Monday, March 8, 2010

The Power of Premise - A She Reads Guest post by Ariel Allison Lawhon

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“What’s it about?”

That is the first question we ask at She Reads when a novel is submitted for consideration. And depending on the answer, can be the last. The premise often determines whether we request a copy for review. Because if that most basic of ideas doesn’t draw us in, why read the book?

Mark Twain once said that, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I say the same holds true for premise. To create an idea that strikes the reader as lightning – something they will never forget – is, in my opinion, the most neglected aspect of writing fiction.

I’ve made an observation over the last eight months, while perusing countless novels: many authors build their novels around a worn-out premise (perhaps the first idea that comes to them?). Let’s consider some of the premises that get presented to the She Reads committee most often:

A rogue FBI agent must find a nuclear detonator before the world is blown to bits. (The idea of a “high concept” novel is inextricably linked to nuclear devastation in the minds of many writers. They want the story to matter to a large number of people and the easiest way to do that is to put mankind in danger. But are there other cultural, moral, or spiritual dilemmas that would have the same effect? Me thinks so.)

A young Amish woman leaves her cloistered community and finds true love in the big city. (The desire for a life of simplicity and reverence is understandable in our fast paced society. We want the world to slow down. And we want our spiritual lives to have greater preeminence. Is there a way our characters can acquire those things without retreating to Pennsylvania?)

A young woman leaves the big city and returns to her home town to face the ghosts of her past. (At the moment, this is the most common premise we see in Christian fiction. The urge to explore our past and extract meaning from it is important to many novelists. Are there other ways to do this? Certainly. But for now, this seems to be the path of least resistance.)

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these ideas. But there is nothing original either. They’ve been done ad nauseam. And when we ask readers to spend days between the covers of a novel, we ought to offer them something unique. Something unexpected.

It is interesting to note that all of the premises above are favorites with first time authors. And it is possible to do them well, as evidenced by the February pick for She Reads, Just Between You and Me by Jenny B. Jones – about a young woman who returns to a small town to conquer her fears. When a common premise is put in the hands of a craftsman, amazing things can still result. But only if the author is willing to leap that extra hurdle.

It is certainly true that there is nothing new under the sun. And if you were speaking to my mother, she would go as far as to say that there is only One story. His story. And we spend our lives retelling it. So it begs the question, are we telling the same stories over and over? Or are we telling the only story in a fresh way?

As both a reader and a writer, it is satisfying to find those gems, the stories that catch, and hold, my attention. Here are four that stood out amongst the submissions and went on to be featured titles for She Reads:

~ A wealthy college student transcribes the diary of a young woman killed during the Salem witch trials. (The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner)

~Three lives spin out of control after a young girl abruptly disappears from a small Texas town. (Daisy Chain by Mary DeMuth)

~A young widow camps out on her living room floor unwashed, unkempt, and unable to sleep because her dead husband keeps talking to her. (Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove)

~A tormented photo journalist returns to an AIDS ridden African country to

redeem himself after witnessing unspeakable atrocity. (Scared by Tom Davis)

We sat up. We paid attention. And we invested our time getting to know the lives portrayed in those novels. That is the power of an original premise.

However, an idea alone does not a great novel make. We all know that. Execution, characters, plot, dialogue and prose all matter a great deal. And to create a bolt of literary lightning, they must be present in equal measure. But that spark of energy – a great premise – must light up a reader’s mind first.


What about you? What premises caught your attention and lured you between the pages of a novel? Are there any ideas that you’re tired of seeing rehashed? And, if you're feeling brave, share the premise for your WIP - we'd love to hear it!


Marybeth Whalen said...

I think great premises start with a great question. I think it's got to be a universal question-- one we are all asking internally even if we couldn't put it into words. When we read the premise, we think to ourselves, "Yes! That's exactly what I want to know!" The premise has to resonate not with our exact circumstances but with the feelings we are all dealing with just under the surface-- feelings like fear,rejection, insecurity, trust, betrayal, hope in uncertain circumstances. These are what I want to see mined in every great premise.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Since I threw down the gauntlet with this post, I'll be the guinea pig today by offering the premise for my new novel:

(Based on a still-unsolved mystery from 1930)

"A rookie Detective struggles to the solve the case of a missing New York State Supreme Court Judge."

Good? Bad? Ugly? Have at it!

Lori Benton said...

Ariel, I think it's good. Sounds like a David/Goliath story with plenty of conflict and challenge for an inexperienced but gutsy protagonist.

I hadn't yet written a premise for my WIP, but I find it a fun exercise. Here's what I turned up this morning.

"Returned from years of Indian captivity, a young woman struggles to save her family’s confiscated land, forcing a frontier town still reeling from a devastating revolutionary war to divide once more over hatred, fear and prejudice."

I couldn't make it as succinct as yours!

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post, Ariel, and another great author exercise in succinctness. Paring things down to the barest of bones without actually amputating is no easy feat. I look forward to some of the responses.

Gracie Bea Winterton said...

I, too, am sick of the Amish premise. But yet, I think any overused premise can be made new again with one ingenious twist. Maybe an The trick is finding that ingenious twist ;)

Great ideas, so far. The missing supreme court judge premise sets my imagination rolling.

Here's mine, off the top of my head:

"When a chart-topping country diva asks for her help, Kay Nelson agrees to drive her from small-town Illinois to Nashville in time for a prestigious award ceremony. Will she elude Diva's kidnappers?"

Unknown said...

I guess that with our hectic schedules, it makes sense that no one has time for a lengthy explanation of a premise. So thanks for letting us peek into the dilemma that She Reads faces. It gives me a new appreciation of how difficult the task of choosing reading selections must be.


Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

OK, I'll try. Here's my premise for Book 1 of The Lore of Efrathah:

When a washed-up basketball player falls into a parallel world, he fights evil forces to protect the companions helping him find a way home.


some chick said...

I've been reading for a couple of months, and have yet to comment, but I had to ask:

"A young woman leaves the big city and returns to her home town to face the ghosts of her past."

Oops. That was going to be my next story. At least a variation on that theme (now I'm embarrassed!). Though if I were going to write the premise for the story I'm thinking of, it would be more like this:

A young woman must put her life on hold to return home(!) and care for her estranged grandmother at the end of her life.

Overdone? Tell me gently.

How about my current WIP?:

A cupcake baker unknowingly falls in love with a wanted assassin-for-hire. When confronted with the truth, she must choose between turning him in and following her heart.

Nicole said...

I like your premise, Ariel, but the "struggles" word seems cliche. Don't most cases involve struggle? And is it a current or cold case?

Don't mean to offend anyone because we all acknowledge "There's nothing new under the sun." However, I'm really really tired of estranged families at the center of the plot. I've read a lot of them, and in most of them who wouldn't want to be estranged from some of these characters? Enough that even with the redemptive storylines, we would just as soon not have to endure them. However, a new twist to an old story or some amazing writing with a unique voice can bring a fresh look-see.

Patti Hill said...

Some Chick,

As for me, I like the premise of your story because I like relational stories.

The power of your story will be in the characters. The problem is getting readers to care enough from the premise to get to know the characters.

To add that hook, how about the grandmother is dying from a hereditary disease that the granddaughter has just been tested positive for? Just to spice things up a bit.

And returning home doesn't have to mean a small town (although, truthfully, CBA readers love this element). A source of tension could be how much her neighborhood within a larger city has changed.

Just brainstorming with you, Some Chick. Decide on something you can have fun with.

I think you're headed in the right direction.

word verification: "eyepro," an eye doctor.

Heather Marsten said...

You are right there are so many books with the same theme, but I suspect some themes are universal.

The premise of my nonfiction book on Nehemiah is:

There are many lessons we can learn from the life of Nehemiah that will help us live our lives in these end times and rebuild our torn walls.

Praying your day is blessed.


Sarah Forgrave said...

Oh no, I'm taking a big gulp right now because my current wip has Amish threads in it. Now, before you throw pigs at me, I have to give some background. I'm a self-confessed uninterested reader in straight-up Amish fiction. But...I grew up in the middle of Amish country. My first job in high school was waitressing at the Buggy Wheel Restaurant (yes, that was its actual name).

So I decided to draw from my experiences and write a story that twists the Amish theme around. I use an Amish-centric town as the backdrop and setting for non-Amish characters, with some humor thrown in. Here's my official one-sentence premise:

"A near-bankrupt shopaholic is hired to return to her hometown to discover who's behind an Amish-themed tourist development."

Bonnie Grove said...

Sarah: I will throw no pigs! Aside from the fact that this city girl is fresh out of oinkers, I think your premise is a fun twist on a worn theme - one that could work well with the right, respectful, but tongue in cheek way.
Good for you!

Wife of Zed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wife of Zed said...

I'll play. This is the first time I've commented, and I just recently finished my first draft of my first novel. This is basically my premise:

Katie Hart, a formerly homeschooled college freshman, is both excited and worried about the new chapter in her life. With the biggest mistake of her life behind her, she is determined to concentrate on her classes. When her best friend is offered the chance of a lifetime in another state, Katie's life is turned upside down.

Ethan Wilkinson has a natural gift of reading people’s emotions, especially when something is bothering them. When he meets Katie, he instinctively knows that she needs a friend to lean on, whether she believes it or not. But Ethan also has an unresolved conflict of his own that he’s dealing with.

Brad McCormick, Ethan’s lifelong friend, makes the most of being in college and having more lax rules at home. He knows where to find all the fun and doesn’t need to spend a lot of extra time studying to get the grades he wants. When he starts drinking on the weekends, he learns that he’s inherited his grandfather’s mean streak.

Sorry it's so long. What do you all think? Does it sound likable? Need work?

Judith Millar said...

I agree that an original premise is a wonderful thing to behold, albeit a daunting challenge to come up with. But one's own twist on any intriguing premise can work wonderfully well. Stephen King's short story "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates" starts out with a new widow with a house full of people who won't go away, who then hears from her deceased husband (via phone). Bonnie Grove's superb novel "Talking to the Dead" explores something similar - but in such a different way. There's no end to what can be done with an intriguing idea, which is great news for those of us who love to read!