When you think about it, the story concepts and premises we pitch – and just as often, the story concepts and premises we write from – are nothing other than promises.
We pitch a story concept and an ensuing premise to an agent with hope that they’ll want to read more. By implication, by virtue of how we describe the story itself we are promising that they won’t be sorry.
Some writers are better salesmen than they are storytellers… the concept is huge and universal and the premise sounds appealing, dripping with potential. And sometimes – even if the writer has no real clue how to actually write that story – it works within a pitch… the agent likes what they hear and consents to read the story.
Story ideas, even good ones, are a dime a dozen. Writers who can bring them to life… well, that’s why we’re here. To become that writer.
The agent wants to believe in the promise.
And then, all too often, the inevitable happens, and when it does it sounds a lot like the other shoe falling. The promise of the concept/premise is on the line. Now, when it manifests as a manuscript, it had better deliver something more than a promise, more than the scent of something juicy and compelling sizzling on the grill of a storyteller’s keyboard.
Sounds a lot like a political campaign promise, doesn’t it?
How often have we heard candidates assuring us they can solve our problems – end the war, balance the budget, get both sides of the aisle to work together – only to get elected and find themselves (and us) stuck in a political machine that renders all those promises moot and irrelevant.
They say that, and we vote for them.
It’s easy to make a promise.
When you consider that for every 100 story pitches that result in an agent’s request for more (which is about a quarter of all pitches made to agents at writing conferences, which means there are 300 other pitches that got turned down)… thus allowing us to conclude that the promise of those 100 premises was appealing – only about ten of those delivered manuscripts actually result in the agent agreeing to represent it.
That’s nine out of ten promises broken by writers who couldn’t deliver the goods, despite the ability to pitch them well.
For self-published writers, the risk here is orders of magnitude greater. Because nobody is telling you that your promise, via your premise, came up short. Too many writers are executing a premise that is, like that line in Top Gun, an ego writing a check the body can’t cash.
Because the promise of the premise is a story plan promise, as well. And if that plan is lacking clarity, the road gets a lot steeper.
The reason behind this…
… is that it’s too easy to construct an idea into something that sounds like it might be fodder for a compelling story… but ultimately, in that writer’s hands, isn’t.
“The story of a woman whose search for love brings her happiness and dreams beyond her wildest imaginings.”
Yeah, that’s a nice pitch, all right. A promise made. A premise that never misses. Right up there with “learn to make six figures on eBay” via an online training program. That training products keeps on selling… on the promise alone.
But we, as writers, aren’t in that game.
We don’t get paid for promises made and naive customers fooled. We have to keep the promises we make in our premises. We have to deliver a story that is orders of magnitude deeper and richer and broader in executional scope than even the tastiest of premises could possibly describe.
There is a reason many compelling pitches ultimately fall flat.
And here it is.
The pitch… the promise… the premise… is actually more an extension of the concept than it is a buildable blueprint for the story to follow.
Read that again. It means that, while the criteria for a good CONCEPT - it describes a compelling framework for a story – is all there is…
… the criteria for a compelling PREMISE must be much more than a framework.
It must be specific.
A concept and a premise are different things.
That’s the hidden gold here. A premise is much more than a concept, even if/when it is an extension of that concept. A premise is much more specific. It fleshes out the concept. It tells how and why… with specificity that relates to a protagonist.
A concept doesn’t even have a protagonist in it.
A premise must introduce a protagonist with a problem or an opportunity, stemming from a situation, leading to a specific call to action, a quest (that requires decision and reaction, then attack), with specific opposition in the way… with specific stakes in play… all of which will evoke the reader’s engagement on multiple levels (emotional, personal via vicariousness, intellectual, social, chemical, etc.).
I see nice concepts leading to equally promising yet remarkably vague premises all the time. If the promise of either the concept or the premise is rich enough, an agent might still say yes, but a publisher won’t (nor will readers) unless and until the premise (which, let it be emphasized again, is a different thing than the concept) and the story that emerges from it is imbued with much more specificity.
Not just a promise. But with something specific.
“I will offer you a job” is a promise. A concept. But you can’t write that story until you know what that job is.
“I will hire you as a teacher, in a third world country, working with a man you might fall in love with, or not, because he’s a terrorist sympathizer…” that is specific. A huge difference for someone looking for a job.
Here’s a short case study in point. Read and learn.
This is from my Quick-Hit Concept Review program, in which writers are asked to state both a concept and a premise. Many succeed at the former – as does this writer – but fewer deliver a premise that is more than an extension of that concept, that make a promise with real teeth and compelling specificity at its heart.
Compelling specificity. That’s the whole ballgame, right there.
Read it here: April Concept to Premise Case Study.
Feel free to comment with your own feedback and creative thinking. This writer generously and courageously consented to the sharing of this, and deserves the best thinking we can offer.
I’ve done that in my comments, as you’ll see.
Now it’s your turn to chip in.
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Writing craft is always the sum of various pieces, one of the most critical – and problematic – being the middle section of a novel or screenplay. But like every link in a chain, the middle depends on how you got there and where you’re headed, which is where the challenges may reside. This tutorial focuses on your middle narrative – including the all-important mid-point story milestone – in context to overriding principles of story structure, with criteria and step-by-step diagnostics and fixes for the most problematic story middles, and the writers who are stuck there.
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This tutorial first appeared as an article in Writers Digest Magazine (January 2014).
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