Friday, February 25, 2011

Premise Novels are Evil

Alright my loyal minions, one of my clients decided to share her sinus infection with me (seriously people, if you're sick, don't get a massage. Just reschedule. We don't mind. Honest.) so if today's post makes no sense, I shall stick to my previous claims of "the NyQuil did it".

Anyway, today I wanted to tell you why premise novels are evil. I shall first explain what I mean by "premise." You also hear them called high concept. As the wiki link tells you, a premise or high concept novel is where you can easily explain the story in a few sentences, and it usually manages to imply a lot about characters, theme, and plot.

It's why the high concept idea is sought after like a mystical unicorn in the woods. So often we struggle to explain our stories in a few sentences or less, while simultaneously conveying the richness and depth of the story and characters. Having a high concept (What if there was a psychiatrist who helped a little boy who saw ghosts--but the psychiatrist was actually a ghost?) seems like it would solve all those problems, right? Gone are the long hours you spend coming up with a catchy way to sum up your book. Gone is the hair-pulling, mind numbingly hard attempts of taking your entire plot and boiling it down into the most important few sentences.  

When the first idea you have for a novel is the premise, you feel like you won the lottery. At least, that's how I felt. I had this really amazing what if premise, and could see all the possibilities the novel could take. Because the first idea *was* the premise, I was also able to easily write a mock query letter, and figure out what my plot was about. I thought it would be easier to write a novel starting with a premise, than starting with two characters and a vague feel for their relationship, with nary a plot in sight (which is how I normally have book ideas).

I was sorely mistaken. This book has been one of the most difficult stories I've written, and I am convinced that it's partially because I started with a premise first.

Your experience might be different, but I would like to warn you about the troubles I faced with my high concept idea. I think some of these warnings will also serve you well if you usually get ideas for characters first, but it just so happens you get a plot-related idea for a novel that you'd like to run with. But again, this is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

1. Having a high concept doesn't mean you actually have a story or characters. 

Let's use The Sixth Sense as an example. I have no idea how M. Night Shyamalan came up with the idea for The Sixth Sense, but let's pretend it was the premise. What if a psychiatrist tried to help a boy who saw dead people, and what if he was also dead?

At first glance, you'd think I've fallen victim to the NyQuil. "There are so characters in that idea, and even the suggestion of a plot."

This is true--there is the suggestion of characters and plot. The problem lies in the assumption that you already have the idea for the characters. You mentally check off that you've thought of who should be in the story and you move on.

The same thing happens with the plot. In coming up with the story all at once, you don't spend the same sort of time trying to think of what your characters could be doing in the story, or why they are even there. You skip some really important experimentation phases in story development.

Sometimes you realize this in the middle of writing the story, that you don't have the right characters in the right place (which is what happened to me) and other times you get all the way to the end, propelled on the strength of your high concept, and realize while a bunch of cool stuff happens, it's not exactly a story (which happens in a lot of M. Night Shyamalan's movies. He has this really great idea, but fails to properly flesh out the characters and plot until the story implodes onto itself). 

2. You feel married to the premise.

I didn't particularly have this problem, but I've heard horror stories. You have such a cool premise, it's hard to give it up if the story doesn't want to come together. It's really tempting to go with the "oh cool!" idea for the wrong reasons. It will be easier to pitch to agents and editors. It will make writing a query letter slightly less painful. After awhile you feel like having a cool premise is the end all-be all of writing the book, instead of the other way around. 

Don't fall into this trap. Your story should make sense--both in the characters and plot. If that somehow breaks your cool premise, it's okay. Sometimes the cool premise is the springboard you use to get to an even better plot. 

The main point the NyQuil and I are trying to make is that while it's really great to have a premise idea, don't fail victim to it's trap like I did. Just because you have this great high concept doesn't mean you don't still have to spend lots of time fleshing out the characters and plot. 

What about you? Have ever had a cool premise idea, but stalled out trying to make it into a story?


  1. Very good ideas. Well thought out. I agree with a lot of what you've said, and I plan on keeping it in mind as I write. Thanks!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  2. I usually start off with a premise and write it down, but don't even think about attempting the story until I've let that premise stew for a while. Eventually the characters and plot come together in my head and that's when I start writing. I couldn't imagine how hard it would be to write from a premise alone.

  3. Sarah: Thanks! I am glad it made sense!

    Sierra: in hindsight, that's what I should have done. But I was seduced into thinking I already had the characters and plot worked out.