A great concept is the raw grist for a great premise. Not necessarily the premise itself.
Idea… concept… premise… for writers these are separate and essential things. Unless they aren’t separate (an idea can arrive in the form of a concept and/or premise). Which rarely happens.
The order in which they arrive is not set in stone.
Premise evolves FROM a concept… even when it begins the other way around in the writer’s head. The risk is to hatch a premise that does not connect to an underlying concept that energizes it.
Example of a premise without a concept: guy falls for girl on a space station, where they are the only two inhabitants.
Example of a concept that is not yet a premise: what if two people assigned to a space station are both a human clones but neither one knows?
Story very close to that: Oblivion, in theaters now.
Concepts can be arranged hierarchically. Go deep enough and you end up with a premise.
Fail to go high enough and you leave dramatic opportunity on the table.
The most common weak link I see in the story deconstructions I do: a misunderstanding of what the phrase “dramatic tension” means, and a resulting lack of it in the story.
Great stories always have external tension that become the fodder to make internal tension transparent.
External tension drives story architecture.
Plot is not a dirty word. It is synonymous with dramatic tension.
Show me a story with no plot and I’ll show a short story, or an unpublishable novel.
The concept acts as a “battery” that fuels the premise and the narrative itself with energy. The concept is not the appliance itself, it is the electricity that runs it.
A rich concept can yield multiple stories, or multiple takes on an obvious story.
You really can’t hope to turn a concept-light, tepid premise into a great story through stellar execution. A cow’s ear is still a cow’s ear, even in the shape of a silk purse.
The Hunger Games, without the games, is just another teenage love story.
That said, a story that is concept-light but strong on premise (example: The Help) can be twenty million copies worth of wonderful.
Premise is like personality: hard to define but you know it when you see it.
The most common storytelling mistake is an under-cooked premise.
“Story” is a relative term. Not all of them are worth telling.
Your lyric, poetic, brilliant writing voice… it’s never the point. In fact, it can kill your ambition if you think it is.
You can’t reinvent this game.
Some claim there are no rules, but there certainly are one helluva solid set of principles driving how you write strong fiction. Depart from them at your own peril.
Plot is the stage upon which character is allowed to reveal and explore itself.
Developing a story on autopilot is the enemy.
Paranormal abilities should never be the thing that solves the crime in a story.
Don’t kid yourself, it’s been done before. So what’s your fresh twist?
When a major story beat involves the hero “suddenly realizing” something… that’s a bad sign.
“Write what you know” is good advice. Write what you love is better advice.
Reading novels is not a particularly empowering way to learn to write novels.
Never underestimate the power of vicarious experience delivered to your reader. Give your readers a ride.
The more you do it, the closer you get to it, the less glamorous and more blue collar this storytelling gig becomes.
Settling is the great killer of stories.
Narrative side trips are a close second.
Changing lanes is next. If your murder mystery becomes a ghost story on page 214, see the next statement.
If you pants your story, then discover it becomes something other than what it began as, you absolutely need to write a new draft that uses the new context from page one.
Not knowing what makes a story great makes the whole thing a crap shoot. Somebody will eventually win the lottery using random numbers.
Many of the novels on the bookshelves are not as good as the one you wrote and cannot sell.
Self-publishing is a new, unproven frontier. One that hasn’t fully evolved. And one that brings unforeseen risks, because traditional publishing at least provided an infrastructure to vet the work. That’s why Youtube won’t ever compete with the films we pay money to see in theaters.
There are more multimillion dollar success stories coming out of traditional publishing, even today, than the ones you hear about from the digital self-publishing world. The odds of a jackpot are no better on Amazon.com.
Do not copy the way A-list writers go about their work… they have a different bar, and it’s lower than ours. (Look at the way Nelson Demille — one of my favorite authors — decided to end his #1 bestseller, Night Fall… if we tried that we’d get laughed out of the mailroom on its way back to us.)
Deus ex machina — look it up. Then avoid it in your stories.
I am sometimes drastically misunderstood.
The word “troll” has been completely redefined in the last ten years.
All writing lessons are good, except one. Listen to it all, pick what you like. Soon your wall will be full of what sticks.
The one that is not good: if you don’t know anything about what makes a story work, don’t worry, just put your butt in a chair and start writing, it’ll come to you eventually.
If you live long enough.
The knowledge is out there.
You may or may not get it by being a voracious reader of fiction. Probably not.
Process does not define story. It does, however, define the amount of blood required to write one that works.
Suffering is optional.
Coincidence may happen in real life, but it can kill your story. Usually does.
So which comes first in “romantic suspense,” the romance or the suspense? (Wait, that’s not a statement…)
Literary novels need conflict, too.
Literary fiction leans into conflict that resides internally to the character, something that becomes the core story and the foremost challenge to the protagonist. Literary novels are NOT plot-free. Structure, stakes, pace and story physics are still required.
To the guy on Amazon who said he wants to come to my house and throw books at me: I’m still waiting for you show up. That’ll be fun. But not for you.
“The Adventures of X” story is the hardest of all to write at a publishable level.
Setting, time and place are planks used to construct a stage, hammered together with ideas. But you can only look at the stage for so long before you long for something to happen, and the nails need to be solid. Solid what? Answer: hero-driven drama. And when you add that, the story is no longer primarily about setting, time and place.
Stories that explore a time or place or culture as the primary intention of the author are… usually boring.
Episodic storytelling is almost always a story killer. There is only one kind of story in which that works, and it’s the hardest type of story to write.
It’s a dead heat in the race to win the title of “most important word in fiction,” between conflict and context.
Meanwhile, subtext can make or break you.
A good novel is rarely – as in, never – the life story of a fictional character. (See above, on episodic.)
One of the most toxic, misleading sources of writing guidance for newer writers is the language of book reviews. A “novel about the depression,” for example (which is how reviewers might frame it), doesn’t begin to define what the novel has to cover to work. Example: The Great Gatsby.
“Show, don’t tell,” is golden. Unless nothing happens in a particular transitional story beat (like a time shift forward)… then just tell it.
Your high school writing teacher was wrong about a whole lot of stuff.
First person narrative is not only okay, it’s hot.
Mixing first and third person… perfectly fine, IF they are never mixed within a single scene.
Your high school writing teacher is rolling over in her/his grave right now.
I do mishandle the word deconstruction. Deal with it.
There has never been a successful final draft written without the writer knowing how the story will end.
There is only rarely a first draft that ends precisely as the writer thinks it will.
You can – it’s entirely possible – nail your story in two drafts (1.5, draft and polish)… IF you understand what you’re doing from a story architecture perspective, and at a deep level… if you let this drive your story discovery and planning process.
Conversely, if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing.
Paradox, I think they call it. A wonderful word for writers, and about writers.
The journey may or may not be the thing.
The trick isn’t to write ABOUT something. The trick is to write about something HAPPENING.
Key words from the title of this post: almost always.