Showing posts with label premises. Show all posts
Showing posts with label premises. Show all posts

28 March 2022

Looking For the Next Best Thing

Several years ago, I met another local writer at a conference. He was unpublished, but his business cards and website bore the legend "Website of Future Bestselling Author..." 

A few weeks later, he posted on Facebook. He had won Honorable Mention for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine contest that invites readers to write a flash story to accompany a photograph in the magazine. He felt his story deserved more than a mere honorable mention. My wife and I looked at the photo before we read his story, and we both immediately thought of the same premise he used.

I'm going to guess he's not a bestselling author yet, partly because he hadn't learned one of the basic lessons.

When you're writing fiction, your first idea may or may not be good, but the SECOND one is usually better. If you can find a THIRD, that might be even better. Use it.


Guidelines for magazines or themed submissions often include examples, usually an obvious first choice, and many writers try to follow those examples. That means the editors may see several submissions using that same idea. Even if the writing is superb, those stories have less chance of being selected because they'll cancel each other out.

But something DIFFERENT will catch the screener's and editor's attention.

Some time ago, Michael Bracken posted a call for private eye stories set in the 1960s. He mentioned that stories involving an historical event from the period would have preference, and gave examples. I don't remember what those examples were, but they might have been Woodstock, the Bay of Pigs, and Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon. He probably got several stories using each of them.

I wrote a story set in the Detroit riot of 1967. I attended summer classes at Oakland University, a mere 30 miles away, so I remembered many of the details without research. I hoped no other writer would use that event and that I'd have less competition. Sure enough, "Kick Out the Jams" (Remember the MC5?) will appear in Groovy Gumshoes this April. Far out, man.

The upcoming MWA anthology Crime Hits Home also arrives in April. I assumed many submissions would reflect a "Home Sweet Home" idea and might involve a home invasion. I tried to think outside the box, and "homeless" led me to other places. "Jack in a Box" found a home.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a novella, but when I started writing, I locked up after about 3000 words. I tweaked the idea and tried again, but hit another wall. When I realized that my mian idea could function as a red herring instead of the main plot, I tried again.

That third version had more potential surprises. I finished the first complete draft last week, and since I wrote several bad ideas out of my system in the early versions, it's much better. It still needs revision, but I have more to work with. 

Years ago, Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, describing every plot premise he could identify in (mostly classic) literature and drama.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt updated it a few years ago in her own book, Story Structure Architect, which I highly recommend. She adds a few more situations– premises, if you prefer– and several open-ended questions that nurture creativity. But both books make the same point.

There are a finite number of situations and ideas. If you take one that is used frequently (this year's trend), you set yourself up against all those other works. If you create a new twist or combination, your story will stand out and has a better chance of being noticed.

And selected.

19 February 2020

Premises, Premises

I recently had an amazing insight into my own writing.  You might say: Well, after forty years it's about time.  To which I reply: Don't be obnoxious.

And the insight which, as I said, amazed me, may strike you as blindingly obvious.  Even tautological. That's a problem with great discoveries: like magician's tricks they can be boring when they're explained.  But let's give it a shot.

I have always said that I am strong at characters and premises, but weak at plot.  So, what's the difference between a premise and a plot?  Think of the premise as the elevator pitch for the story:

The Premise: An orphan boy discovers that he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school.

The Plot (greatly condensed): At the school he makes friends and enemies, learns about magic and his family history, and struggles with a sorcerer who is plotting to kill him.

Or, to move into our own field...

The Premise: A private detective seeks to find who murdered his partner.

The Plot (greatly condensed): He learns that their client is mixed up with an international gang searching for a priceless medieval artwork.

This reminds me of Donald E. Westlake's Drowned Hopes.  In the middle of a complicated caper (which almost kills him)  John Dortmunder bails out and refuses to participate.  His partner hopes one of the other members of the gang and take over:

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”
“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

I feel for you, Andy. As I said, I am pretty good at coming up with premises for stories, but working out the details of a plot is a struggle.  That may be why I have a whole notebook full of ideas that don't seem about to bloom into publishable woks any time soon.

Now, another fact: I tend to write shorter-than-average stories.  I currently have eight tales that have been purchased by magazine or anthologies but not yet published.  They average out to about 3,900 words.  The Derringer Awards separate their Short and Long Story categories at 4,000 words, so you can see where I fall.  (And my median is even lower: 3,600 words.)

So now we get to the blazing discovery I just made.  Ready?  The reason I write short is that in very short pieces the premise is the plot.  For example, consider my story "Why" which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The Premise:  A cop resigns because of a discovery he made while investigating the motive of a mass murderer.

The Plot (Not at all condensed): Same as the above.

See what I mean?  Now, I don't blame you if you're reaction to this shocking insight is: Well, duh.  But it was news to me.

I have to sit with this discovery for a while, and try to see if it helps me with my plotting problem.  Meanwhile, I hope some of those eight stories find their way into print in the coming year.  At least most of them won't take up too many pages.

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.