Monday, October 03, 2011

Nanowrimo Prep: What's Your Premise?

I am always finding myself in this same conversation with aspiring authors.

Me: “So 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.”


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, oh, you know - agents and editors, are asking you what it’s about.

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 ask 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:

- 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.

And okay, they're some pretty bloody examples, as usual for me. So let’s try some love premises:

• A commitment-phobic Englishman falls in love with a beautiful, elusive American during a year in which all the people around him seem to be marrying and finding their mates at a round-robin of four weddings – and a funeral.

• A lonely widower and a lonely journalist who live on opposite sides of the country fall in love with each other without ever having met.

• A man and a woman debate the theory that a man and a woman can never really be friends, over a period of years in which they become best friends, then fall in love.

Note that I have not described any of those stories as “THIS BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE meets THAT BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE.”

This is a very common mistake that authors make. There is no faster way to make an agent’s or editor’s or producer’s or director’s eyes glaze over than to pitch your book as “It’s When Harry Met Sally meets Jaws!!!!”

Remember that this “method” of pitching was immortalized in The Player, a movie that is a satire of Hollywood. The famous pitch: “It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!!!” was a joke.

That is not to say it is not done. In fact, the Kirkus review of The Harrowing included the line: “Poltergeist meets The Breakfast Club”, and you better believe my publisher jumped on that and put it on the cover of the paperback. This is a literal description of my book, and I bless Kirkus every day for saying it.

But I, the author, am not allowed to say that. It’s cheating. It’s a joke. You can say it as shorthand to your agent, or to your friends, and your agent can say it that way to your editor.

But I would never pitch it that way myself. It’s just too risky. It’s not the way to sell your book to someone you don’t know. The risk, bluntly, is coming off as an amateur. With your own pitch, you need to be detailed and you need to be specific.

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.

Here’s my premise line for my thriller, BOOK OF SHADOWS.

A very rational, very male Boston homicide detective and a very intuitive, very female practicing witch from Salem reluctantly team in a race to catch a Satanic killer that she believes is trying to summon a real demon.

Who’s the story about? A homicide detective and a modern witch, and their professions and the descriptives “rational” and “intuitive” characterize them in a couple of words – and set up an obvious contrast and potential for an “opposites attract” story.

What’s the setting? Boston and Salem – again, opposites.

Who’s the antagonist? A Satanic killer – any way you look at it, that’s not good. What’s the conflict? It’s both interpersonal and external: it will be the cop and the witch against each other, and the two of them against the killer. What are the stakes? Life and death, and something possibly supernatural as well, if there really is a demon involved.

And there are clues to the genre: there may be something supernatural going on, but that’s only what she believes, so there’s a mystery there: not just who the killer is, but what the killer is. There's a sense of danger, too, possibly on several levels.

The best way to learn how to write a good premise line is to practice. I encourage you to take the master list of films and books you’ve made and for each story, 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 or DVR. Those aren’t usually the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

But the very best thing you can do is to spend some time writing out the premises for your master list. Not only is it great practice for crafting premise lines, but it will give you a terrific sense of the elements that you want to see in a story, and quite possibly a good sense of the story patterns that you most enjoy.

ASSIGNMENT: Write out premise lines for each story on your master list, and for your own Work In Progress (WIP).

No putting this off - you're going to need this premise to move forward. You might have to write a whole paragraph first and then start distilling it down, that's fine. But do it.

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE


Previous Nanowrimo Prep posts:

- Do You Know What Your Next Book Is?

- First, You Need an Idea


December said...

Have I mentioned how much I love your blog?
I've been reading you for years, it seems, and you always hit it spot on. THANK YOU!
I'm trying to talk my pal into doing Nano, and this is such a perfect primer for him. AND ME!!! (working on my 5th romance novel)

Hannah said...

This is one of the toughest things for me. I write them over and over. I still don't think I have it quite down, but practice makes perfect.

It's also easer to do after I've hammered out a first draft. Once I see how everything turned out and what needs to revised, the whole story becomes clearer.

I think this breakdown will help me a lot. Thanks!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, thanks, December, it's always great to hear! 5th novel, GOOD FOR YOU! Glad to have you here.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hannah, great to meet you at WeHo. You know, it really doesn't have to be perfect, especially at this stage. Just get it so you have a road map, and then, just as you say, polish it once you have a first draft and you see what you actually wrote - as opposed to what you THOUGHT you were writing.

It's always different!

Catherine Noble said...

Excellent post, and very relevant to me right now. I'm going to work on my premise today and hope that it provides some stability for my story (which is in need of taming right now!)

To add to your wonderful examples, the NY bestsellers list have excellent one line blurbs:

I can't take credit for sourcing that - I read it when I looked up the Snowball Method once. But sharing is caring and all that jazz :)

Antje said...

I just found your blog through a link on twitter and I already LOVE it! This post was exactly what I needed to make me focus on the parts of my idea (and the outline I'm *trying* to work on) that need the attention. I'll start practicing to write premises...

Sandra Parshall said...

One reason writers have so much trouble summarizing their stories effectively is that they know too much and think every bit of it is too important to leave out. The hardest thing for a writer to do is set aside all the details and focus on the stripped-down essentials.

Good post, Alex.

Ellis Vidler said...

Alex, thanks for a terrific post. It gives me all sorts of ideas for my log line, which really needs help.

Ellis Vidler said...

Alex, thanks for a terrific post. It gives me all sorts of ideas for my log line, which really needs help.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Cathrine, thanks, yes, I recommend Publisher's Lunch, too.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Antje, you won't ever regret the practice. This is something every author owes it to themselves to spend some homework time on - if you can't do it well, it will bite you, sooner or later.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You're right, Sandy. In fact I think I need to post more on THE essential thing to get into a logline.

Ellis, you're way ahead of the game - you KNOW you need help. Most authors do but don't know it.

Maureen Harrington said...

I thought I had my premise set. All I'd left out was the antagonist, sense of the setting, conflict, and stakes.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Reine, LOL!! Yeah, sometimes a checklist doesn't hurt. You'll get it now.

Susanne said...

I just heard about you through a writers' class - and I think this discipline will be great for me to manage a novel that has the potential to get larger than War and Peace!

Would love to buy your books on writing, but I can't find them other than as e-books and I don't have (nor do I want!) a Kindle! Anywhere I can look for hard copies?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Susanne - you can buy and download a pdf of Writing Love, which has all the story structure material of STFA and more, here.

But I strongly recommend that you buy and learn how to use a Kindle, anyway. (or check one out from a library that lends them.) I'm dead serious when I say you are not going to have much of a career as an author if you don't understand the power of e books.