Lesson #3 – Your Premise
Of course, characters don’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t let your characters loose to do your writing until you establish a few other things. Now some writers don’t like to start actually writing until they’ve plotted out their entire story ahead of time via scene cards, an outline, or some other “system.” Now there’s nothing wrong with that. Writers who are most comfortable with that should do what works for them. However, I can’t do that. Personally I find that plotting before my characters have had a chance to come to life is not only boring for me, but is dry and passionless and just feels “manufactured.”
If you feel uncomfortable starting your book without more structure than what I describe below, by all means, outline or plan your scenes until you are comfortable. But if you’re confident that you’re an intuitive writer—even if, as some of you say, you’re just a “little” intuitive—give it a try and go for it!
So it all depends on what kind of writer you are and what you feel comfortable with. But if you want to let your characters do your plotting, YOU can’t. You need to trust your characters and listen to what they’re telling you. And believe me, your characters will talk to you! Scary as it sounds, I’ve written several of my novels without having any idea what was going to happen at the end. For one of my books, I didn’t even know who the villain was until I got to the end! All my stories worked out. As I tell people, “the characters wrote the book!”
Now, there’s no cut and dried formula for telling a writer how plot from the characters, but what I’ve found is that if you’re able to make your characters “come alive,” they will talk to you. You’ll “know” what’s right and what’s wrong for the character, and you’ll know if you go off on a wrong tangent. You have to trust your feelings.
Still, as I said, you can’t let your characters loose until you establish a few basic story elements. You need a premise, a setting, and you need that specific moment in your character’s life that begins your story.
Obviously before you need to start writing, you need to have a basic premise for your story. Can you sum up what your story is about in 25 words? If so, brief as that is, you have a premise. Both your characters and plot can evolve and change as you write, but it’s necessary to have a beginning. Even if you don’t know how the book will end, you have to have a starting point.
Decide where your story will take place. It can be a real city, a fictional city, or in the case of science fiction/fantasy, a made-up world. In my novels, I’ve used all of the above for my setting. Your decision on setting will largely be determined by your genre and your own personal experiences. If you’ve been lucky enough to have traveled widely, you’ve got a lot of great options for settings. If you haven’t done a lot of traveling, you can always either choose your hometown as a setting or you can plan a trip to research an area. I’ve set stories in Chicago, Milwaukee and Michigan because I’ve lived in those places. I’ve also set a few books in Arizona and various southern states, but not without numerous visits and a lot of research. There’s no excuse for any writer not to research as thoroughly as possible.
In any case, I would suggest choosing a setting that you’re comfortably familiar with. The worst thing you can do is choose a setting you’ve never been to and have only done minimal research on. Readers familiar with your setting will spot your inconsistencies. Once your reader is immersed in your story, you don’t want to jerk them out of the world you’ve created, be it real or fictional. And don’t think you can avoid research by creating a fictional setting–that’s a cop-out. Even fictional settings have to “make sense” to readers.
Again, your time period will largely depend on your genre. Are you writing a historical, a contemporary, or a futuristic story? For me, since I write about vampires, I always deal with both a current story and a detailed backstory. Once again, do whatever research is necessary for the time period you choose. Don’t pick a historical setting if you’re unfamiliar with that time period. Again, knowledgeable readers will spot your mistakes and will not be pleased! And don’t choose a futuristic setting as a way of getting around having to research a time period. Science fiction and futuristics take MORE research than many other genres, not less. I’ve written two science fiction romances, and both took on average three times longer to write than my contemporary romances.
Determine When the Brick Falls
In order for your characters to write your book for you, you have to provide them with a good running start. The first chapter of your book, and specifically the first few pages, are extremely important. This is what hooks your reader and keeps them going versus reading a page or two, putting the book down, and never picking it back up again. It’s very important to know at what exact point in your character’s life to start your story. So how do you know when that moment is? It’s when “the brick falls.” It’s the exact moment when something happens in your character’s life to change it forever. Hopefully it’s an exciting or intriguing moment–something out of the ordinary–that signals to the reader, if not the character, that more exciting/intriguing moments are waiting just around the corner.
How to write a great hook is a whole ‘nother workshop, but in general, try to avoid first chapter gimmicks–prologues and dream sequences, for example– and also try to avoid paragraphs and paragraphs of narrative. Avoid the temptation to “set up the scene” – it’s better to plunge right into whatever is happening to your character. You can always insert bits of narrative as you go if need be.
Here’s something to try at home: Take your current WIP and describe the premise of your book in 25 words or less. This is an excellent exercise and will come in handy for promotional purposes once your manuscript is published. In designing ads and requesting reviews, you will need a 25 word or less blurb about your book. If you take the time now to come up with several different 25-word blurbs, it will not only pay great dividends for you later on, but will help you focus on exactly what your characters’ ultimate goals are. If you don’t actually have a work in progress but only an idea for a book, try to condense your idea into 25 words.
If you like, please post your 25-word blurb on a new thread. If you only do one assignment this week, do this one! Trust me – it’s that important.