You come up with an idea. You like it. It’s a good idea. You start planning it out, or you just start writing, either way it’s going well. You like the characters and you like where they’re headed. And then you get about halfway and everything changes. Now it seems boring. Everything seems obvious or clichéd or incredibly tedious. The magic’s gone. Why? Where did it go?
There are three things I believe every story needs: premise, premise, premise.
I’m not talking about the logline, the pithy couple of lines that sum up the whole story in compact form, easy for drunk, cocaine-fuelled agents to digest between Thai massages. Loglines are a very useful selling tool, but they come at the end of the process. The premise is the idea you have at the start, that fires you up enough to write the story in the first place.
That idea you start out with can do a lot of the work to get you out of the mid-story slump. In order to do that it has to have more than a rough suggestion of what the story’s about. It needs one key ingredient.
But, Mood, I hear you say while you roll your eyes because you think I can’t see you (I see you), obviously you need a good idea. I’m not going to write a story based on a bad idea, am I?
It’s not the actual story you end up writing that I’m talking about here. You could see a road sign as you drive your kids to school and from that write a brilliant novel. Even the most unfocused premise could lead you to a wonderful story if you happen to be feeling inspired. I’m talking about those times you don’t feel quite so superhuman. If you’ve encountered that kind of situation, and even maybe ended up giving up on a book after putting in a lot of work, because it doesn’t grab you anymore, I want to make a few suggestions in how to avoid wasting so much time.
I usually see three kinds of premise, a three bears type of sliding scale.
1. Too Soft.
Boy meets girl. Stuff keeps them apart, but eventually they overcome .
This is a very vague idea. You can certainly write a great story based on this, but the premise itself isn’t going to be of much help. You may well find you end up feeling bored and distracted around the halfway mark.
2. Too Hard.
Boy meets girl. Boy’s parents are black. Girl’s parents are racist.
This is more your high concept idea, which is fine if that’s what you’re into. The problem is, it’s so clearly defined you can almost see the story before it’s even written. Which could be a good thing, except the really broad ideas like this one get used up well before you arrive on the scene, so it can feel a bit clichéd or corny. And as you’re writing it you may start to feel there is only one way to go, which ends up being restrictive. Easy to lose interest when you’re basically taking dictation.
3. Just Right.
Boy meets girls. Their parents hate each other.
What a writer considers to be just right will vary of course. But the reason no.3 is better than no.1 is that it identifies where the problems will come from. And more importantly, from whom.
Whether you plan the story out, or go in blind, if you don’t know where the problems are going to come from, you are going to find it hard to get any momentum going in the story. There’ll be a lot of episodic scenes with people hanging out and waiting for someone else to do something storyworthy. Eventually you will have to manufacture something. You might be lucky and hit on something that works, but ofte you will have to grind out the scenes which can be a very wearing experience.
In most cases, the answer to a problem is quite straightforward. Go to the police, tell her how you feel, recharge your phone etc. The key question is, what’s keeping the problem from being sorted? In order for the story to not end on page two, you need to create an element in the story that provides an opposition to the goals of our hero. This may seem like Writing 101, but let me explain how peopel manage to skip this simple step.
If a guy, who’s a cop, meets and falls for a girl, and then starts suspecting her family may be involved with the mob, you can see where that story is going (or you should, it’s been made into a movie enough times). But if that was the premise to my story, even though the problem is sort of apparent, I haven’t come up with a way to build that problem up. There’s no problem generator.
I could totally come up with stuff for this Mafia love story, misunderstandings, lies, embarrassing moments for both of them. Maybe she’s the Don’s daughter but doesn’t want anyone to know. Maybe he lied to her about his job too, so he can’t come out and say how he knows what he knows. However, every times I need something to happen, I have to sit down and think about it until I come up with something. The situation only has limited momentum.
In order for it to generate its own story momentum, I need to introduce another element to act as an antagonistic narrative force. This could be a villain, or a time limit, or rival, or an obligation. Whatever it is, it needs its own goal. Preferably in the form of another character. If a man wants to climb a mountain, the mountain makes a weak antagonist. You can certainly make it work, man against nature, but it will only give you a limited amount of options. Probably options that have already been used many times before. It has no desire or will of its own, so you will have to put in a lot more energy working out stuff that could happen.
Even if you have a very clear idea of the major events, and those events are interesting and unusual, it will help greatly to have someone involved who will benefit from the main characters NOT getting what they want.
If Boy is an astronaut about to be sent on a mission to Neptune, a thirty year round trip, and Girl is his fiancée who's going to get left behind, so what? He goes, she stays, the engagement’s off. There might be tears and emotion and a search for a solution, but who cares? Life goes on. Stuff happening doesn’t automatically make for a gripping tale.
Introduce the ex-boyfriend who’s a dick and is just waiting for our hero to blast off so he can get his claws into Girl again, and the balance shifts.
I’m not saying you can’t write a story without a responsive villain. If you have the imagination and energy, you can pretty much make anything work. But if you’re finding it hard getting to the end (or even the middle), take a look at your premise. Who is your story about? What do they want? Now work out who’s trying to stop them. Because when the ideas dry up, that person is going to be your best friend.
If you found this post useful please consider retweeting it. Cheers.