." Basically at some point we'll all doubt our stories and whether they're good enough. That doubt will keep you from writing; will keep you from completing your story and reaching your goals and dreams. (Basically, tell the Inevitability of Disappointment to go to hell, and keep writing.)

8. Identify themes and archetypes AFTER your first writing and flesh them out in revision drafts. Theme is an emergent property and will reveal itself as you kick out your story. Not before. (I actually do a presentation on Plot Points. I'm a major believer in plot points, but I do agree with Clint that they are more useful as tools AFTER the story has been crafted, rather than a template to use to craft the story. If you use them that way, you may well end up writing to a cliche, which is not a good thing.)

9. Craft your story AFTER writing. Now, #3 says before, which is the opposite of this. Just do it again. Get your story written, then identify themes and archetypes, and use plot points to craft your story after you have the initial draft kicked out. Continually craft your story until it is awesome.

10. Make the story more of what it is. Identify strengths and weaknesses. Have you ever heard doctors or dietitians say that, when someone has high cholesterol, it's actually more effective to up their good cholesterol than to lower their bad? Well it's true. Improving the good is actually more effective for overall health than just blocking out the bad. That's true of all things in the universe. So by all means, compensate your story's weak points. But it'll be even more effective to make your strong points stronger. 

11. A great premise is the product of man premises, so produce A LOT of them. Embrace and gather every idea.

In closing, let's talk about an exercise for coming up with premises. This is something Clint had us do and it was so effective for me that I've been practicing it with my own stories regularly ever since. It's kind of a Stream-of-Consciousness Creative Flow. 

So basically he just told us to start writing whatever came into our heads. Go from subject to subject, association to association and just let the words/ideas flow. Don't think too hard. Don't reject anything. Just write as much as you can as fast as you can. Time it. When you're done, extrapolate your premise or plot from your thoughts.

I've started doing this even for things like writing chapters. I know the general things I want to have happen in a chapter, but I do this exercise where I just write and let things flow for anywhere from 5-20 minutes. By the time I'm done, I have enough on the page to write up a detailed outline of the chapter. This can also be done for fleshing out characters, backstories, fantastical worlds, or entire premises. 

Try it. It's very effective!

Anyone have any other thoughts on crafting premises?


  1. Good tips! A good story is all about the characters.
    I've never thought about themes or anything while writing. Only in revisions. Least I know I'm doing something right.