The following excerpt is from The Art of War For Writers by James Scott Bell. In the book, you’ll find exercises, tactics, and strategies for fiction writers. Today’s tip of the day is Tactic #27: Test your premise to prove it worthy.
Decide Your Book’s Premise
Editors and agents are all looking for the “same thing,” only “different.” That’s the elusive marketing angle that tells them: a) we can sell this because similar books have sold before; but b) there’s a freshness to it.
So how do you create this fusion?
It all starts with your premise. Which is another way of saying your big idea. When you come up with an idea for a novel, write it down in a dedicated file or document. Collect possible story ideas the way a kid might collect autumn leaves or sea shells. Whatever you think up, toss into a file.
Eventually, you’ll need to decide which premise you’re going to develop and turn into a book.
A Method For Testing Your Story Idea: Can It Sustain A Novel?
Sort through all of your ideas and choose the ones you like best. I put my favorite ideas into another file I call “Front Burner Concepts.” These are the ones I think have the most potential. I go over these frequently, rearranging the order, adding new ones, dropping others.
Then I have to get to the decision point. Which concept am I going to spend the next several months turning into a novel?
Try to push your “front burner” premises through the following filter.
- Is your Lead character someone you can see and hear? If not:
- Cast the character. Really “see” him.
- Do some dialogue where the Lead introduces himself to you.
- Does your Lead character have heroic qualities, either evident or potential? Define them.
- Who is the Opposition, and how is this character stronger than the Lead?
- How is “death overhanging”? (Is it physical, professional, psychological? All three?)
- Can you see a climactic battle, won by the Lead?
- Can you envision a possible inner journey?
- Begin at the end. Because of the climactic action, how will the Lead grow?
- Or, at the very least, consider this: What will the Lead have learned that is essential to his humanity?
Example: At the end of Lethal Weapon, Riggs gives up the bullet he’s saved to shoot himself. He has learned that life is worth living and that love from friends is worth accepting.
- Take a break.
- During this break, do you find yourself thinking about your Lead character? Not your plot, your Lead. Is she starting to become real to you? And, most important, are you beginning to care enough about her to give her a story? Do you feel her story has to be written?
- When you wake up in the morning, are you still juiced about the Lead and the story?
- Do a cold-hearted market analysis of your idea.
- Who will want to read this story, and why?
- Will the answer to the first question be enough for a publisher to publish your book? (Be honest.)
- Can you truly see browsers in a store picking up your book and wanting to buy it?
- Write a one-paragraph description of your idea. Read this to several trusted friends and ask for their reactions. If they love it, great. If they shake their heads, find out why. Make any changes you deem necessary.
- Write a short e-mail to yourself, as if you were a reader writing to a friend about what was so great about this book. How did it make you feel? What gripped you about it? You can do this in general terms, but it must be enough to make you want that book to see the light of day.
- Put all this away for one week. During this week, work on steps 1 through 9 with a different idea. Then come back to your original premise and see if you are still excited about it, if it still “calls out to you” to be written. If so, start developing it in earnest.
In this way, you can, in very short order, have several possible novel ideas cooking at any one time. Eventually, you’ll choose the one you are going to push through to the end. That’s always a tough call! But this process is much better than grabbing your first premise and charging ahead. Much time may be wasted this way.
Ever since I started writing professionally, I told myself I have only a finite time on this earth and can only write a finite number of books. I need to choose the best ones for me and for my readers both. This is the method I use to do that.
Buy The Art of War For Writers and learn:
- What a successful writing life is like
- How to make readers fall in love with your Lead
- How to discipline clichéd or predictable story beginnings
- How to pace scene openings for special effects
- When to get an agent and how to approach them
- How to write a killer book proposal
- How to promote your book