Monday, February 08, 2010

What's your premise?

I have been trying to figure out what topic to cover next, as we analyze these pages and pages of brainstormed ideas. And I think I'd like to skip ahead for a second, not much ahead, and cover the topic of PREMISE (again), because what we really need to start looking for in all the brainstorming you did is actual STORY LINES. And it's possible that the best way to recognize stories in your own ideas (that is, STORIES, as opposed to IDEAS) - is to do some practice on PREMISE.

One of the most frustrating (and sometimes amusing, in a morbid kind of way) things for me as an author and teacher is how difficult it can be sometimes to get a writer's story out of them.

It should be simple, right - to answer the question: “What’s your book about?”

But writers who are used to being in the thick of writing sometimes have only the vaguest idea of the big picture.

So the conversation often goes like this:

Me: "What's your book about?"

Aspiring author: “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences – there’s just so much going on in it.”

Worse - these conversations often happen at conferences where aspiring writers are being equally vague if they happen to be lucky enough to get into a conversation with an agent or editor.

The time to know what your book is about is before you start it, and you damn well better know what it’s about by the time it’s finished and people, like agents and editors are asking you what it’s about.

You will learn a lot more about what your book or film is about as you're writing it. But you need to know what you think it's about before you start that draft.

And here’s another tip – when people ask you what your book is about, the answer is not “War” or “Love” or “Betrayal”, even though your book might be about one or all of those things. Those words don’t distinguish YOUR book from any of the millions of books about those things.

When people ask you what your book is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the premise?” In other words, “What’s the story line in one easily understandable sentence?”

That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch” – it all means the same thing.

That sentence really should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre. And – it should make whoever hears it want to read the book. Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say – “Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”

Writing a premise sentence is a bit of an art, but it’s a critical art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights. You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian, and the Sisters in Crime books in print catalogue editor, and that Amazon KDP screen asks you for a one-sentence book description, or jacket copy, or ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstores (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have about one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.

And even before all that, the premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.

So what are some examples of premise lines?

Name these books/films:

- When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

- A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

- A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Notice how all of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out. Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.

Here’s my premise for THE HARROWING:

Five troubled college students left alone on their isolated campus over the long Thanksgiving break confront their own demons and a mysterious presence – that may or may not be real.

I wrote that sentence to quickly convey all the elements I want to get across about this book.

Who’s the story about? Five college kids, and “alone” and “troubled” characterize them in a couple of words. Not only are they alone and troubled, they have personal demons. What’s the setting? An isolated college campus, and it’s Thanksgiving - fall, going on winter. Bleak, spooky. Plus – if it’s Thanksgiving, why are they on campus instead of home with their families?

Who’s the antagonist? A mysterious presence. What’s the conflict? It’s inner and outer – it will be the kids against themselves, and also against this mysterious presence. What are the stakes? Well, not so clear, but there’s a sense of danger involved with any mysterious presence.

And there are a lot of clues to the genre – sounds like something supernatural’s going on, but there’s also a sense that it’s psychological – because the kids are troubled and this presence may or may not be real. There's a sense of danger, possibly on several levels.

And you can see how that premise sentence inspired one of the major planks of the selling campaign for that book (and any book) - the cover design, one of my favorites. (The UK edition, from Little Brown, the US edition, on Amazon.)

The best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Take that list of ten books and films I made you do here, that are in the same genre as your book or script - preferably successful - or that you wish you had written! Now for each story on that list, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

If you need a lot of examples all at once, pick up a copy of the TV Guide, or click through the descriptions of movies on your TiVo. Those aren’t necessarily the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

So there are three exercises I'd like to suggest for you to try.

1) Take your master list of ten books and films and write a premise sentence for each. Share a few here if you care to - it will help other people and that's good karma!

2) Write your OWN premise, for your WIP or potential project.

And 3) harder, but really, really worth it - look at your mass (or mess) of brainstormed ideas and see if you can pull and/or create ten (oh, all right, five) complete premises out of that list.

Or do three this week, three next week, three the next...

And that third option is something I'm saying TO MAKE MYSELF DO IT, too, so no whining about how I've completely gone off the deep end. I have, of course - but I also think the story ideas that would come out of really taking that last exercise seriously would raise anyone's writing to the next level. And perhaps yield something exciting and HIGH CONCEPT, which we will be talking about this week, too.

But if you're not familiar with writing premise lines, the most important exercise for you right now is 1) - write the premise sentences for your own master list. It's like doing piano scales. Repetition is the mother of skill.

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

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lyonessheart said...

Ok I'm going to try. How is this log line? This is the first time I've tried to do it. It's a little more difficult to do than I thought. As always love the Blog Alex, everytime I look at the posts I realize I have much to learn about writing. It's hard work!!!!

A tortured woman caught in a labyrinth of nightmares unable to discern reality from delusion struggles with diabolical forces of the Savage curse. In life some things are worse than death.

A tortured woman caught in a labyrinth of nightmares unable to discern reality fights her way through a maze of delusions and nightmares in her attempt to defeat the Savage curse. In life some things are worse than death.

Thanks as always
Sharon said...

This is such good advice, thanks. It's an essential step in breaking your intimate relationship with your novel, so that you can open it up to the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

Alex, This is one of the best writing blogs I have seen and I enjoy coming back to read what you have written. Without getting into personal details, could you give an overview in some way of the earnings one can realistically expect from novel writing? Beyond the 15% to agent stuff, what do most working novelists really make? How do length and genre play in?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sharon, that's a good start - and good for you for just bashing through it. It takes a lot of drafts to get a good premise line together.

Knowing what I do about your story, you need to be more specific about - everything. Who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is (even if it's a delusion), what the stakes are, especially since it's a live person! and that the Savage curse is a family curse.

However, check your e mail before posting anything.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That is a great way to put it, Katherine. We all get caught up in that intimate relationship.

A premise sentence is partly about learning to look at your novel or script as a PRODUCT that you will be selling.

That sounds crass, but you need to be able to take off your magical, mystical, creative hat and put on your marketer hat, at will, if you ever want to make money at this.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Anon, glad you're getting something out of it.

The money question is a big one that I guess I should address - when I'm not so crazy.

Realistically, no one should expect to make any money writing novels. Statistically, you won't. Period.

I've made my entire living as a writer since I was 26 years old, but some of those years were zero income when I was living on savings from previous years. (Savings, and oatmeal.) I have no dependents. Writers' income varies WILDLY and you cannot in any way predict what yours will be.

You have to be ruthlessly determined to make it happen. I was. It worked. Sometimes it doesn't work.

If you have the drive, you'll do it. Talent helps, drive is essential.

I would suggest that everyone start a good savings strategy NOW.

Wolf Lahti said...

One of the best log lines I've seen: "Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again."

Recognize it? It was a Marin County newspaper’s TV listing for The Wizard of Oz.

It's not to the point of your exercise, of course, but worth a giggle.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hilarious, Wolf, and actually it IS to the point of my exercise.

Because you absolutely could describe Wizard like that, and a multitude of other ways. That's why it's so important to be very clear in your premise line about the GENRE you're working im, and the MOOD you want to evoke in whoever you tell the premise to (as well as in your story).

(Yes, I did recognize it right away, which made it even funnier.)

Thanks for that!

Gayle Carline said...

Alex - One of the best things about this post is that developing a log line is a great way to sift thru those bazillion ideas floating in a writer's head and settle on the Book That Can Be Written. I've started a dozen novels that died on page 50, 100, sometimes even page 5, because I (suspect I) didn't have a clear premise. I did write one book without a log line - it's a hot mess. I'd tell you what it's about, except I don't know and I WROTE the damn thing.

When I finally accepted all the advice I'd been given (and paid for!), I wrote a book I could talk about. Here's the line:

"A housecleaner-turned-detective is roped into helping a former client clean out his freezer, and finds a severed hand inside, wearing an expensive ring."

As they say, mayhem ensues.

Gayle Carline
(Proud) Author of FREEZER BURN

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

This was something that quite surprised me when I was starting out actually, that a lot of people don't work out their premise. I really don't mean for that to sound as arrogant as it might do coming from a novice like myself but when I start a novel I always pick my title first and, for me, that has to sum up the story. That way I've got it in my head and know what kind of story I'm trying to tell. If I didn't have that concise summation, I'd be all at sea and not knowing where I was going. I guess as a positive work habit, it was a happy accident.


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Wolf Lahti said...

Okay - Today I wrote twenty-four log lines for books and movies on my list, and they all sound intriguing and vibrant.

The only exception is the one I wrote for my own novella--which strongly suggests that what I have written is far from compelling:

Captain Jax and the Space Pirates - An accidental stowaway on a starship manned by pirates, young Ajax does his best to fit in, while back on Alberta Station, his sister teams up with a roguish captain to try and get him back home.

Perhaps someone less intimately bound with the story could come up with a better log line, but it sounds pretty blah to me.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wolf, first you need to spell out who the antagonist/s is/are and what the stakes are. What are we, the reader, afraid is going to happen? What are the brother and sister fighting for? What is going to happen if they lose?

Also, is there a pirate mentor? Is that a big part of the story?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, I like that - The Book That Can Be Written.

I would also add that we all should be looking for The Book That Should Be Written.

And the Holy Grail is - The Book That MUST Be Written.

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Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, groan. Greg, you would be one of those people who has the title first.

I hate you people.

For everyone else, this is the ideal way to work - if you know the title before you start writing, then you REALLY have your concept down.

I know that. I know that. And yet, titles are fucking hard.

Sylvia said...

I'm not going to read the comments until after, because I am really struggling with this and I want to show honestly how bad mine are! :(

Scarlett O'Hara has a lot of growing up to do in the war-torn South of the civil war but will love get her through disaster?

The Thorn Birds follows the tough women of New Zealand outposts through three generations of love, church and scandal.

Victorian businessman Jonathan Harker travels to a remote castle in Transylvania to sign the best deal of his career but once he arrives, he realises the client is not quite what he seems. He must find help to stop the horror he has unleashed from taking over the civilised world.

I can see that I'm not actually getting to the crux of the story but I can't stop feeling that I need more space to explain in! Especially with a saga like the Thorn Birds (and my own novel).

I'm trying to get this in place now for my next work-in-progress and it's somewhat simpler, but I can see that my logline is the *set-up* not the *story*.


Jenn said...

Thanks for the tips on writing these! Possibly the most difficult thing ever.

Okay, here's my latest attempt for my current novel project:

When a young girl is sent off to the city where the gods live, she must find a way to survive both the normal turmoils of school life and the attention of a pack of demons who were sent to destroy her.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jenn, it is SO hard. You are right - it is the hardest part about any of this.

And the bad news is, you're writing paranormal, which, along with SF/F, is the HARDEST of all to distill into a logline.

First, you are allowed to write a longer logline than the rest of us.

You need to very concisely set up your story world. You need to come up with a sentence that clearly defines this city where the gods live.

(You also need to more clearly define your protagonist - what kind of person she is and why she is the one chosen to have this adventure.)

You need to make it clear WHERE this school is - in the gods' world or in the real world?

I am very unclear about how the realities shift, here.

Not a problem, you are working with the HARDEST genre to distill into a log line, so don't panic, just breathe.

Can you give me an excruciatingly specific couple of paragraphs?

If you are not comfortable posting it, then e mail me.

alex at alexandrasokoloff dot com

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sylvia, you are such a trouper! The stories you've chosen are epics that would fry the brain of anyone asked to distill them to a one-sentence logline. I myself would rather kill myself than do it, except for maybe DRACULA.

Maybe we should start with working your own premise. Can you put it into about a paragraph, maybe, and we can go from there?

Sylvia said...

Erm, I'm not actually any better at this at a paragraph level. I did a synopsis at a page and a half, I'll see if I can reduce that down to something manageable.

Your comment cheered me up no end, regardless!

Emily Kimelman said...

I just discovered this blog last week and have quickly become addicted to it. I'm working on this sentence for my novel.

A young woman working as a plant waterer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan discovers a poisoned corpse and while searching for the killer among her powerful clients discovers that only one kind of justice reaches their part of town… vigilante.

I think I included a defined protagonist (young plant waterer), a powerful antagonist (powerful clients/killer, is that clear enough?), a sense of setting (powerful circles on UES), and how the action will play out (vigilante style).

I think I'm missing conflict and stakes unless it is implied that a killer needs to be brought to justice and it can't be done through traditional channels. Also, Plants play a pretty major role in the novel which I'm not sure comes across. I didn't include her motives for searching for the killer which could be confusing. Why would a plant waterer search for a murderer without "demons from her past urging her on"? In this case her own father's murder 18 years earlier. But if I add all that it turns into way too long a sentence.

I'll keep playing with it and any advice would be appreciated.

Thanks for posting Alex. I'm loving your blog.

pamala owldreamer said...

Premise for my novel Home Again:when a burnt out Hospice nurse buys back her family farm, she finds a new family,the love of her life, and someone who wants her and her new husband dead.
Premise for Return In Snow:After four years in captivity,a secret government agent returns to his remote Alaskan home to heal his damaged body and mind and reclaim the woman he loves,he discovers he has to find the serial killer who wants them both dead.Pam Owldreamer

Yves Fey said...

Hi Alex,

Yours is one of the few blogs I follow with any regularity. Always interesting and entertaining.

I'm working on a bear of a historical novel with multiple narrators and interlinked story lines. The closest I've come to something similar in structure are Lone Star and Children of Paradise. Still trying to convey something of the complexity of Lone Star in a log line without success.

The only one of mine I do sort of like is for my favorite film, Performance:
On the run from the mob, a gangster hides out in the decadent abode of a burned out rock star. Is their meeting chance or fate — and will either of them survive their psychedelic collison?

Most similar timewise to mine is Children of Paradise:
In the historic world of Paris theatre, a mime, an actor, an aristocrat, and an assassin are obsessed with the same beautiful courtesan. Will she bring them inspiration, or destroy them?

I also tried L.A. Confidential since it has multiple narrators, so to speak, though a very cohesive story line:
Three rival detectives, each battling his own moral dilemma, join forces to fight murderous police corruption in 1950’s L.A.

Unknown said...

I think you're talking about loglines - very different from a film's premise. For example, consider the film , Spider-Man:

Logline: A shy, nerdy high school teen gets bitten by a radioactive spider and soon gains super human abilities from it.
Premise: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Dawna - I would say that “With great power comes great responsibility" is a THEME of Spiderman. Premise and logline are used interchangeably in Hollywood and the book world.