As I recovered from my surgery, I’ve had a chance to do a good bit of reading. Today I’d like to explore reasons why your story premise and not the writing itself, may not be working for your novel. By “not working,” I mean mainly unpublishable, but this can also mean unreadable or at the very least un-enjoyable.
Writing Tip for Today: What are the most common symptoms of a story premise that isn’t working?
Premise and Execution: The Two Pillars
Larry Brooks says in his excellent book Story Fix (Writer’s Digest Books), that stories which “fail” (either by rejection, poor sales or lack of reader enjoyment) must possess a combination of a strong story proposition and good execution. I’ve always maintained that a great story premise with mediocre to poor execution has a much better chance than a lackluster story with brilliant writing. Brooks backs this idea up, comparing it to athletes needing both timing and ability. So many of us focus on the actual writing, and even good critique partners can get caught up in a writer’s skillful or even poetic language. Yet if the story idea itself is weak or the stakes are not high enough, most readers will not read—although some may hold their noses and read for the words. When I evaluate a manuscript, I hardly ever focus on the actual writing at first. In my view, what good is it to “edit” words and sentences if the story is on life support or worse? I think writers would be wise to do as much practice on building good solid storylines as they do trying to craft the perfect sentence.
We writers tend to focus our revisions on the way our prose is crafted. We quibble over word choice and are quick to point out clichés, “ly” words and other detritus. Yet if the story lacks dramatic tension, has under-developed characters or maybe is simply ridiculous, readers won’t bite. I’ve spent hours in crit groups haggling over deletion of this word or that word, whether the character “would or wouldn’t” do one thing or another. In my opinion, this kind of nitpicking slows writers down. Instead, test your story to see what it’s made of: Is your character fresh, original? Does Character want something more than anything? Are there worthy obstacles that she must overcome in order to realize her goal? A lot of times I ask students to give their stories the “So What?” test advocated by Donald Maass. If your character DOES NOT reach the goal, who will care? SO WHAT? If the answer is on the order of “Well, she’ll be sad,” then your stakes are not high enough for your story to compel readers.
Concentric Rings of Impact
In my opinion, the best stories have high stakes not only for the Main Character, but the risks of not meeting the goal put the character’s significant relationships in danger as well as even larger consequences. You can think of these as concentric rings with the MC in the center. The best story lines are not “small stories” impacting one or two persons, but tales that ripple outward. This is because we all want to see ourselves in a good story. We identify not only with the character but the story world where the writer places us. The more the entire story world is threatened, the more compelling the story. When you think of your story, try to imagine these ripple effects. Sometimes the ripples might mean if there’s no hope for the character what chance do the rest of us have? Story Premise isn’t easy for some, but the time you spend constructing a solid premise will make your revisions so much easier.