15 October 2018

The Invisible Engine

Saturday, I led a workshop on developing plot. It was the second half of my program on preparing for National Novel Writing Month, and I'll do a slightly expanded version (I have an extra fifteen minutes) at the same venue next week.
I know several people who do decent workshops on plot, and I can name more good books about building your plot than any other facet of writing fiction, but there's one idea almost everyone has trouble grasping. In fact, only two of the eight or nine books I often cite even mention it.

Concept and Premise.

Almost everyone understands that a plot is the stuff that happens to or around your protagonist, and most of them understand the idea of cause and effect. Most of them grasp structure and increasing tension, too. But making someone see that his or her premise needs more focus or oomph is hard. Maybe that's because everyone knows it when he sees it, but it's hard to define except by example.

Every story has a concept and premise, but unless it captures the reader's attention, the story won't sell. In fact, it won't even be read.

A concept is simply an idea. It can be a setting, a character, a story line, an imaginary world or practically anything else. But it has to develop into a premise, and that's tricky. The premise usually involves the "what if..." idea, the thing that "goes wrong." Michael Crichton's concept for Jurassic Park is that you can use the DNA from fossils to clone prehistoric dinosaurs. His premise builds on that: What if those dinosaurs get out of control and start eating people?

From that simple but specific foundation, you can build your plot because you have a conflict, setting and characters. You also have the beginning of your elevator pitch to an agent or editor. It even gives you a head start on your cover copy, which I always find hard to write.

I tell my classes that if you can put your premise into language a fairly bright ten-year-old can understand, you've got it.

Two of my books use Roller Derby as a loose concept. The premise of one of them is that a disgraced police officer finds redemption by protecting a group of women who help victims of domestic abuse, and, by extension, help themselves. That's more specific. More importantly, it helps me determine what will happen in the story. There will be roller derby and there will be at least one character who is being abused. The cop will help her. Sure, other things will happen, too, but that's the foundation.

Here is the back cover copy of The Whammer Jammers, which grew out of that concept and premise:

Chicks on wheels, dirty deals, and everything you never dared ask about roller derby. Suspended after a "questionable" shooting, Hartford cop Tracy "Trash" Hendrix hires on to protect the local skaters from vandals while they prepare for a match to fund a women's shelter. He suspects a skater's ex-boyfriend, but the guy has an alibi when that shelter gets torched--and an even better one when he turns up dead. Then a skater is killed in a drive-by, and Hendrix knows someone plays rougher than the roller girls. Unless he can figure out who it is before the match begins, the wheels really will come off.

The fire and the drive-by aren't in the original idea, but they grew out of it and raise the stakes.

Your premise has to generate conflict, and this one does. In my case, that matters because my thought process is far from linear. I can come up with dialogue or character traits on demand, but plot is hard. That's why I need a concrete--but flexible--concept I can turn into a premise. And it needs to promise the reader something she or he hasn't seen before.

Most people stare at me when I tell them there are currently seven women's roller derby teams in Connecticut, but it works. I self-published The Whammer Jammers in 2011. Two weeks ago, I sold out every copy I brought with me to an event because people still want to hear about it.

That's your ultimate test.


  1. Steve, I think one of the things some people don't understand, at least initially, is the need for conflict. And escalating conflict. And without it the story sags.

  2. Absolutely sales are the big test! Congratulations. Good advice, too.

  3. Steve, I have had some people say to me, "you should write a Goddaughter book about about identity theft." (which the next one is - comes out January) But my point is - in keeping with what you said - that is just the premise or theme. It's not the *plot*. Thinking of a premise is easy. It's writing the plot (obstacles creating conflict to goal) that is tough. As Paul says, escalating conflict. Raising a glass to your sales!

    1. Mel, this reminds me of the scene in Sleepless in Seattle at the newspaper in which Meg Ryan's features reporter character tells her boss, Rosie O'Donnell's character, about hearing Tom Hanks's character on the radio. And Rosie tells her, "You should write about this." And Meg says, "About what?" And Rosie says, "Whatever this is." Rosie had the concept, but Meg had to figure out the premise.

    2. Or, to put it another way, Rosie had the theme, but Meg had to figure out the plot.

  4. Congratulations, Steve!
    Escalating conflict - proof that we have to be absolutely ruthless with our characters because we have to put them through hell so that people will want them to get out of it. So, now I have to go beat up a little old lady. On paper, of course.

  5. Good, informative post. Been trying to put this up since 5 a.m. I keep failing to prove I am not a robot. I wish we could get rid of that hurdle we have to jump. I hate taking a test in the morning. Let's see if I can convince the all-powerful gods of the blog that I am not a robot.

  6. I don’t know thing one about roller derby, but that doesn’t matter. I didn’t know anything about (fake) wrestling either, except a cranky great-uncle watched it with great attentiveness. Then I proofed a novel for a female author that used wrestling as a… let’s see… concept. Behind the scenes, the vicious rivalries collapsed into friendships and toasts, families, wives and other women, and the choreography of pretending to beat the pulp out of one another. Then someone turns up murdered.

    The author mirrored what you did, looked at a ‘sport’ of limited interest to the opposite sex and came up with an enjoyable novel. It was a surprisingly fun read, Steve. I have no doubt yours is enjoyable too. I have to find out.

  7. Leigh,
    I thought roller derby vanished in the 1980s, but my daughter announced that she was the Captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in Nashua, NH in 2009, and that started me researching. Now one of my friends--who went to a match to meet my daughter/webmistress--is a referee.

    I even wrote Hit Somebody (out in 2017) because people wanted more roller derby.

    I agree with everyone here, conflict has to build. I wish it were easier for me to do, but it isn't. Premise and concept give me something as a square one, but from there it's all work.


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