Stop Plotting Paralysis, Use A Central Premise
We’re in the way, wayback machine for this week’s #ThrowbackThursday post. Originally, this article on plotting paralysis appeared in my book, The Plot Thickens–21 Ways to Plot Your Novel. I recycled it in 2018 for a post for this blog, and I’m re-recycling it in 2021.
SEVERAL PLOTTING METHODS are based on a structure that takes one concept and builds on it, expanding and splitting until a workable outline is achieved. By breaking the plot into small steps, the overwhelming process of plotting an entire novel is avoided. These methods are based on a central theme or premise, which describes your novel in a sentence or less. “Love conquers all.” “Good over evil.” “Courage leads to victory.”
The premise should be the touchstone of the story. The characters’ actions should be rooted in it. Complications should arise from it. If an action or scene can’t trace back to the premise, it should be cut.
A man joins the Army because his country’s enemy killed his brother. He’s separated from his company on the battlefield. Trying to find his way back, he helps save a village and realizes the fragility of life and the uselessness of hate.
The premise? Vengeance leads to redemption. Or, hate leads to victory.
A scene showing him relating to a young boy is a touchstone to the premise if the child reminds him of his brother or influences his decision to help the villagers. If he’s buying popcorn from him or helping him find his dog, and it isn’t tied to the developing situation, it’s not part of the story. If, however, the boy is held captive by an enemy soldier, and the man vows to free him, no matter what, it’s a complication that pushes the man further toward the climax.
A premise can be categorized into three types:
- Opposing forces. Two forces fight and one wins. Star Wars is a classic example. Jedi Knights vs. the Empire. Luke vs. Vader.
- The chain reaction. Something happens (the inciting incident) that sets off a series of events that eventually leads to the climax and resolution.
- Situational. A situation affects all the characters. While Scarlett O’Hara is the main character in Gone With the Wind, all the characters are affected and make decisions because of the Civil War.
The premise should be the touchstone of the story. To help you determine if a premise is intriguing enough to make people want to pick up the book and read, look for these indicators:
- It’s brief. Encapsulate the theme in one sentence, often called a logline or elevator pitch. If you can’t say it in one sentence, you don’t know what it’s about and need to go back to the drawing board. Or, in this case, the keyboard.
- A good premise has universal appeal. Love. Hate. Revenge. Sticking it to the Man.
- It’s intriguing, and different enough from other ideas to spur further investigation
- It contains a character, a problem, a goal, an opponent and a crisis. The reader should have a sense of the entire story.
- It should tell the reader who must do what to stop what from happening. What’s at stake?
- A boy who was left behind when his family leaves on Christmas vacation tries to stop burglars from breaking into his home.
- A man relives the same day over and over, stuck in the same place, without an escape.
- Two teenagers from warring families fall in love.
What makes a good premise?
A good premise involves interesting goals, obstacles to those goals and events that move the protagonist toward achieving those goals. It has to raise questions, engage the reader’s emotions, fire his imagination, and keep him turning the page.
Once you’ve defined your premise, plotting paralysis will be a thing of the past.
Learn more about plotting your novel:
This article is one of many from The Plot Thickens:21 Ways to Plot Your Novel. If you’ve always wanted to write a book and didn’t know where to start, this book is for you!by