Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 6, 2012

Plot Fixer - Part I: Your Premise Isn't Compelling

Writers In The Storm welcomes Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo to our family of bloggers. Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense for Harlequin and Random House.

You can read Kara’s blogs here at WITS on the first Friday of each month. She’s starting out with a big bang with a series of Plot Fixer blogs. Don’t miss out, stop by every month and get your plot fix.

By Kara Lennox

I confess, I love plot. I relish working out the three acts, the scene-and-sequel, highs and lows, black moment, climax. When it all comes together and I know a book is going to work, I actually get a natural high.

But something I love almost as much is helping other writers figure out what’s wrong with their plots, and how to fix them.

To this end, I have a workshop that I’ve given dozens of times, both in person and online. The workshop has changed names over the years. Currently it’s “Plot Fixer.” In it, I cover the seventeen most common plotting problems I’ve encountered during critiquing and contest judging, and how to overcome them. (Why seventeen? It started as an even dozen, but it’s grown.)

How did I come up with this list of plot ailments? Mostly because I've suffered  through them myself. I've sold a lot of books. But I've also had hundreds of rejections. HUNDREDS. Many of those were form rejections, but lots and lots of them detailed problems that I have since learned to spot myself. (Yeah, I still get rejections, darn it. Always more to learn.)

I have also been a regular participant of a critique group for most of the past twenty-something years. I judge contests all the time, I critique manuscripts, and certain plotting errors I see over and over again.

Now, I’m going to pass along what I’ve learned to you … one blog at a time.

You can use this information if you already have a story written, or if you have just an outline, or even if you’re in the planning stages.

I have 12 blogs, each covering one or two of the problems—how to spot them, fix them, or at least divert attention away from them.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the trenches and get dirty.

Problem #1

Your premise isn't compelling enough.

A weak premise, or one that is too simple or too complicated, will result in getting rejected at the query stage.

So what makes for a strong, compelling premise?

I'm sure you've heard of "high concept." A high-concept plot isn't just for movies. Every book--even a short category romance--needs a high concept. That means you can state the premise in one or two sentences, and whoever hears or reads these sentences can immediately "get" what your book is about. Furthermore, those sentences make that person nod and say, "ooooooooh." What is it about your book that makes people say, "ooooooooh"?

Boring: A woman needs a job and goes to work as a bounty hunter. Although she is not qualified, she learns along the way and eventually brings in a dangerous felon and solves a murder.

Better: A woman desperate for employment takes a last-resort job as a bounty hunter. Her first assignment is to bring in a cop accused of murder--her ex-boyfriend, who broke her heart.

Most of you probably recognize the above two examples as describing Janet Evanovich's first Stephanie Plum novel, ONE FOR THE MONEY. Both examples are accurate, but the second one is much more compelling, no? Especially to romance readers, for whom this book was intended.

It's all about what you choose to highlight or emphasize.

Sometimes, the "high concept" is simply a marketable element--say, a vampire--in a new context. My friend Nancy Haddock is a very talented writer, but she struggled for years to sell her first book. Finally she did it with LA VIDA VAMPIRE--about a female vampire who just wanted to have fun, work a job, go to school and watch TV like any normal woman. Of course, the forces of evil won't let her be. This was a new kind of vampire, and Nancy spun Francesca into a successful franchise series.

The ultimate high concept: Demon-hunting soccer mom. Author Julie Kenner practically sold CARPE DEMON with those four words alone.

Now, look at your story. What is unique? What is marketable? How can you highlight it, both in how you tell the story, and how you pitch it? Test it out on people. Do you get the "oooooooh?" Post it to comments if you like. See what reactions you get.

If you can't come up with a short, punchy logline, brainstorm with a group of fellow writers. That usually helps. And if that doesn’t work, my advice is to rethink your story.

Next time, we’ll talk how to fix a weak opening.

Don't miss Kara's latest book, Outside The Law and her soon to be re-released classic Bantam Loveswept novels (writing as Karen Leabo).
Kara's website

0 comments on “Plot Fixer - Part I: Your Premise Isn't Compelling”

  1. Thanks Karen, As usual you have made me think. I will work on my latest manuscript's synopsis today and maybe some of what I got from your post will help me. I hope. ;o)

    1. olderwriter--
      Plotting is an ongoing education process. In one book, you might figure out and apply one thing, then the next book, something else clicks. I am always picking up tips here and there and refining how I plot my own books. Good luck!


  2. Glad to see you will be blogging here at WITS. What's great with you blogging here on the first Friday is if I have any questions, I can ask them in person on the second Saturday at OCC. I always need help with my plots, Looking forward to the next sixteen.

  3. Karen, use visualizatin and imagine me jumping for joy! I am thrilled that you will join the wonderful group of writers here at WITS. About those plots 🙂 While I am mostly character driven, I write both women's fiction and mystery; both often have romantic elements; both pose different plot problems. While I read everything, including the sides of cereal boxes, my forever love is mystery in all of it's wonderfully deadly sub-genres. I recently painted myself into a corner and had to rewrite the first 50K words three times before I got the premise of the book to be believable. Research, research !!

    Since this is the first time I can ask a mystery question: Do you have the crime solved when you start? Not how it careens to an ending, but do you know up front who did it ... how it was done ... and like me ... do you love to use well crafted "red herrings?"

  4. ramblings--
    I usually do know who the villain is from the beginning. But not always! One time I changed my mind after I'd sold a book with a proposal, but I'd only written 50 pages. And I love red herrings. Often my first draft doesn't have enough, and it's too obvious who did it. So the second draft often involves developing believable alternate suspects and throwing out those red herrings.

    Also, some books I write are more thriller than mystery, so you know who the villain is from the beginning. But most of my Project Justice books are true "who-dunnits"--fun!


  5. Kara, do you find that nailing the high concept in 1-2 lines is actually the best litmus test for whether your premise is compelling? I usually figure out my themes and lay out my 3-Act structure first, which is why I'm asking this question. I'm wondering if I spend too much time doing it my way, rather than going for the short description and working out the high concept first. *fretting*

    I can't even usually see any of that stuff until I've laid out a little structure to write to. But sometimes I get partway in and THEN think, this is not compelling enough, so I'm asking your opinion. 🙂

    1. Jenny--
      I think it can work either way. Sometimes the idea for the great premise doesn't even come to me until I've been noodling around a bit with a situation and some characters, sometimes not until I've written a chapter or two. Sometimes a premise I THINK is compelling really isn't. I like the "ooooooh" test. If I can tell it in one or two sentences and my listener says "Ooooooooh" I proceed.

      Don't fret, the way you do it is normal. I've abandoned many a partial manuscript when i realized it just wasn't compelling enough. It happens.


  6. Good post, Kara.

    I agree with you on the idea of using a log line as the best way to determine if an idea will make a good book. Interesting characters, for example, are no test of whether the story will be interesting. They give it potential, but only the log line focuses that potential.

    People often complain about condensing their book idea into a single line. Yet without it they are missing the opportunity to face the fact that they may not have fully thought through their idea. And with a few examples it actually become quite easy to summarize the core characters, conflict and stakes. Much easier that writing 100k then trying to summarize it in a pitch 🙂

    I'm looking forward to the next 11 installments!


    1. Thanks, Nigel.

      Also, the one or two sentences doesn't have to contain the whole book. just that part of it that's really cool. Think how many ideas a movie like Back to the Future encompasses regarding time travel, altering the future by changing the past, etc. But the logline I've heard is something about going back in time to make sure his parents kiss so he can be born. In point of fact, he doesn't go back for that reason. He hoses up the kiss in the first place, then has to fix it. But his quest to get his parents together is what makes the story so compelling and relatable.


  7. I agree with you on the premise and high concept in one line, Kara, but . . .

    I love it when it comes out perfect, and even I say, "Ohhhhh."

    But mostly it's the literary equivalent of mud wrestling in a buffalo wallow for me.

    SO glad you're doing this series - Like Rambling, I'm character driven, and though I have sparkly, fully formed characters, what to do with them is a whole 'nother issue.

    1. Laura--
      It is a lot of pressure. And i've only recently (after mumble mumble years of writing) been disciplined enough to make sure that high concept is there before I proceed full speed ahead with a book. The high concept can actually be a unique character. Hellboy 2 comes to mind (loved that movie, never expected to). I do not remember the plot but that character was so unique.


  8. I'm currently trying to unknot the middle of my current project, tentatively called "Immortal Blood." I'm not sure if my concept is "high" enough. Anyway, here it is.

    "Blackmailed, protected by renegade werewolves, hunted by undead pharaoh Akhenaton, Hayleigh must commit murder to protect her family and coven. But how do you kill an immortal?"


      1. Thanks, Laura. I appreciate the feedback. I think it's just because I'm getting muddled.Everyone's doing such interesting things. I think I've got too many story threads. Ahh...the pasta tangles of creation...

        1. Lara, I like it too. I think I would like to know more about how killing the immortal saves her family and coven. Something like, "Hayleigh, an inexperienced witch, must kill the XXXXX who is trying to do XXXXX to her family and coven. But how do you kill an immortal?" But it sounds like the high concept is there.


  9. I am SO looking forward to all of your blogs about plot. This is exciting! I loved this post and am going to think about this - REALLY think about this - for my two books now that aren't under contract.
    THANK you so much, Kara.

  10. Great post Kara, thank you so much! Spot-on, too. Ironically, it was a high-concept idea that sparked the Shinobi series that ultimately hooked me both an agent and a publisher. The initial idea that popped into my mind all those months ago: "Most ninjas commit crimes. Hiro Hattori solves them."
    I was hooked instantly, and I knew others would be too. You're so, so right - a strong high concept can tell you immediately if the project will work.

    1. Susan, I love the premise! I'm going to get onto Amazon right now and see if I can find any of your books.

      1. Susan, I love it. Congratulations.

        Occasionally a concept so grabs an editor that you don't even need a story to make the sale. I once uttered the words, "Texas bounty hunters" and sold two books. Well, I had to write a paragraph before they'd actually give me the contract. But that is the power of the high concept.


  11. Kara, the immortal (he was cursed by Anubis) wants to die to be with his beloved wife, and if Hayleigh doesn't find a way to do it, and carry it through by a certain date, he will kill her family and coven. Not only does she have to complete an impossible task in a short amount of time, in the process she must become forsworn.

    1. Lara--
      It does sound as if your heroine is in a lot of trouble. Now, another way to look at it that makes it high concept: "An immortal longs to die." It has that "man bites dog" element of surprise. An immortal longs to die, so he forces a witch to figure out a way to do the deed. If she fails, he'll destroy her family and her coven.


  12. You know what's funny is that I'm a panster learning to plot, and with my novel coming out in November, I pantsed until about halfway through. Then I had to go back and work out some stuff. Hated doing that. With the current WIP, I thought I had a detailed plot until I started writing and finding holes. So then I sat down and spent nearly a month with my crit partner and really working hard on the plotting ... and I loved it. I loved figuring out the why's and what ifs, and now I have a 50 scene outline, something I've never had before.

    I'm still learning, though (aren't we all?), so this post about theme is really helpful. Looking forward to more of your posts!

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