Writing Advice: Premise (The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 2)

There are many ways to start the writing process. Some writers prefer to do it by breaking the story in its seven primary steps–to be explored in Chapter 3. Most begin with the shortest expression of the story as a whole, the premise line.

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. As soon as you decide to pursue one idea and codify it within your premise, you’re locked into it — so you better be happy and certain with your choice.

What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.

Premise is the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. If your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

Premise is a classical example of the dangers of a little knowledge, its inherent structural weakness is found in the fact that it offers you only two-three scene; the scenes just before and after the twist that makes your premise unique. A novel’s premise may have double-triple the number of scenes that the premise of a movie.

You have to remain flexible and open to all possibilities. This is where using an organic, creative method as guide is most important.

Developing your premise

Step 1: Write Something that may Change Your Life

If a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in your audience. When you’re done, no matter what else, you’ve changed your life.

To follow this particular step, you need to know yourself. For that, you need to explore yourself. Get some data on who you are, via these two exercises:

  • First, write down a wishlist of all the things you’d like to see in a book. That’s what you’re passionately interested in, and what entertains you. You might jut down imagined characters, cool plot twists, great lines of dialogue, themes you want to explore or care about. Write it all down without worry for organization or any considerations.
  • The second exercise is to write a premise list. Write as many premises as you want, as long as they’re one sentence each. This’ll force you to be clear about each idea. It also allows you to see all your premises together, in one place.

After that, a look at the key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. It’s your vision in its rawest form. The exercises are designed to open you up and to ingetrate what is deep within you already.

Step 2: Look for what is possible

Explore your options. The Intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one. Ask yourself “What if…?” so as to define what’s allowed in the story world, and what isn’t. Let your mind go free, and don’t censor or judge yourself. No idea is “stupid,” those often lead to creative breakthrough.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

There’ll be particular problems embedded in the story idea, and you can’t escape them. You want to confront these, and solve them if you wish to execute your story well. Most writers identify the inherent problems of their stories too late (if at all). The trick is learning to spot the big ones right at the premise line. Of course, you won’t be able to diagnose every problem this soon in the process.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle:

Problems and promises known, you now have to come up with an overall strategy for how you will tell your story. The overall story strategy, stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story.

The designing principle helps you extend the premise into a deep structure.

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.

It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original. It’s the seed of the story, in short. It tracks the fundamental process that will unfold over the course of the story.

Most stories don’t have a designing principle; it’s already abstract, the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Designing principle= Story process + original execution

It’s the “synthesizing idea,” the “shaping cause” of the story.

Be diligent in discovering this principle, and enver take your eye off it during the long writing process. Don’t do as most writers do, by picking a genre and imposing it on the premise, forcing the story to go through events associated with the genre in question; draw the designing principle out of the one-line premise.

Step 5: Determine your Best Character in the Idea.

Always tell a story about your best character.

The best character is the most fascinating and challenging character, always.

Step 6: Get a sense of the Central Conflict

Ask yourself: “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question over one succinct line. All conflict will boil down to this one issues, codified in your answer.

Step 7: Get a sense of the single Cause-and-effect Pathway

A good organic story has a single cause-and-effect pathway; this is the spine of the story and without it, the story will fall apart.

The trick to discovering this it ask yourself: “What’s my character’s basic action?” One action that your hero takes is more important than any other, and unifies every other action the hero takes, and that’s the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine your Hero’s Possible Character Change

That’s the second most important thing to gleam from your premise line: the fundamental character change of your hero. Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle.

WxA=C ( Weaknesses x Action = Change )

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

That’s the basic sequence of the human growth – what you, the writer, must express above everything else.

Write down a number of possible options for the hero’s weaknesses and change.

Remember that premise work is extremely tentative, especially concerning character change.

Step 9: Figure out the Hero’s possible Moral choice

The main theme of a story is often crystalized by a moral choice the hero must make, typically near the end of the story. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world. It is your moral vision, and it is one of the main reasons you are writing  your story.

Theme is best expressed through the structure of the story, the moral argument where you make a case for how to live, not through philosophical argument but through the actions of characters going after a goal.

To have a true choice, your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on some rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Be ruthless in answering this question of commercial appeal. Don’t fall into the either-or trap of believing that you can either write about what matters to you or what sells. Always try to write something you care about, and also think will appeal to an audience.

Coming Next: Chapter 3 – The seven Key Steps of Story Structure

Magnus Commentary: Well, wasn’t that one hell of an interesting read? While I am far from subscribing to John Truby’s idea that his is the best way of going about writing, this is certainly a fascinating look at a methodology that I’m more than willing to try.

There is also a lengthy writing exercise which calls upon us, the readers of said novel, to attempt to follow these ten steps. It’s in the book, and you should check it out; I’m currently attempting it with an idea for a novel that’s been stuck in my head for some time now, and I’ll be happy to report my progress to anyone who’s interested. Comment below!

PS I decided to go without my own thoughts on the premise, as I’m still playing around with the methodology.

Writing Advice: Showing and Telling

Early on, when I first started sharing my writing, a number of people gave me the following advice: Show, don’t tell.

That’s good advice, I thought; it helped me in identifying a particular weakness my writing had at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this particular piece of advice should have a caveat: Show, don’t tell…much.

Anything good I’ve read has both Telling and Showing. To only Show, or only Tell will inevitably end up as…well, not good! The point is, if you’ve got something that you’re afraid is too Tell-ish, perhaps you should leave it that way…at least until you get a clear look at your work.

Let’s unpack the two.

Showing is a way of describing what’s happening via the feelings that an event causes in the character that lives through it. Instead of informing, “She was afraid,” you try and show the fear; “The blood froze in her veins,” is one way to Show fear, and an unmistakable one at that. It doesn’t literally happen– most of the time, at least– but it gets the exact sentiment across. When you’re Showing, you will find yourself always looking for the right verb, since verbs create vividness in the mind of the reader better than most of the tools in your kit.

Telling is describing things as if you see those happening to someone else. It’s that part of your mind that’s narrating experiences in a calm, disaffectionate voice even as the rest of you is too busy with the heat of the moment, drowned in waves upon waves of emotion.

The ultimate reason for using both Showing and Telling is simple, really–the way we go through life is not only through us experiencing it, but through our awareness of the experience, as well. Showing and Telling aren’t opposites — they’re the end of the spectrum. Your works shouldn’t suffer from a complete lack of one and a drought of the other; explore the spectrum.

Enjoy the freedom that writing grants you and follow your vision!

PS If you’d like, you can try a fancy little exercise! Write a short scene, by only Telling. Rewrite it by Showing, and then — rewrite it a final time, this time by using both Telling and Showing!

Writing Advice: Memorable Characters

How do we create memorable characters?

Well, you’d need a dozen eggs, a bit of vanilla and seventeen cups of sugar to make your average Mary Sue; or you could whip yourself good old-fashioned one-dimensional characters by doing the same thing you’d do to get stale bread — don’t spend any time cooking them up in the oven; just make sure they’re one-note ponies, one and all.

These are not examples of memorable characters? Alright, alright, I’ll try harder!

What the above-mentioned is example of traps that writers fall in all the time. Perfect characters and one-note characters are both leading causes of aneurisms among enthusiast readers. By their very nature, these archetypes are dull; not in terms of ‘good’ dull–characters you’re writing with the intention of bringing something to your story by virtue of this attribute–but the kind of dull that makes your story just that much more unreadable.

You don’t want that.

You want your characters three-dimensional and unique. You want them to have flaws and strengths, to be internally consistent and not alien to the world you’re building around them.

Sounds simple enough, right?

…Perhaps I should dig into these points, just to be safe.

Three-dimensional characters require hard work and a lot of time invested in them. A good place you could start off with is by modeling your character after a real person you know; it’s not a method I consciously use, but I’ve heard that some people go with it, and are pretty happy with how it turns out.

I like to use chunks of small details as building blocks. I dislike bombarding my readers with every small quirk a character they’ve just met has; rather, it’s important to remember that just as we don’t notice everything there is to notice about a person the first time we meet them, neither do our protagonists, point-of-view characters and so on.

Unless you’re writing Sherlock Holmes. If that is the case, however, let me pose a question…do you really want to be writing Sherlock Holmes?

Don’t forget that your characters have lived lives before they appeared on page 423 of your novel. Draw from their past; you don’t have to write detailed backgrounds of every single character to appear in your book, but it’s good to have an idea of where they’re coming from. Sketch that with a few quick sentences over lunch break or on your commute from work or university; or if you’re too lazy (and you really shouldn’t be), think about it.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always go back to my Writing advice about Villains, and read all about how they act as foil to your protagonists, allowing all parties to learn more about where they stand in terms of morality, ethics, decency and everything else!

 

 

 

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain, Volume 10 — Tamara

Diary Entry #0175

I find my Ex-Wife standing in the ruins of an ancient temple not far from the center of town. Mine Librarians have, by now, subjugated all local authorities, and have made their base unto the small library in town. ‘Tis a pitiful reliquary of knowledge but it shall feed their hunger for the arcane until my business is done.

I have cast self-writing spells on this here feather, and am stepping unto the once-hollow grounds of cursed Linah, goddess of old. I can hear the thunder that the harp stole from me all the way from the entrance, curse her grabby claws.

I step on a tile and — of course — an apparition of the three-headed pet dog I had appears and attempts to bite my head off. Ungrateful sap! I summon a blade of pure darkness, and cut through its soul essence, unable to help myself as gleeful laughter escapes mine lips.

She poisoned my puppy, and stole its remains, for this?!

One simply must respect her attention to detail; few put in such grand effort into their malicious intent towards me. Take the Council of Darkness — for all their armies, that yonder group of mine colleagues hath proven woefully lacking in imagination. Soon will I turn the blade on them, and cut their traitorous tongues, and serve them with spicy goodness and mushrooms.

Mushrooms add a depth to traitorous tongues that few other ingredients manage to!

Ah, this wife of mine — her gauntlet tires on me. But the thunder is ever nearer, and so must I venture further. Tis maze of tunnels, built by ancients–Bah! I will have none of it!

My armored fingers twitch with utter disregard to all things living, and all things rocky that might be encountered against the underground wall in front of me. It melts away, clearing the way towards mine succubus of an ex! I do not see her, not y–what’s this? My spell is boun–!

I awaken to the sensation of molten armor all over my magnificent vessel. ‘Tis not a pleasant one, to my mild surprise; at least I can now scratch an item off of my Agony List.

Metal reforms and strengthens under mine force of indomitable will, and I get up and stomp towards the deafening sounds of mine thunder. There will be hells to pay. Perchance she will be the one to pay them all in the stead of mine suit of armor.

There she is, now. My, is she a fright to beholden!

Her hair is pale white, with a purple strand or two, and her eyes — a bloodshot red that makes artists squeal with joy untold. Her nails could decapitate a man with such ease as to leave any observer awed and drenched in cold sweat. Her legs are travelling towards my–ARGH– “Woman, what did you do that for?!”

“It’s my way of thanking you for the chase you’ve given, husband of mine.” She smiles at me. The nerve! “I have long hungered for a game of cat and mouse, darling man, and you were all too accommodating. Did you enjoy your — welcoming pup?”

As she speaks, I attempt to flicker her off with two fingers. Would silence her well enough. Mine is a lightning fast move; the harpy dodges it, blast her winged hide.

“Mine thunder, woman.”

She lets out a roaring laugh, then turns unto a wolf, three, four times the size of mine dark lupine pets, and lunges at mine throat. Barely do I react in time, slapping her fanged face away.

One thing I have never missed in this woman — her dog breath.

She transforms once again, this time to a younger visage of her true form; her face is bloodied but she pays no heed to it.

“It is not here, husband, surely you have noticed so already?”

I give no answer; curse the gods, she is right! The sounds of mine thunder do no longer provide ambiance in the massive underground arena whence we have our ex-marital bout of violent exchanges…

“Return it, witch!” I spit at her, as the earth trembles in response to mine terrible wrath, dirt and sandstone raining down on us. “Or else I shall bury us both, and watch as you wiggle your way up, under the guise of a worm — it will suit you so, Tamara!”

She pouts at me — she dares! — and puts a chest upon that device that pumps blood unto her ancient body. “I didn’t wish your anger to cause it harm, darling, and so I put it somewhere safe; it just so happened that my body was the safest vessel. Can you blame me?”

“Most cer–”

“Your spell of doom and gloom did try to disintegrate me so…I wanted to avoid any further unpleasantness, and so I did as I thought best.”

“Take it out then, witch, and hand it over. Do so now, and I will allow thine wings to carry you unharmed from here.”

She takes a step forward, and bows, a bit too deeply. Mockery, perhaps?

“Kiss me, and it will be yours to command once more,” she says, her eyes glinting with…whatever it is that witches’ eyes glint with, when they are plotting to steal a kiss from me.

“Must I, really?”

“Is it the breath that worries you?”

“It’s–oh, never you mind, witch. Let us be done and over with this.”

She nods, and I remove my helm.

“I love what you’ve done with your hair, it’s really quite captivating.”

I ignore her, as her face draws nearer. Gods, and I thought the stench was bad before.

“If this is trickery, witch, I will roast you for it. No memory of old will stop my hand this time, and no ma–”

She silences me. The force of my magnificent, wondrous thunder roars unto her body, as I stretch mine consciousness unto her body–and the trap springs.

 

Day #0176

I awoke unto darkness. It shouldn’t have worried me, of course — since I have excellent darkvision — but it did. Mine attempts to summon light were met with great lack of success; mine magics did not respond unto mine desperate calls and pleas.

I finally managed to start a fire with a flint that I discovered after hours upon hours of search in the darkness. A leather bag was not left not far from me but in the darkness…it took a long time to discover.

Light gave way to definitive proof of what I feared most — mine former wife has somehow stolen mine glorious body, and left my mind unto hers. She is doubtless far, by now, already plotting on the best ways to dismantle my growing Empire.

Tamara will fail. I will hunt her down, take back the vessel that is due to me, and banish her unto realms of such endless horror that she could not ever dream of.

And I…I will make sure that none are left to defy me, once she is taken care of.

 

 

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain, Vol. 09 – Volunteers

Diary Entry #0170

Mine power sizzles and crackles with a terrible itch to be used. But I mustn’t allow myself any distraction for the chase grows ever closer and more heated. Strange, this heat; unnatural, even. Almost does it remind me of…but no, it cannot be.

Great challenges did we overcome since the foul princeling’s attack on mine men. The fire within their spirits did suffer greatly from the loss of a quarter of our companions. Blight come upon this kingdom!

…I would be much remiss to deny mine own sorrow at their loss. These Librarians are much like an extended family, if mine memories play no tricks upon me — they grumble and moan as each morn and eve comes to pass, and they eat all of mine carefully prepared food only to demand more, and they can make trolls explode with their mental prowess (a fact of which I am very proud).

What kind of Ruler would enjoy burying his relatives?

Well, the Prince that attacked me, that much has been made manifest.

Diary Entry #0171

A villager of this here kingdom, one that heard mine wonderful monologue from yonder day before today, has been following ever since, slinking around. I shall force him into mine aura of truthfulness so that he admits to me his role — be he a spy, I shall cut him unto ribbons and make of him a stew for mine hounds.

Amongst other important tasks today, I have made hounds from clay. It has proven a most curious enterprise. I do believe one ate a Librarian.

Oh, well.

Diary Entry #0172

The Librarian who was eaten is alive.

What wonderful news.

The hounds of clay have turned to non-hounds of clay, and the man I considered might be a spy has ‘volunteered’. I was not aware of this wonderful notion until he brought it up and explained it to me in great detail; now that he has, I plan on forcing every single one of the residents of the next village, town, city or — to the hells with it — an entire country, to volunteer unto mine armed forces.

I have created new hounds of clay, and have added bread to the recipe. My Prime Librarian, Sven, nearly received a heart attack when he realized what I had done with all our supplies of bread.

He is young, and knows little of evocation spells, and he will learn with experience.

Besides, it works with meatballs.

Diary Entry #0175

We have arrived in the town of Kresh. I can sense Her nearby, perhaps watching me from some hidden spot even now. It is time I face my wife.

Ex. Ex-wife.

 

Next Time: We reach the tenth Volume in our illustrious tale! Crazy stuff goes down! Dialogues! Madness! Insanity! And so much more!

 

 

 

Writing Advice: Research is important

Research has the dubious distinction of being an insanely interesting part of writing…as well as an occasionally tedious task that everyone would much rather shove for another point in time.

Researching is a bit like going down a street whose exit is just ahead, but somehow, you keep getting sidetracked by the litany of architectural marvels on the sides of that street. What I mean to explain with this inept metaphor is that finding information on any given subject is easy, in our Information Age; however,

it’s not difficult at all to go further and further into connected topics, which –while fascinating– will usually end up as little more than backstory. That’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination; what it is, is dangerous. Dangerous in that, having all this knowledge tempts you to put it all inside your book–and when you do that, you detract from your story. Flooding readers with historically accurate information (if you’re writing fantasy, for example) might very well create a feeling of authenticity but it will also make for a dull read; fantasy fans are not into the genre for that.

Putting too much research pulls the reader out because your book ends up reading like a technical manual. Use your research-derived knowledge to create the illusion of reality but don’t bog the action and the characters down in minutiae. Too little research in your work makes you seem like you’ve no clue what you’re writing about; too much slows your writing down to a crawl; it’s all about finding balance! Beta readers are helpful in that aspect; point your questions towards how the world you’re building feels — does it lack realism? Does the momentum suffer because of too much details and the like?

Science fiction is more dependent on research, especially some of its subgenres, for obvious reasons. Follow the link if you’d like to know more about those.

 

This is another shorter piece of Writing Advice, but it’s one I thought I might as well cover; research is important and shouldn’t be ignored just because it’s occasionally annoying!

 

Thursday Recommendation: Half a King

Joe Abercrombie is a master of subverting expectations.

I have yet to touch Abercrombie’s most well-known work, the First Law trilogy, although I have only heard good — Nay, great — things about it. Now that I’ve read the first book in the Shattered Sea trilogy, I am more than looking forward to that experience.

Half a King is just this good. The tale of Prince Yarvi, cripple king twice betrayed, is not a light one by any means. Cruelty will be your near-constant companion, and descriptions of filth and stench and the near-unfathomable depths of human hatred described will surprise on more than one occasion.

At its heart however it is a book about camraderie, friendship and loyalty. Loyalty to a myriad of oaths of vengeance, often enough…but loyalty none the less.

Let’s see what our characters are like…We’ve got:

  • a merry band of slaves running away from their owner;
  • a likable main character by the name of Yarvi who learns cunning and survivability the hard way;
  • unexpected growth in characters who seem sleazy and selfish to begin with;
  • plot twists enough to make you step with one leg in the grave;
  • and more!

Half a King is an emotional tale of a young man finding hidden reserves within himself, strength enough to survive where few in his place would, time and time again — all to take vengeance on a monstrous act of betrayal.

I bought it in a Kindle Deal of the Day for $2 dollars on a whim, and at the recognition of Abercrombie’s name; if I knew I’d enjoy it this much, I would’ve bought it long ago, for its full price.

A warning, though — the beginning is somewhat slow, and it took me a few chapters to get hooked. As soon as that first major plot twist happens — that’s when I was in for the long haul.

I am very much looking forward to reading the second part in the trilogy!