On The Premises

Monday, October 25, 2010

I spent some time this weekend, despite flying a number of hours, working on what I had called--until recently--a synopsis for my NaNoWriMo project.  I now realize I've been using the wrong term and, if my information is correct, the product I have actually been developing is called a premise. 

That particular insight was mined from James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers, a fantastic book to have just digested considering my busy November.  Another great I finished only last week is Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel.  If you haven't read these both, I highly recommend them.

To be clear, a synopsis is second cousin to an outline or treatment (although I believe the term treatment is more commonly used for screenplays).  A synopsis' purpose is to detail all the differing plot lines, scenes, etc.  In other words, it's a semi-detailed recipe of what happens.

A premise is more basic and simply sketches the broad outlines of the story in general terms, with enough detail in a few lines to catch someone's interest.  This is also similar in scope to a pitch.  If a synopsis is a photograph, a premise is a watercolor painting.

My preference in a premise is to try to capture three primary components:

1) The chief story problem/inciting incident.

2) The action/reaction of the main character to the story problem or situation.  This sustained motivation and the obstacles encountered become the general confict arc of the novel.

3) Complications or reversals needed to sustain the second half of the story, and keep up conflict.

What I discovered over the last year--and this seems more true of story ideas I am confused about or unsure of--is that the act of getting the premise down on paper really focuses things.  I am forced to choose specific actions through careful verb choice, pick main characters, untangle confusing scenes or deal with unrealistic motivations.  Nine times out of ten, I walk away from the premise-writing exercise with a much clearer understanding of the story I am trying to write or edit.

At this early stage, this is also true of my NaNoWRiMo project, Daisy.  Here it is for you reading pleasure:

Doctors diagnose Daisy who's been in and out of hospitals for most of her sixteen years with a rare and lethal form of brain cancer.  Opposed to an experimental treatment that promises to turn Daisy’s final days into a torturous, excruciating nightmare, her father Kodi “kidnaps” her. 
Together father and daughter flee across the country, trying to outwit law enforcement and stay one step ahead of Daisy’s mother, who has made their flight—and the uncertain future of her daughter—a national news story.  On the road, Daisy and Kodi each discover a love they never bargained for, and learn that life is about more than looking for an exit.

I'd be very interested in hearing your comments or suggestions.  It will be fascinating to see if this premise is still accurate after the first draft is done.  I'll keep you posted.

What about you?  What process(es) do you use to refine your understanding of you WIP?  Got a premise you'd like to share in the comments?

8 bolts from the blue:

Travener said...

Sounds good. A question: has she been in and out of the hospital all her life with brain cancer (which should have killed her by now) or something else? If it's something else, why introduce a new element rather than just have whatever other ailment she has working toward its final conclusion (death) when up pops the so-called miracle treatment?

Me, I have no great advice on plotting. Just start with the idea, write down disparate ideas, try to throw them in some logical order, write a synopsis, keep filling it in/filling it out and refining it until you're ready to write.

Good luck!

Anne R. Allen said...

I love this premise. The medical-industrial complex is a formidable antagonist. I also like the idea of a positive father-daughter story. I don't know about the brain cancer thing Travener brought up, but I wouldn't worry about it too much. You probably want a history of medical traumas that sparks the escape, but she could have some other form of cancer that moves to the brain. I'm a big fan of write it first and research and tweak later. (I've just blogged about how NaNo helps us overcome the urge to procrastinate with research.)

Tara said...

Sounds like a tear-jerker! Good luck with NaNo.

Liza said...

Yep. Brain cancer is a fast traveler...but you can solved that by changing the illness. Am I the only sick-o that thinks the love between dad and daughter sounds fishy? That's an easy fix though.

Jon Paul said...

Trav--What I have in my head is that she's had a variety of illnesses which has kept her from having much of a life/childhood, and also kept the relationship between Daisy and her father from developing. So, as you point out, brain cancer doesn't work for a long-term illness, but becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. In my head, two important parts of Kodi's motivation to take Daisy away are that she hasn't had much of a life, and that he feels he hasn't been much of a father.

Anne--Thanks for your kind words. Writing it first and researching it later is exactly what I'm doing this time out--and that is a complete departure from my normal process. We'll see how she turns out.

Tara--Thanks, and I think one of the challenges will be not tipping over into melodrama or sentimentality. I recently finished The Pilot's Wife and I think Anita Shreve did a fantastic job of not letting the emotion get out of hand--which made the story very moving and powerful. That's what I'll be aiming for.

Liza--If by "love", you mean the use of that word in the premise, I agree. I struggled with a better choice there, but couldn't come up with one.

If, instead, you mean love between father and daughter as a story element, I can see how that could be a concern. I think keeping it fresh will rely on making sure that there is a clear internal conflict (Daisy has to be a strong character, and what she wants doesn't coincide with what dad wants) in addition to the external conflict (law enforcement, mom in chase). If I can pull that off, then I think it won't be cliche.

Thanks guys for your detailed comments, and for stopping by!

Claire Dawn said...

So I'm ready to go out and buy it. Hurry up and get it written already!

Lola Sharp said...

Dude, you're doing an awful lot of prep-work to call it 'pantsing'. ;)

That said, I love the story premise.

I think Daisy having one kind of cancer that moves to the brain, like Anne said, which is 'common' and believable and works with the in and out of hospitals scenario, is a perfect explanation. And since most of that will be back story, the info doesn't have to (shouldn't) be detailed or specific, merely mentioned.

We're getting close...it's almost time... I'm excited...

Jon Paul said...

Claire--At the end of November, I should be first draft complete. Then 2-3 months of Revision Hell and I'll be ready for readers/betas. I'd love to have you take a peak if you're interested. BTW, know any successful literary agents looking for unknown, first-time novelists to sign? :D

Lola--By your standards, which I am frankly in awe of, the rest of us are all plotters. ;P But what you see is all the work I've done, which is miles shy of the detailed biographies and plotline development I typically construct.

Yeah, I need to find a word other than stoked because I feel like I'm saying it too much. It's gonna be a blast! :D

Thanks ladies for swinging by!

Waddaya wanna say?

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