My best ideas come to me when I’m doing laundry, vacuuming, grocery shopping.
At first you may have a million ideas, and you could be driving to Walmart for milk, and this one scenario in your mind starts out like a bit of swirling dust and gathers into a raging tornado just beyond your windshield. And your pulse goes into overdrive.
That heart-pounding scenario in your head is an idea, a situation, a concept. It is not the premise of your book, but concept is the first step toward your premise.
- Your Premise is the germ of your book.
- Your Premise is your entire novel summed up in one single sentence (and showing the moral arc)
When I started to write Shadowed in Silk, I had the idea of a woman who is married to a philandering alcoholic, and who falls helplessly in love with an honorable Christian man. A good idea, but I needed to develop this into my premise, not only to sell my novel to an agent or acquisitions editor, but most especially to potential readers.
Besides, since my audience was CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) how was I going to write this book that dealt with the difficult subject of spousal abuse, divorce, and falling in love with another man without being called a heretic?
I believe in the sanctity of marriage so my premise had to show that.
I started out with 5 basic keys to a fiction novel.
Your novel needs a protagonist that readers can care about, and your character must also care about something deeply. What does your character want, long for, need?
What event propels your character out of their ho-hum life and into a story journey that will have them either reach their goal or destroy them?
Without conflict you simply do not have a story. What tension, resistance, etc. will keep your characters from attaining their goals or getting what they want?
That building disaster that takes up most of the middle of your novel, and each time your main character gets close to their goal, something pulls them back, with worsening and worsening situations until…
5. CLIMACTIC OUTCOME
The characters reach a situation where the catastrophe will destroy them or they use the moral lessons they have learned throughout the story journey to overcome the dilemma and achieve their goal, need, desire, love interest, etc.)
For an object lesson, I have dissected Shadowed in Silk (my first book) step-by-step below.
1. CHARACTER: Abby Fraser is a young but lonely married woman with a 3-year-old boy who all her life has felt invisible to those who should have loved her.
2. CIRCUMSTANCES: The First World War is over at last, and Abby and her son sail to India to be reunited with her soldier husband.
3. CONFLICT: But Abby discovers that her husband is a philandering, abusive alcoholic. To make matters worse Abby becomes attracted to a kind Christian man who would be shocked and dismayed if he knew how she felt about him.
4. CATACLYSM: The political situation in India worsens, and the mistress of Abby’s husband (along with an enemy of her husband) uses this opportunity to kidnap Abby’s little boy, forcing Abby to choose the Christian ideals that Geoff, her godly protector, has tried to teach her.
5. CLIMACTIC OUTCOME: Geoff goes out to the desert to rescue Abby’s son, but so too does Abby’s husband, and in the desert, as Abby learns to lean on God for all her needs, it is there that God decides who lives and dies, and who will be Abby’s husband.
Now I take those 5 points, to condense them, and condense them again and again, into one strong moral premise that will be the backbone of my novel, and something I can recite to people in 30 seconds or less.
FINAL PREMISE FOR SHADOWED IN SILK
A young mother in the last days of the Indian Raj with an abusive husband fights a forbidden attraction to the godly man who tries to protect her and her son, until a dangerous upheaval forces her to choose the godly ideals of her protector, ideals that will not only lead her away from him but also away from her abusive husband.
Admittedly, looking back, this premise looks very neat, but that’s because all of the major thinking was already done. In the project I am currently writing, each of the 5 story points started out with a full page.
Working on your premise first, forces you to develop your story arc before you even start typing your outline.
The lesson regarding Premise is one that I learned the hard way, having written my entire debut novel with no clue what premise was. I could have shaved a few years off the writing of that first novel if only I’d known what I know now.