by Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
You need more than a great idea to write a great novel.
Although I’ve never done an official study on this, I strongly suspect a lot of first novels are premise novels. The writer comes up with an idea and dives in, but they haven’t yet learned how to develop a protagonist with a problem, and are still a little unsure about how to plot.
Such books have solid ideas, but no actual stories, so the ideas fall flat. They’re illustrations of an idea, not a story about a character trying to overcome an issue or resolve a conflict. Many are explorations of fascinating worlds or situations, but there’s no story set in that world or a character struggling with that situation.
A lot of these ideas would indeed make fantastic novels—once the story within the premise is discovered and developed.
A premise novel frequently has multiple point of view characters (and a lot of them) because it's trying to show the idea from all sides. But when you try to identify the protagonist, you can’t. There’s no clear character at the center of the story.
Since there’s no protagonist driving the plot, there are no goals to pursue or conflicts to resolve. The scenes commonly focus on elements of the world or aspects of the theme or idea, not a character facing a problem that must be solved or else bad things will happen.
And those bad things are often the "save the world" type of stakes, not a personal risk to a character. None of the characters have anything to lose except their lives. But since everyone has that stake, the stakes never escalate, so there’s no tension and readers don’t care about the outcome.
Describe the novel in one sentence (even a bad sentence) using the standard "protagonist has X problem and needs to do Y to win Z or Q happens." If you can’t, that’s a red flag you might be looking at a premise novel.
Premise novel descriptions often focus on the idea or theme, not the story. For example:
Each of these could make a wonderful novel, but they’re also "all idea and no plot." There’s no sense of a character trying to solve a conflict, but they’ll turn into a story once you put a protagonist with a problem into them.
If you discover you have a premise novel (or an idea that’s all premise and no plot), don’t worry—all it takes is some brainstorming to develop the pieces you’ll need to turn that premise into a compelling novel.
Every novel needs a problem (the conflict), and that problem is the anchor of the story. It’s what the protagonist needs to resolve and what will drive the plot. Look for a tangible problem that must be resolved to prevent/trigger/avoid or whatever this idea is about. What’s going wrong in this story? What’s the one thing that must be resolved or else? What's at the center of your premise?
Someone in your premise is in a position to solve this core conflict. This person will be in a position to affect change in the novel by the choices they make and the things they do. Better still, solving the conflict matters to them, and something bad will happen to them personally if they don’t act. Who has the most to lose in your premise? Who has the ability to act or change the outcome? Who has the story you want to explore?
Someone or something is standing in the way of your protagonist succeeding and solving this problem. It's not unusual for the antagonist to be the one who created the core conflict problem, so that's a good place to start looking. Who has something to gain from this core conflict? Who has an agenda about this problem and is at odds with the protagonist's goal?
The plot will unfold as the protagonist tries to solve the core conflict problem and the antagonist tries to stop them. Two personal forces clashing against each other. Both will have things to lose if they fail. Both will have things to win if they succeed. If you took both out of the story, the story would fall apart.
Character motivations are what truly turns a premise novel into a story. Look for reasons why your protagonist needs to solve this problem (beyond the "or they die" type stakes). What's personal about this problem? What would cause someone in their position to undertake this task? Their reasons for acting and the choices they make is where the plot is going to come from.
Stakes make the goals matter more and help create the tension that will keep readers invested in the story. How will failure affect the protagonist? Why do they need to act in this novel and solve this problem? As you consider your stakes, think about what matters to the protagonist. If they’re going to risk their life or something precious to them, there must be a very good reason.
These five steps will help you pinpoint the key elements to turning a premise into a story, which will then help you develop your plot.
Not gonna lie—you probably will. Premise novels typically have pages and pages of extra information in them, and none of it serves any actual story. Think of those pages as research—you created the background necessary to understand your story, and now you'll be able to identify the best parts of it. Plus, any scenes you truly love can be salvaged to include your protagonist or antagonist. Just rework them so they fit the plot and not just the idea.
Maybe, but a lot can still be used. And with a solid protagonist and clear goals, the rewriting will go much easier. You'll have a plot driving the novel and characters acting with solid motivations to achieve interesting goals. The scenes will have purpose and drive, and won’t simply be “this happened, and then that happened, and then this other thing happened.”
Very likely, but that's often a good thing. Too many characters, especially point-of-view characters, dilute the story and make it hard for readers to connect to any one character. If they don't connect, they don't care, and if they don't care, they don't keep reading. Cutting characters also helps you determine who your protagonist is and what they want—which again, helps you find the plot and the story.
Turning a premise into a story can be hard work, but it’s worth doing. You might have to get rid of point-of-view characters you love, or cut subplots you find interesting, and for some, you might need to trash the whole manuscript and start over. It'll be hard, but in the end, you'll have a much better novel—and a more marketing novel.
For some writers, coming up with a great idea is the hardest part of writing a novel, so having a great premise is a good start. You have the idea already, and probably a pretty darned fleshed-out one at that. Now it's just a matter of finding the right protagonist and plot to go with it.
Have you ever written a premise novel? Do you have one you're struggling with right now? Please share your story with us down in the comments!
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.
Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her book, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.
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Wonderful blog as always, Janice. Love being able to break my story down to one sentence. Hard to do, but when it's done, it becomes a path you can follow through the whole book.
Thanks Laura! It really does help, especially when you get stuck. I like to keep it posted on my monitor while outlining 🙂
No one summarizes a story in one sentence better than you, Laura. 🙂
Saving this one to look at when I start edits/revisions on the 'almost finished' draft of the wip. While it's far from my first novel, I think the life disruptions of the past year-plus have taken their toll and there's a lot of cleanup to do. Not sure my hero has enough personal stuff at stake, and that could be why it's been a struggle to write.
Hope your revision goes well! And true, anyone can write a premise novel--not just new writers. I have a slew of ideas in my "idea folder" that are still just premises and won't become novels until/unless I can find their plots 🙂
This is a sharply focused post that is so helpful not only for rooting out a weak plot based only on premise in a novel, but I can see it being super helpful when writing the query for pitching the book. I've fallen in that trap in my pitch, focusing on the theme and premise versus what happens.
Thanks! It's absolutely helpful for queries and pitches. It's essentially the first step to writing both.
I hadn't thought of using this post that way. Excellent idea! Thanks for that. 🙂
Thanks for this helpful reminder. Putting in the work before you write helps in the rewriting process, for sure. And changing the characters can make the difference.
I recently was working through a draft of a mystery with two siblings tracing down the cause their parent's death, when I realized I didn't have an antagonist following them. Pushing them forward and nipping at the heels to put them in jail for the very crime they sought to solve. So, I created a hard boiled cop with something to prove and a backstory of her own and threw her into the mix. It helped to push the stakes higher!
Wonderful post - thank you for sharing your insights!
Most welcome. Every writer has their own process, but as an outliner and plotter, the early work makes a huge difference in how solid the draft turns out.
Yikes! (grin). A lack of an antagonist will certain cause some problems. Sounds like you found the perfect foe for the siblings though.Yay!
Great post, Janice. This is where developing a logline comes into play. It helps identify the main protagonist, what's at stake, and the consequences of failure. There's a link to a past WITS post about creating a logline. It ties in nicely with the points you make today!
Thanks! And thanks for the link for those who want to know more. Loglines are such great tools, both in the early stages and in the publishing and marketing stages. They're one of the first things I write for every novel.
Wonderful post, Janice!
As part of NaNoWriMo prep last year I wrote a logline for the story to help me focus on the main goal. This is much like your suggestion of "protagonist has X problem and needs to do Y to win Z or Q happens."
Writing that logline made a huge difference, and I plan to do the same with future novels.
Thank you! Loglines are awesome. They force you to pinpoint the key aspects of a story, and as long as you know that, you can find your way to the end. They're especially handy for NaNo writers, too. There's no time to ponder what to do next!
I think this has been the problem with all my manuscripts. Thanks for the help diagnosing it and realizing that while I may have to do a lot of editing, all is not lost! Great post that I'm sure I'll revisit again and again.
I try to start a book with an elevator pitch or logline so I can keep the focus on the story and the main characters.
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