Reflecting on the lessons I learned this year, one stands out: A better grip on the meaning of terms like premise, concept and plot and their respective purpose helps to solidify an idea. It also helps to judge if the idea is viable as a story worth telling.
Looking back to Dire Tidings, I now realise that I had no clear concept for the series, I had only a murky premise for the first book and don’t get me started on plot… After three month with my new WIP I can proudly say: I am doing better. So I thought I share with you my take on the subject, perhaps someone will find it helpful.
The basic ideas are collected and combined from what I read in (or heard about) not only but primarily works and ideas from K.M. Weiland, James Scott Bell, Jo Nassise & Nick Stephenson, Karl Iglesias and countless blogposts and online articles.
I think it all comes down to these beats: 1) find a concept, 2) conceive a character, 3) spin it both into a premise, 4) build the plot starting at the ending.
Between concept vs premise, premise vs plot, premise vs story, and some more comparisons along that line, it often get muddy. Some use concept and premise synonymously, some have another take on it. So for the safe of clarity, I’ll elaborate on my take on the terms concept, premise and plot. (I don’t think I need to talk about what a character is…:-) )
I think of the concept as an idea that can be advanced from a simple “low” form to a more advanced “high” form by giving it an original spin. It states the general topic.
The “low concept” can be a statement like “The ruling class exploits everyone else” (Hunger Games) or “Magic is real” (Harry Potter) or “Mankind has found a way to do manned Mars missions” (The Martian) or “Evil tries to rule the world” (LotR)
There are not yet any characters in the low concept but there’s a landscape, a stage or setting of sorts. It’s a basic idea, sometimes even a common or well know sentiment.
To get from there to the “high concept” you then ask a what-if-question, that adds a unique spin it. What-if the ruling class forces everyone else into submission by having children fight to the death on live TV each year (Hunger Games)? What-if real witches and wizards live among us undetected (Harry Potter)? What-if there is a botched Mars mission turning into a rescue operation (The Martian)? What-if the power to rule is tied to a piece of jewellery (LotR)?
There’s still no character here, but the simple idea gets a fresh twist, or an unfamiliar take or an individual spin.
It can even be “just” a new setting. The Martians low concept could very well be “A member of a research team is accidently abandoned and has to be rescued” taken a step “higher” with an individual spin on the setting: “What if that happened on effing Mars?”
The concept pins down the seed of the idea.
The premise is the story. Take the high concept and populate it with one or more characters who happen to have a goal. We all have goals. And wishes. And dreams. And motives. So do our characters and et voila – we have a story.
Without a character, the concept is nothing but an empty world. The character adds depths and focus. Imagine a pizza. Pizza is a well know concept. But plain dough? The character equals the toppings. She brings in backstory and goals and flaws and assets that enrich the formerly plain idea.
There are several takes on how to formulate a premise. Jo Nassise+Nick Stephenson describe it as a simple X must to Y in order to Z. The peace and freedom loving inhabitants of Middle Earth must destroy the Ring of Power in order to banish the dangers of enslavement. Or an abandoned astronaut has to survive alone on Mars for a time in order to get rescued.
That _is_ essentially the whole story. But it is not the plot. The plot is, how that comes to pass, all the obstacles the cast of characters has to face in order to succeed (or utterly fail).
I like K.M. Weiland’s approach on the premise sentence best. She first defines several key components a premise sentence might include, like the setup situation, the lead, the lead’s key objective, the conflict and the opponent. As soon as these items are determined, you can use different templates to mould it into a viable premise.
(LEAD) is in (situation) and wants change. To have (objective) would be great if accomplished but (opponent) stands in the way leading to (disaster).
(LEAD) is in (situation) and forms (objective) relating to it. But (opponent) stirs up (conflict) that might lead to (disaster).
These are still simple statements with you might consider lacking in depth. But of course you can elaborate. Take for example this extended lineup of components: Situation and/or Setup: launching point or main plot threat, sometimes the hook; Lead: the main character and your hero; specifics of the Lead: details about your hero, heroic quality or promising character trait; Objective: what the Lead wants badly (from the start OR after the story’s launch); Obstacle or conflict: is holding back the Lead from winning objective; Opponent: who is trying to prevent the Lead from success?; Disaster: what will happen as worst outcome?
These components form a longer and more detailed kind of template:
After (setup) a (specifics) (Lead) is in (situation). In order to (objective) (Lead) must (Conflict) against (opponent) before (disaster).
Or if you have an important support character or a sub-goal, you could add those like this:
After (setup) a (specifics) (Lead) is in (situation). In order to (objective) (Lead) must (Conflict) with (supporting character) to (subgoal) before (opponent’s) action lead to (disaster).
Lets try the simpler version with The Martian: the components Lead: Mark Whatney; situation: thought dead and abandoned on Mars; objective: survive till rescue; opponent: Mars and disaster: death, take us to the following possible premise sentence:
After being thought dead, Mark Whatney is all alone and abandoned on Mars. To survive until he can be rescued would be great, but Mars is quite the harsh environment and will surely kill him.
And the more elaborate version for Hunger Games: setup: volunteered for sister Prim to take part in the hunger Games, Lead: Katniss Everdeen; specifics of the Lead: Seventeen year old survival expert; Objective: survive the Hunger Games; obstacle or conflict: evade her pursuers, navigate the arena, kill the other Tributes; Opponent: other competing tributes; Disaster: get killed:
After volunteering for her sister Prim, 17 year old Katniss Everdeen must compete in the Hunger Games. In order to survive, she must evade her pursuers, navigate the arena and if possible kill the other Tributes before the get her instead.
Note, that the premise does only state the overall goal, not all the subgoals, that will emerge due to event-driven conflicts and obstacles. Therefore I would define the term plot here in accordance with Karl Iglesias’ definition of a story: A series of events that result in the Lead achieving or failing his main goal.
The character starts out at some point (or something happens to kick it of) with a goal, a mission, an objective. The plot is then the logically following events that lead up to the climax where success or failure of said goal is determined.
To achieve a logical progression from setup to climax, I find it helpful to know what the ending will be. Otherwise it is hard to set up convincing events that lead up to it. Furthermore stories are chiefly about change. The character or the situation at the end of the story is expected to be different from the outset. No change = boring story. If my Lead is as sad and miserable at the end of the book as she was in the beginning, my reader would disappointed and rightly so.
So what I think can work well, is to flip either the intended setup to have a contrary ending, or flip the desired ending to start from an opposing setup.
Andy Weir wanted Mark Whatney to survive in the end, so he made sure the outset was less than promising. Same goes for Suzanne Collins and Hunger Games. The ending of the book is in direct contrast to Katniss’ assessment of her situation at the beginning, too: “In District 12, where the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the corpse,…”
If you have a concept and an idea for population the landscape of this concept with interesting characters with a viable opposition, you should be able to construct a striking premise. With that condensed information about your story, you can go ahead and construct a series of events and have a fitting plot at hand that will lead you from setup to resolution in a logical way.
If only. 🙂
Bonus: the Main Dramatic Question (MDQ):
From the premise you can derive the MDQ: will the Lead succeed in his pursuit of his objective?
This, the overall goal of the Lead will be solved at the climax, more specifically at the climatic moment. At this point, the MDQ will be answered and the story is finished. The plot should bring up this question as early as possible, but at least with the end of Act I.
But more on this in another post.