When Theme Smothers Premise — A Case Study

Today’s title pretty much sums what I want you to notice–and learn from–in this case study, taken from my Concept/Premise Level Analysis service.

I’d lecture here about the risk of too much thematic emphasis, but that’s already in my feedback, for your enlightenment.

Read it here: July 16 case study

Anxious to see what you think.  Feel free to chip in your feedback, this author volunteered these answers not only so you might gain something, as she did… but also, so that she might benefit from more eyes and brains on the same story.


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17 Responses to When Theme Smothers Premise — A Case Study

  1. As for ordinary guys: It’s OK if he’s ordinary as long as he has the tools and abilities from the beginning to do what he needs to do to be heroic. There can be a leap at the end, but it still has to be set up credibly within the toolkit he has available to him as a character. If the skills, abilities and strengths are there in a credible way, I think “odinary guy” will be fine. If you pull “But then he remembered he was a Jack Reacher prototype” at the climax, you’re going to get creamed. Just set it up credibly from the get go. Starting with whatever abilities he has that enable him to get the journal in the first place.

    I can’t really comment (well) on the whole family thing without knowing how it’s tied into the main plot. I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt, IF the notion of families is a threat to the interests of the bad guy and are, for some reason, something that is hard/risky to have. Skinnerian obliteration of the family unit is common material in science fiction and may have a place here. Just make sure it’s plot-relevant. If it’s a *personal* revelation, then yeah, it’s subplot. In either case, let the theme exhibit itself as a byproduct of the story as our hero tries to save the world.

    Advice from somebody who has gone through a premise analysis with Larry and wrote a book that flopped for the reasons he said it would: write your story. There is something important to learn in trying to resolve the problems Larry has brought up, especially if this is your first book. But you can only learn the very best lessons by actually writing the book as you try to resolve these issues. Understanding is not enough. Making it work is an order of magnitude higher. Do your best to make it a good story with a rip-roaring plot and compelling drama with the ideas you have. The vast majority of us can’t write a good book the first time, so don’t worry about it too much. Just do your best anyway. His analysis will be far more meaningful after you’ve written 80,000 words trying to make it all work.

    • Mike — good, thoughtful stuff. Won’t push back on any of it. I will suggest, though, that anyone WITH the toolkit we both agree needs to be there… that person isn’t normal. May be living a “normal” life — the assassin next door — but I think the author was going for “a normal guy” in a very literal sense, and that could mean (this being the risk) that requisite tool kit is not there. A normal guy or woman will not save the world. Such a character needs to be extraordinary, and on many levels.

  2. Here are my two cents’ worth, in an effort to be helpful. I love the concept of longevity–who wouldn’t want to read about that? But what struck me was a lack of specificity. A novel like this has to have a scientific concept that is understandable. It has to be believable, and it has to be big.

    Like THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. Sure, there’s a chase because aging civil servants are being murdered. But why? Because Dr. Mengele cloned Hitler, and he also set up the boys in exact replicas of Hitler’s childhood home life (his civil servant father died at a specific age, etc.) So the hope is that the combination will produce a new Hitler just like the old one. Wow.

    What’s the scientific concept in this novel? “A longevity drug” and “falsified drug trials and cell mutation.” I don’t get it. I’m very much afraid the author hasn’t come up with an understandable, believable, big scientific concept, and that’s why she punts to the theme of family instead???

    Or maybe she has thought it all out and feels the premise stage is too early to reveal this? Is it, Larry? I’ll defer to you on that. But it just seems to me the novel is dead in the water without it.

  3. This is great coaching, Elizabeth. The specificity of the plan is critical. It may be fine to leave it vague at the premise stage, as long as the purpose of the technology and the agenda of the people behind it are clear. We are trying to stop the villains as much as their technology’s dark application. But the specific nature of the “nefarious plan” is critical to concept, it is what makes it conceptual, and therefore fascination. The example you offer is apt. Thanks for chipping in today, and helping this writer immensely.

  4. I am reminded of my earliest attempts, where my not-so-secret agenda was to make a point, not to tell a great story (which might, along the way, make a point.)

    A great story will almost always inspire us to “make a point” in our own heads. Thing is, we each get to make our own point, whether it’s the one the author wanted to make or not.

    Which is why, I suspect, so many of us start out with heavy-handed point-making instead of great storytelling.

    I’m with y’all: there’s something here that could be a great story—as long as the story comes before the point it wants to make.

  5. Beth

    I read family as a biological word, not an emotional theme. As if living with your bloodline is required but the world is moving away from this, as one scenario, and the emotional part is only a subplot.

    A good scientist writing for a business manager to be able to review their work will present their conclusions in plain language and only use jargon in details. An average person could understand a journal like this.

    I have read many excellent books that start out with an average protagonist who is only revealed to be extraordinary by their actions in the face of adversity. Or am I misunderstanding the criticism?

    • Beth

      Or are you just saying these things need to be spelled out in the premise to avoid confusion? Not that they are not good story elements?

      • Hey Beth – actually, the premise first and foremost needs to do two things: be credible, and be compelling. Average guy saves mankind sounds fun, but it’s really not credible. No story has ever pulled that off (other heroics, yes, but saving mankind? That’s a whole different flavor of premise and problem).

  6. I was really hoping to read about the how. How does this scientific study impact the world? And why? Is there a ticking clock? If the protagonist doesn’t do X in time, then Y will happen. I’m assuming the journal holds the notes about the scientific breakthrough, and if so, then the “regular guy” better have an impressive background in the type of science contained in the journal, or the author will have a difficult time making the story work. Because a regular Joe Schmo would have no idea what he was looking at or what it meant if he “stumbled” across a journal filled with scientific notes. And that’s another thing the author should keep in mind. The protagonist needs a valid, concrete way for this journal to be found in the first place. Example: Joe Scientist lost his job and in retaliation he stole his boss’ journal. Because if this journal really holds something life-changing for the entire world, then you can bet the journal’s original owner would keep it under lock and key.

    • Note to the author: these questionnaires aren’t as easy as they seem. Larry tripped me up more than once over the years, but I listened to his advice and ended up with a much better story. The very best advice I can offer is to absorb the critiques offered here and in the questionnaire, and then wait for your emotions to calm down. Come back with fresh eyes in a day or two and get to work. And remember, we’re all rooting for you, or we wouldn’t bother trying to help.

  7. Robert Jones

    Larry’s feedback is spot-on. It may take time to understand what that feedback means. Yes, writing a first novel is always a learning experience. However, that doesn’t mean the experience needs to be a failure. In fact if you learn something from it then it’s not a failure at all. Taking a proper craft tools in hand the best way to ensure that success. Possibly even come out of the starting gate with a very publishable novel.

    Readers pay for an experience that is more interesting than what they share with friends, family, and co-workers. In other words, they don’t want to sit down with boring characters and spend a day, or a week, however long it takes them finish your novel in their spare time. Average connotes bland, uninteresting, cliched, boring. It doesn’t mean your character shouldn’t be relatable to everyday people. But keep in mind that even the ticket taker at the local movie theater has interests that reach beyond the confines of their daily routine, something that takes their imagination outside the norm. It’s those things that remove us from the doldrums of routine existence that readers look to in their choices of entertainment in order to escape. Your hero represents a vicarious experience. And a writer entertains their audience by pulling them into that experience by giving them a hero to root for, stakes that raise hope of resolution. This is all conveyed through the plight of your hero, obviously, but let’s camp on that for a few minutes in terms of what that means in terms of Larry’s feedback.

    Your hero has something within his make up, his background, that makes him the equal and opposing force to that of your villain. If not, what exactly are his motivation and qualifications in defeating such forces once the clash ensues? Resolution must be furnished by the actions of your hero. The average, boring guy would probably run to the police and turn the whole thing over to the authorities because the science would be beyond his understanding. I don’t have the science background or the research on hand to write this story presently, but let’s look at one potential example in order that you might see how you hero might become the other side of the argument in your core storyline.

    What if your average character is a biology teacher in grade school? Let’s for the sake of argument say that the journal in question arrives in the mail, or shows up in his possession in some equally mysterious fashion. In reading the journal he sees something familiar within the scientific theory that is causing the cell mutation. In fact, what if this theory might be his own? What if this seemingly bland, blah biology teacher was once a professor at a prestigious University? What if this theory had been his previous life’s work? What if it was deemed too radical by his academic colleagues? What if his own persistently dogged obsession to have his theory accepted cost this man his career, his family, everything that he once held dear? Maybe his theory was too good. Maybe it would have saved so many lives that it would have crippled much of the medical community in terms of becoming the booming business that it is today. However, that wouldn’t stop them from taking his theory and using it for their own benefit. His theory is out there, even if it was not accepted, and people take credit for the discovery of others all the time.

    Now your hero not only has something to fight for, but he is also in part responsible for what is happening. He has a huge reason to stay in the fight when things get tough. He has the street creds that make him the equal and opposing member of the fight against the scientists who are using his theory for their own game. Likewise, that scientific community needs to have one man who will become the face, the persona, who will oppose your hero. What if it is an old colleague of his from his university days? Possibly the man worked hard to squash his theory then and stole it because he saw it as a way to make his own fortune and power.

    This still doesn’t answer the question of what is specifically at stake. The idea proposed that the cellular mutation jeopardizes the future of humanity by killing more than just a few people. It sounds like it could be potential genocide. The writer having implied this doesn’t actually tell us that this is what’s happening. Nor does she tell us exactly how this will occur, the debilitating effects, the devastating horror, pain, all that readers need to see and feel in order to become emotionally invested in the plot. Fiction equals conflict, conflict equals the evoking of an emotion in your audience. That emotion is inciting their curiosity. If these things are in the writer’s head, great. But if they’re not on the page, how is anything happening that ignites this chain of emotionally vicarious events that will entice readers, agents, publishers, anyone at all? The writer may have a container filled with gasoline but it has not yet been poured into the gas tank of the vehicle where it may be ignited into something that drives the story.

    We are all guilty of this in the beginning and end up looking back and thinking, “Oh, wow…I was explaining things as if the reader would pick up on what was in my mind, but I didn’t really paint the picture on the page so they could see it as I do.” So you are among good company.

  8. Yes! Love this Concept. Really good starting juices in it. The things that I’m questioning are:

    > What does the Protagonist want in this story? What is his goal BEFORE the FPP and what is his goal after the FPP is introduced?
    > Who is going to oppose it and why?

    I think the scientist can make a great Antagonist, but his opposition needs to be in context to what the Protag wants AND there needs to be compelling reasons behind it. (Maybe the author has already thought of this stuff, but I didn’t see it come through in what she wrote.)

  9. Kerry Boytzun

    Okay I will write down first impressions. Apologies:

    Title doesn’t grab me. Title doesn’t imply a genre. Could be time travel, could be anything getting old?

    Speculative Fiction. I don’t know what that is.

    Concept: Longevity drug (for humans?) I am guessing drug causes sterility or very bad mutations of human babies, hence Mankind’s future in jeopardy?

    Most famous of this is Michael Crichton’s Andromeda strain novel that he wrote during/before the Apollo missions to the moon. The concept was astronaut would bring back space bacteria/virus that Earth had no defense against.

    ***This topic at that time was RED HOT, and I heard this book helped light the fire. Now this is a title that implies a bad biological attack. Andromeda also works the subconscious as it has ancient meanings to our past, mythology, and astro-theology. Ideally you want your story to latch onto something that causes a stir in the public mind. You don’t have to, but if you can, it can make things go viral. Back then, this book concept went viral.

    Falsified drug trials actually are FRESH. Anyone paying attention to today’s health research will note that MOST of today’s so called facts of pharmacy are MADE UP, especially anything to do with Vaccines. Hot topic there. Billions $ paid out to permanently damaged babies, children that is being kept hidden from the masses, who would rather pretend that Big Govt is trying to help them. ***So this part of the concept is GOOD.

    Ever note the side effects and warnings on the TV commercials for drugs? Most warnings are for the drug causing what it claims it cures. This stuff can be used in novels.

    Another similar concept is the movie Limitless where “super brain drug makes guy outsmart everyone”. Kind of Comic Bookish. Not for me but movie was popular. Beware of needing special effects to sell the movie. Too much special effects = weak story. The first Matrix movie is your BEST example of both (Matrix 2 and 3 were crap).

    BUT–what is the antagonistic force here? Bad Drug, scientists, Big Pharma?

    80 year old journal–does this make sense? Consider something authentic as in old and a lie in the drug world. Try researching the Polio Vaccines. You will learn it’s bogus if you step away from what is repeated, and instead look at the charted graphs of the disease. The disease was dying out BEFORE the vaccine was even made. Funny how polio made a huge comeback WITH the vaccine. BUT–what is the common reaction to this information I just gave you? Ridicule and people turn off their minds because it goes against what has been “repeated” for years. People don’t want to believe something “old” could be kept hidden other than those who like conspiracies.

    The point here, is the masses need something they can swallow, not something too “crazy” for them, true or not has nothing to do with it. If you are pushing commercial viability of your story, it has to be palatable. We’ll take a leap of faith, but if you are telling us
    that the Titanic never sank, but instead its sister ship, the Olympic was made to look like the Titanic and sank in order to kill Lord Asbury who was the main opposition to the Federal Reserve (all this happened and the Federal Reserve was born after the “Titanic” went down)–that is too much. Ooh, but label something a “conspiracy” and the mind shuts down. How handy to hide forensic investigation.

    Moving along, a larger target audience is ready for a journal (evidence of wrong doing) for a drug that is recent. Like everything to do with Vaccines and GMOs. While some of you have already started laughing, the joke is on you. This is out there, the whistle blowers are scientists, not arm chair dreamers. Really. Other parts of the world are onto this. America…not so much. Someone has to be last.

    The point here is can people wrap their head around your concept-theme? What can you do to make the pill easier to swallow?

    80 year old journal means multiple generations of scientists working on this project (nobody works for 80 years). Why did some keep quiet, or all of them? If you don’t prove this, you lose the audience, at least those of us who like a “who dunnit”. This is another reason to have recent journals. Easier to explain away 10 years of research.

    “Family is essential for true longevity.” ***As a person observing people getting in their eighties, I am NOT seeing a life that’s mobile and vibrant. It’s not about longevity, but about your physical mobility, mental mobility, and your mobility in society (money and being licensed. Try a life with no money and a police state. Are you really living?). As some of you have mentioned, what does “family” have to do with any of this? Babies being born perpetuate humans continuing on. What is killing the babies?

    Thus, this drug would have to be some kind of fountain of youth. If it really works, then you have people that look 25 that are 105 (been around 80 years). BUT this contradicts the drug is a problem or something to harm humanity. If it harms humanity, then it won’t even be noticed as people are developing cancer and other problems with an ever increasing frequency. We are already seeing a human race that is weaker (baby boomers and the next generation) than the previous ones. This is due to eating phony food and all the chemicals in the environment. This is a FACT. I hear someone getting cancer and chemo EVERY DAY. Or Parkinson disease, etc.

    The point is that nobody really is noticing all this, but Big Pharma is making billions on chemo that barely works. A so called cancer survivor is one that lives 7 years. If you die after that from cancer, that doesn’t make it to the statistics. Thus is it really believable that anyone will notice ANOTHER drug harming people? No, it’s clear they won’t. Why would your story be different? Stories of visual zombie plagues are loved by the masses, but the point is the plague is very noticeable. You see any deformed people walking around with flesh falling off in real life? BTW I think the zombie stuff has gotten real OLD.

    Nobody buys a novel for its theme? Ultimately, I agree with that. 50 shades of Grey’s theme is sexual domination. If that’s not the theme then what is it? I Googled Theme and got: (noun) the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic. Also: (verb) give a particular setting or ambience to (a venue or activity).

    What Larry means is that we can look for a theme we’re attracted to, (say Star Wars; Comic Con kind of crime fighter) but there has to be a STORY to make repeat sales work. The Bourne Identity is a theme of military brain-washed assassin is trying to find his soul again, live a good life, albeit his search is triggered by amnesia. THIS is what you are looking for with theme and concept. It’s catchy and something you can wrap your head around something that is important. Movies like “the hangover”–other than an excuse for YouTube humor–what is the point of it? Sorry, I’m not into mindless laughter. I still think, and am not compliant, other than keeping a job to pay the bills.

    Larry said “hero”. Someone who rises above the so called normal person in society. Consider the normal person in society: obedient, keeps their mouth shut, obeys authority, COMPLIANT. If you behave like that in your personal life, will you ever try anything outside your comfort zone? What if life circumstances changed and you were put in a position of backing down, or fighting for your own life, the life worth living, instead of just being someone’s cog in the wheel? Many of us are forced into the cog of the wheel life because of financial commitments and children. I get it. BUT these people want to WATCH and READ about someone who did what they DREAM of.

    The series DEXTER. Protagonist is performing justice on those that are getting away with murder. How many famous people are you seeing in the news getting away with EVERYTHING and if you did even half of what they did–you would be in jail? People DREAM about the hero, being the hero.

    So in this case, the author says the protagonist is an average person. Okay, they can “appear” to be average, BUT they must have what it takes to DO whatever it takes. BUT, you have to “show” that this persons has the capabilities to be heroic, as in SKILL. Joe couch potato that does no exercise, is not a bar fighter, has no weapons training–won’t be able to defeat any security force that is protecting the 80 year old journal drug and evil scientists. Not gonna happen. EVER.

    So you have to show a character that has that skillset. Rocky worked because he was a boxer before getting trained to fight the champ. It was believable. How many times do you hear about Joe Citizen being robbed at gun point, raped, whatever? When have you EVER heard about a conceal and carry guy getting robbed? NEVER. In fact, there are a LOT of stories hidden from the public about these conceal and carry people taking out robbers at the grocery store, etc. The people are TRAINED. Your hero needs to be trained, and can’t learn it quick, like the Karate Kid crap. In real life, the Karate Kid would have been beat to a pulp because all he did was wash and wax cars. Only an idiot believes that character could do what he did. Utter nonsense.

    The point is the author has to SHOW a believable hero, with at least a “leap of faith” predicament” such as aliens, conspiracies, etc. We want to see something exciting, but it has to be palatable. Unless you are doing movies like Transformers where anything goes because it’s ALL special effects and boobs.

    A story is kind of like you’re a lawyer, making a statement about your client’s innocence or the other guy’s guilt. Now you must prove it by SHOWING the court your so called proof. An attorney told me that it’s the best STORY that wins in court.

    Think about proving your story to the jury. Do they care about your hero and his predicament? What he was forced to do by the antagonistic force.

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