Today’s tip comes from chapter one of The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass. Learn about premise in this excerpt.
A ton of craft goes into any novel, much more so, I suspect, with a work that can grip the imaginations of millions of readers. At a certain point in the process, even the process of organic writers, choices are made: Story paths are selected, scenes are tossed out, new layers are added. Those choices can make a story larger, deeper, more memorable, or not. You may experience that process as outlining or revision, but whatever you call it, it is planning your story.
Planning a breakout-level novel sounds like magic. It’s not. Notions for stories come to everyone, all over the place, all the time. The trick is not in having a flash of inspiration but in knowing how to develop that scrap into a solid story premise, and, as important, in recognizing when to discard a weak premise that will not support the mighty structure of a breakout novel.
Breakout premises can be built. It is a matter of having the right tools and knowing how to use them. A breakout premise need not be narrative; that is, a mini outline. It can be something smaller, but if so, it must have the energy of a uranium isotope.
It could be the cold bright light of a November afternoon, the feel of a black-edged telegram in a mother’s hand, the putrid smell of a week-old corpse in the trunk of a BMW, a woman’s sworn oath before God that she will never go hungry again. In short, a premise is any single image, moment, feeling, or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire, and propel it like a rocket for hundreds of pages.