Testing the Premise

“Ever since I started writing professionally, I told myself I have only a finite time on this earth and can only write a finite number of books. I need to choose the best ones for me and for my readers both.” ~James Scott Bell

In chapter twenty-seven of The Art of War for Writers, we are challenged to evaluate our premises before “charging ahead” with the first story idea we have, otherwise we might find ourselves at a dead-end in the middle of a nowhere novel. I’ve noticed this guy has a lot of methods, processes, I like that, but I’m wondering is this for everyone?

My “process” is similar to his, in that I have my OneNote notebook simply titled: Work, and in it I have a file called Scattered Ideas. Here I put any and every idea that comes to me for a story, even if it’s just a snippet of an idea. Then if an idea proves fruitful, I’ll put it in its own file still within the work notebook where I can add pages of notes on characters, plots, setting, etc. The premise doesn’t get it’s own notebook with file dividers until I choose to seriously sit down and write it.

So, what’s in a premise anyways? Basically, it’s the storyline, the big idea of our novel. It acts like a compass when writing our novels and selling them. I have found it very helpful in having one before I attempt a rough draft. My first novel: I just dove in and started writing. Now, I’m trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together and to fix all the newbie mistakes. Writing Fiction for Dummies has a good section on creating one and gives us some examples.

A streamlined example of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: A hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.

We start with the basic storyline and then flesh it out. Bell has a list of questions and their mostly about the Lead character to gauge whether our premise holds up, but he also has us do a few other things like doing a market analysis and that’s when my eyes start to cross. But he’s got some good questions in there to make us think and how to evaluate it. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maas gives us some good pointers on how to build one. He has a whole chapter on it. Check it out if you have a chance. He says:

A breakout premise has plausibility, inherent conflict, originality and gut emotional appeal.”

  1. It’s got to be believable
  2. Conflict must be built into the storyworld
  3. A fresh perspective, flavor, angles, direction, etc
  4. It connects with people on a deep level.

Maas is talking about constructing the breakout premise and Bell is suggesting we test all of them before we dive in and find ourselves at a dead-end. Combining all three books, I’m sure we can nail this thing. 🙂

So what say you? Do you start with a premise or just dive in? Do you analyze your premise before writing the book? I can’t say that I have… Have you found other resources helpful in creating the premise?


One thought on “Testing the Premise

  1. […] are the building blocks of fiction.-James Scott BellSeveral weeks ago we discussed creating a breakout premise, but, as James Scott Bell writes in The Art of War for Writers, a great premise will not amount to […]

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