The Key to Criteria-Driven Story Development

Two Things You Should Know About Your Story… the Earlier the Better

Today’s post could easily break down into three or four meaty posts about writing a novel or screenplay that works.  I mean, really works. But none of those points are contextually complete without the others, they reside in the writer’s tool box as a merged whole, a set of principles that are truly a sum in excess of the parts.

So get ready to consider the whole storytelling enchilada, from the first bite.

Already some organic writers are heading for the delete key. Because the mere suggestion of “criteria” in the context of story development runs against the grain of that particular end of the continuum. Which is a shame (and also the cause of much frustration and career-stalling), because if you leave now you’ll miss something that might change everything about reaching your writing goals.

The key to wrapping your head around any gap between “pantsing” a story (looking for the best version of the story while you are writing it) and “planning” a story (having a front-to-back vision for how the story will unspool prior to writing a draft; both of these define opposite ends of the aforementioned continuum, which in reality summons most writers to somewhere in the middle) depends on your understanding these statements:

Both are just processes.

Each is a means toward an end. The same end.

Both can and do work. Neither, when done properly and completely, is easier or results in a better story than the other.

The more advanced a writer is, the more planning they do, even if it resides in their head only.

Once you reach the “final draft” stage, how you got there no longer matters. Process has no place in the conversation about what ultimately makes a story work.

And this, the most important statement of all: Once you have what you believe to be a final draft,  any assessment as to how well it works are nothing other than criteria. Which by definition demands that a writer understand these criteria, and aims for them, as they develop their stories.

Any blog post or book that claims to tell you how to write is always in context to this point, which is often implied, frequently minimized or sometimes omitted altogether.  For example, the guy who tells you that “story trumps structure” actually advocates for a particular process, certainly the one that works for him. Risky, if that process doesn’t work for you. And in either case, totally irrelevant if the process itself doesn’t end up honoring the criteria that makes a story work. (For the record, that book actually does come full circle back to the criteria for a good story, which sort of blasts the title into the cheap seats, while saving the intention of it.)

Or not.  If, in the organic or planning process, the story ends up being weak on these criteria-based essences and elements.

Before a story can work, a premise needs to have emerged to the narrative development process.

If you start your draft before you have a premise – even if you have great characters, a vicarious setting and weighty themes –  you have just christened your draft an exercise in searching for the story.

That’s what process is, and all that process is: your search for story.  Which, again, is best done when the criteria for the story you end up with actually drives your decision to land on it.  From there, the development of story unfolds in contexts to similar criteria, broken down into elements of expositional pacing, dramatic escalation, character arc and resolution… all of which is structural in nature.

If you start a draft that is in context to a premise that is firmly on the table – meaning it is not just “a” premise, but rather, the best possible premise, as defined by the criteria – then you are testing, expanding, enhancing and validating that story during the development process (again, either organically or planned). Which, in a functional process, may result in revising not only the ensuing draft, but the very premise that drives it.

The mistake, the common misstep, that shoves many stories off the cliff is this: the writer accepts the first premise that comes to mind as inspired by the original idea. They don’t hold it up to the light of analysis that juxtaposes it against criteria that always apply and always serve the goal of a more effective story, no matter what the process is.

In other words, a weak premise will yield a weak story. Even when it is well-written and is populated with richly drawn characters.

The goal for process is to render it compelling.

Which breaks down into criteria for effectiveness:

Is the premise a landscape for something dramatic? How dramatic? Could it be made more dramatic? In genre fiction, the more dramatic, the better.

Is the premise rich with thematic relevance? What buttons does it push? Why will anyone care about this story?

Does the premise offer an intriguing story world (setting, both time and place, as well as culturally and sociologically), with an inviting context framing a hero’s quest? What will the reader’s vicarious experience be?

Does the premise give your hero something worthwhile to do, driven by stakes that motivate, rendered dramatic by antagonism that challenges?

Is your story about something… rater than about something happening?

Which, turned inside out… Or is your premise merely the story world itself, or a character  him/herself, without giving your protagonist something inherently dramatic and challenging and important and empathetic to pursue and achieve?

If your answer to this last one is yes, then these criteria have served you, if you let them, because they show what may be lacking.  Because if your answer is yes, your story is already at risk.

The mistake, in that case, is to actually write that story without – or before – working to enrich the premise itself, so that it more closely aligns with these premise-specific criteria.

These are criteria, at first, for the premise.  

Once you begin your draft, these same criteria kick in to apply to the entire story arc – the manuscript itself.

Which is to say, if your premise doesn’t reach for these bars, your manuscript will likely fall short of them.

It is extremely difficult, often impossible, to launch a draft that will enrich or fix a premise that is inherently weak in these criteria… unless the draft evolves (changes) the premise. Such as draft thrusts you back into the search-for-story phase, simply by causing you to realize that your premise is weak.

Which occurs both for pantsed or planned drafts. Your process won’t take you there, it won’t save you, if you proceed without honoring the criteria. Which is why I contend that, once you reach the finish line, your process no longer matters.

But it does matter if you rely on the process to somehow empower your story to meet the criteria. It won’t.  Only the state of your current story sensibility will do that, and at all points on the process continuum.

Memorizing the criteria isn’t enough.  

Rather, you need to internalize them as the basis – the goals – for the work itself. In the way a doctor or pharmacist honors biochemistry. Or the way an architect or engineer honors the principles of stress-dependent design. These principles work when this is how you work, rather than some A-B-C thing you can’t readily apply to your first story idea. or worse, something you leave to chance in the naive idea that your idea is so strong that all the criteria will be met simply by getting it down on paper.

I just experienced this at a five-day monster “master class” workshop, preaching this gospel to 30 hungry and wide-open (process-wise) writers who never once pushed back on any of it. But then, when they were given the opportunity to pitch their stories, a few seemed to not have heard or understood a thing. Their premises were episodic, without a dramatic core arc. Their ideas were highly specific and less than resonant. In four-plus days of hearing the what and why of the principle-based criteria for an effective story, they never recognized that the story they arrived with was short of that standard.

Some of them at least. A minority, in fact. Others pitched ideas that did indeed honor the criteria for a premise and a compelling, dramatic story that spins from it. Some acknowledged that their story was indeed different after applying the criteria, which means their story sense had just escalated up the learning curve significantly.

The point: you can easily be so enamored with and seduced by your story idea – a story world, a theme, a character – and then the premise that springs from it (which of course is a given; if one writes a draft from an idea only, without having culled a premise from it, that is like beginning a race a mile behind the starting line) – to an extent that you fail to recognize any thinness in the way that idea aligns with the criteria, or even whether it is compelling and commercially viable at all.

It is rare when any idea emerges as a fully-formed premise.

An idea is not a premise.  

An idea is a seed that you must develop into a premise, one that meets the criteria presented here. Because an idea is, in most instances, only a story world or a theme or a character, or even a dramatic proposition, and as such it is, by definition, incomplete. It is on you, the author, to deepen and broaden your idea into a premise, which requires a working knowledge of what a premise is, and what it isn’t.

So what IS a premise?

Something that presents a dramatic proposition, that opens a dramatic path for your hero to take. One that leads to a core dramatic arc, which become the spine of the unspooling narrative itself. From this spine we show character and theme and subplot and subtext and all the other little bells and whistles of storytelling.

But without a core dramatic arc, you are left with several stacks of narrative focus, not of it connecting to and empowered by a dramatic question that gives the reader something to root for, rather than simply something to observe and marvel at.

The Two Things You Need to Solidify Before A Story Will Work

These being a more concise summary of the above:

  1.  You need a compelling premise – not just a flat or familiar or random or remote premise – that becomes a rich story stage or landscape or framing device.
  2. You need a cohesive, structurally-viable dramatic arc that is the narrative realization of that premise.

Because the dramatic arc IS the story.  Everything – and I mean everything in the manuscript – hangs form it.


A Tele-seminar from our friend, Art Holcomb.

You know Art Holcomb. He’s the maestro of storytelling, using the principles of story to teach screenwriters and novelists how to go deep, how to capture and harness the power of a compelling premise, and even how to optimize your process of doing so.

This tele-seminar, held on April 12th (6 pm Pacific), is entitled: “How To Be A Successful Writer in the 21st Century.”  A big picture perspective that just might escalate your story sensibility in unexpected ways.

Oh, almost forgot to mention… this tele-seminar is FREE.

Click HERE to learn more, to sign up, and to visit Art’s awesome site.




Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

7 Responses to The Key to Criteria-Driven Story Development

  1. Oh, wow. Sounds like an excellent seminar. I’m there. Thanks, Larry. Hope you’re doing well. Superb refresher!

  2. Good stuff. I always like to revisit these concepts that are an extension of your writing books, because each time, they get further cemented in my brain and eventually become automatic.

  3. Premise is one of those words where the true meaning is way too easy to miss. Like love or freedom. What do they *really* mean.

    As for those who pitched and missed, I know where they’re coming from. It’s possible to understand premise but not really understand it until you swing and miss. And by swing, I mean 80,000 words worth of swinging. For some of us (most of us?), we have to be willing to write that first book, even if we know it’s not quite right, to finally get the whole premise thing. I milked my flawed premise for all it was worth, and it fell short. But I learned a lot in the process. I will add that the value of that learning experience was greatly enhanced by Larry’s premise analysis. It was worth every penny. Even though I still missed, Larry’s help gave me a deep understanding that allowed me to really get at the core of the problem and see it in detail. Some of us have to start with figuring out what we’re doing wrong before we can do it right.

    I *know* my second book is getting it right. That’s in part because I *know* how my first book missed and why – something I couldn’t really understand until I actually wrote it.

    There are many layers to premise. It’s not just what the story is “about”. You can have hero, nemesis, stakes, theme, world and cool ride and still miss. It is truly a synergy. All of the elements need to start unfolding from the get go in a way that pushes you, the writer, along the story path. If you’re pulling your premise along, trying to set it up, it may still need work. If it has a natural “story force” of its own, then you’re onto something.

    I would also submit that a good premise probably starts in motion right off the bat. The premise for my second book kicked things off from scene one. First sentence, even. It just couldn’t wait. It said it would explain later. I’m not talking about hook, first plot point or concept; I’m talking about a core cause that is at the root of the premise that immediately begs for an effect that has dramatic import. A good premise is an undeniable force that storms its way to the front of the story and insists that everything revolve around it.

    That’s where I’m at with my understanding of premise anyway. I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

  4. @ Mike – well done, great demonstration of your grasp of premise, and the honoring of the high bar premise demands. Writers should read your response here with every bit of openness and sense of discovery that the post itself was intended to deliver.

    For those readers… Mike’s journey has been one of massive epiphanies, subtle shifts and a deepening understanding of how and why novels are so demanding. He’s going places with this.

    @ Sue and Carrie – I always marvel at, and am grateful for, the names that tend to show up here in my dwindling Comments section are those of students of the craft, both of you having harnessed the principles to write terrific novels of your own. You, too, are truly going places.

  5. MikeR

    As I’ve said here before, one of my favorite and most-informative books was “The Trouble With Tribbles,” by David Gerrold. In this book, David relates first-hand the travails of an earnest young screenwriter trying to land his first screenplay, with the original Star Trek series. (Of course, he had utterly no idea that “one day” his story would become an icon. No, he frankly just wanted to SELL the damned thing.)

    The process of selling a story to a television show begins by internalizing the show’s “writer’s guidelines” until your face looks like them. 😉 Then, you get to “pitch” a … story treatment. Just to get The Powers That Be to invite you (“by invitation only!”) to submit a Summary, which (if The Gods Smile) might become the approval to submit an actual Script … which, before the shooting ends, will have pages with every color of the rainbow.

    Notice how the process is focused at every point upon “saving time” while ultimately “reliably and consistently producing a commercial product.”

    And just-maybe this is a point that should be emphasized a little more: “your book is to become a profitable commercial product.” Publishers are interested because (and, only if) they think they can sell copies. They’re gamblers, yes, but they also hedge their bets. They’re “always looking for something new,” to a limited(!) extent, but they also know what works – and, what their Gentle Readers want.

    As an author, then, you have two goals. Of course you want to produce a book that your fellow readers will want to read. But, in order to do this, you must produce a book … not only that “they will want to buy,” but that “publishers will be willing to take-a-chance to sell to them.” BUSINESS, after all, is like that.

  6. I took a year or so away from novel writing and putzed around with screenplays. Both harder and easier and ultimately, not for me. At least not yet.

    But in the context of this post, I think the “premise” is extremely similar to the screenplay’s “log line”: “The [hero] must overcome [antagonistic forces] by [ticking clock element] or [the horrible that will happen if the hero fails].


    I found that a concise, single sentence log line (in addition to the necessary structural elements) made the journey to a “final draft” much easier.

    • Good to see you back here, Tony. I agree, a logline is a great tool to express premise. Mainly as a pitching device, though. A longer premise is more useful as a story development tool, culling out the specific elements you mention over a few sentences… then perhaps working backward from there toward a true “logline” format. It’s all good stuff.

      Glad you went over the the dark side (screenwriting) for a while. As you now know, there is a lot to learn there, and they tend to learn the key things quicker than novelists do. I maintain learning screenwriting is one of the best things a novelist can do, especially early in the journey.

      Thanks for commenting today, stay in touch!