Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Hey! What's the idea?

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.


Rachelle Ayala said...

This is probably why I hate my NaNoNovel, I haven't fully worked out the antagonist. Just trying to find herself and accept her condition isn't enough. Thanks for the boost!

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

This is likely the reason why my novel ideas peter out pretty quickly - my premise is far too vague. Thanks for the advice, I shall look to tighten things a little :)

Javid S. said...

Great post! and the premise is a great idea! Premise especially is very important to the people who have terrible memory like me. And of course it helps to keep the story in order. I don't know it is a stupid idea or not but I do the premise just like essay writing formula. Such as
1. Boy meets girl
2. Girl realizes that the boy is a vampire
and so on. :)

Heather M. Gardner said...

This is right where I am. So pleased that I made it to the middle of my book. Only half knowing where I want it to end and no idea how to get there. I need to step back and process my premise! Thanks for the idea and motivation.

Christa said...

How about:
Boy meets Girl. They fall in love. Girl turns out to be alien who wants to impregnate him for world domination???

Originality in premise is everything. I am waiting for you to do a blog about avoiding common tropes:) No pressure.

Anne Gallagher said...

Great post. I usually start with a simple premise, but by page 100, I've thrown in a bunch of problems. By the time I'm finished, I need to weed out what doesn't work.

mooderino said...

@rachelle-I think that's the problem a lot of NaNo writers find. Strating's easy, the middle's a killer.

@Jamie-there should really be a site where people can just try out their premises to see if they have legs. I guess people are too worried about ideas getting nicked, though.

@Javid-that's more of an outline (which is also useful). The premise helps you remember what got you excited about the story in the first place.

@Heather-good luck.

@Christa-so what's stopping her? Original concept is great, but it needs to last for 300 pages. That's where a decent antagonist comes in useful.

Anonymous said...

I start with what-if scenarios, then have them explode and backfire in someone's face. And I have the sexual tension too as my MC slept with the bad guy's girlfriend (who used the opportunity to try to kill him). So there is that tension that lingers even though everyone hates each other.

Michael Offutt said...

I don't think I suffered from the mid-story slump. But I plotted everything out pretty meticulously.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Ironically, I don't have a single, defined villain in either of my stories - at least, the 'enemy' isn't a person or character.
It wasn't my premise for my second book, but I think I got it right as far as the boy meets girl part. (God I hope so as that was really difficult to write!)

Jennifer Hillier said...

Good stuff, Mood. I like your Three Bears analogy, it's the perfect way to explain it.

MISH said...

Good old-fashioned fairytale to the rescue...

mooderino said...

@Stephen-I would imagine the tension lingers because everyone hates each other.

@Michael-I find a good outline does help.

@Alex-I don't think you necessarily need a defined villain to write a good story, my point is for people who find they run out of steam halfway through this could be a way to crack that nut.


@MISH-I would have used Snow White, but I couldn't think of seven examples.

Lorena said...

Very insightful and excellent advice! Thanks!

Suze said...

This was extremely helpful, Moody. I thought because I was once an English teacher and a copy editor and a columnist and had a knack for dialogue and loved my characters that I didn't need anyone telling me what for. I was wrong. I'm starting work on a new novel after a very wearying search for my ass so I could compare it to a hole in the ground and this post is a nice, hard-to-miss sign pointing me in an important direction.


WalkinOnSunshine said...

Great post, but I couldn't resist:


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