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Designing Your Novel’s Premise


Where do you get your ideas? If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked this wrong-headed question. . . .

Ah, well.

When a non-writer asks me this question, basically, I just smile and lie, because the truth is more complicated, less magical, indeed, a good deal grubbier than most people who are just making conversation really care to hear. If you tell them that it’s work — hard work — they look at you like they suspect that you must be doing it wrong.

There seems to be a myth floating around out there that story ideas pop full-blown into our imaginations like Athena out of the head of Zeus. Sheee-yah.

Good ideas aren’t found, they’re made.

They take time (for me, months) of effort, research, discussion/feedback, and certain amount of good old-fashioned banging the head against the wall to get something really solid and ‘fresh.’

The finished product should have a zing to it that gives me if not outright goose-bumps, at least a shivery, electrifying excitement that I just can’t wait to write the book. I need this kind of impetus if I’m going to have to live with the story every day for months on end.

A key skill you develop as you grow as a writer is the ability to distinguish between good, better, and not-so-great story ideas. Why are some ideas better than others? How can ‘okay’ story premises be built into really hot ideas? Let’s start with the building blocks of a good idea.

Personal Involvement

If an idea or theme does not have resonance for you personally, then forcing yourself to write about it is a waste of time. Everyone has their personal hot buttons. Everyone gets excited by different concepts and motifs. I’m no shrink, but there’s a reason why authors tend to write book after book cogitating on the same themes. What resonates for you is determined by the issues lurking in your subconscious mind. The best way to get in touch with these issues is to keep a journal or diary where you can examine the contents of your own heart and head and the events in your life that have caused you the most angst, pain, and (hopefully) growth. When people say ‘write what you know,’ this is what they mean or should mean. Write about the internal experiences that you know.

Genre Conventions

All genre fiction has certain conventions that must be met. Know them and keep them in mind when designing your story premise. No need to over-think this. It’s pretty obvious what they are. Example: Heroes and heroines should be heroic, admirable, better than average. (This is true for all genres, from sci-fi to thrillers to Westerns. The heroic tradition in literature from Achilles and Odysseus onward calls for protagonists who are superior in mind, body, or both but especially in their noble qualities.) Knowing that heroic characters are needed will steer you away from story premises that call for the protagonists to do unheroic things; or if they must do something unheroic, you know that they must have a heroic reason for doing it.

There are too many genre conventions to list here. The more you read in your genre, the more you will become familiar with them. Overused conventions are called CLICHES. If you are considering something that you suspect may be a cliche, find some way to twist it to make it, as the editors constantly say, ‘fresh.’

High Concept

High concept is a Hollywood term that refers to a premise that may be somewhat far-fetched but has pizzazz, ’instant appeal’, a ‘crowd pleaser.’ Not all stories need a high concept, but an exciting story premise that can be encapsulated in a short, powerful blurb is easier to sell to an editor, and easier for the editor, in turn to sell to the sales and marketing department, and easier for them, in turn, to sell to the public. High concept stories also tend to be a lot of fun.

To me, Michael Creighton is a master of high concept. Ideas don’t come much bigger than Jurassic Park. As we can learn from Creighton, one way to create high concept is to combine in a new way two exciting, known, or beloved ideas that people are interested in: Disneyworld meets dinosaurs.

Dan Brown has also achieved a great high concept with The DaVinci Code: The mysteries of DaVinci’s genius crossed with the mysteries surrounding the life of Jesus.

Another example is one of my all-time favorite books, The Stand, by Stephen King. (If you haven’t read this book, you don’t know what you’re missing!) King crosses an end-of-the-world plague or disaster story with a supernatural battle between good and evil, and makes it all work with a cast of unforgettable, seemingly everyday folks who must rise to the occasion to become heroes to save the world! I love this book.

In romance, a story that stands out in my mind as a great high-concept idea is Candice Proctor’s Night in Eden. Proctor unites the captive/indentured-servant motif with the man-needs-woman-to-care-for-his-child convention, and she wove the two together with powerful characters and beautiful writing.

Finally, I might add that I launched my own career with a high-concept story, The Pirate Prince. Lazar is a young royal prince of a Sicilian-style Italian island kingdom whose family is assassinated and overthrown; he escapes the killers by leaping into the sea, where he’s fished out and enslaved by Barbary corsairs. Years later, he is a pirate captain and returns to carry out his vendetta on the people who killed his family. Naturally, the heroine is the daughter of the puppet-governor that the real villains put in charge of the island.

But even if you don’t really have a high concept for your story, there are ways to build up your premise in scope and intensity to give your novel added power well before you even start writing. First, it takes brainstorming.

Brainstorming Techniques

I mentioned that it takes me months to come up with a new story premise. It does. Normally, I write new material for my work-in-progress six days a week, but not on Sundays. Instead, each Sunday, I spend about two hours brainstorming ideas for my next book. Doing this over a period of months gives the next idea plenty of time to mature. It gives me plenty of time to consider it from many different angles, and to check the necessary research materials to make sure it’s feasible. Here are some pointers for effective brainstorming.

You can brainstorm by yourself or with a small group. If you choose the latter, make sure you pick people with whom you are comfortable. It is crucial that you feel at ease enough with them to throw out wacky-sounding ideas without feeling stupid. At this juncture, you are NOT to judge your ideas or anyone else’s.

It’s good to space out your brainstorming sessions in time because your subconscious mind will be working on the problem while your conscious mind is involved in other things. That’s why I like to do it once a week. In between sessions, I don’t think about it at all. Of course, if I do have a sudden inspiration, I jot it down and stick it in my new folder that I prepare for each new novel. Then I forget about it till Sunday. Forgetting about it is actually a crucial part of the process!

When it’s time to brainstorm, any and all ideas are welcome, from the ordinary to radical and wildly impractical. Don’t judge their value yet. Write them all down (brainstorming groups can record it on audiotape, or online brainstorming chat groups can run a chat log so none of the ideas will be missed). Don’t dwell on one idea for too long; don’t get stuck or fixated on only one possibility.

If you stall out, you can get the ideas flowing again by asking a pertinent question, especially a ‘What if?’ question. Here are just some examples: What if I reversed the hero and heroine’s role in this set-up? What if the heroine isn’t really what she appears to be? What if I took out this heroine and instead substituted a totally different sort of woman? What is the hardest thing one could ask this sort of hero to do? What would really throw this character a curve ball? What’s the worst possible thing that could happen in this situation? What’s the best possible thing that could happen in this situation? What if I radically change the setting? What if I radically change this person’s social status, what then? etc.

Another technique if you stall out is word association. Throw out a couple of key words, build a list of words associated with it (however obliquely), and see if that doesn’t generate some new directions for you.

An extra hint: If you are going to brainstorm/write historical romances or another type of book that requires a specialized body of knowledge, try to recruit at least one person with wide knowledge in that field. Due to their particular expertise, they will see possibilities that may never have crossed your mind.

Post Brainstorming Procedures

Once you’ve generated a long list of ideas of varying viability, select the best, say, three to five ideas that deserve to be fleshed out further.

Perhaps you brain-stormed two ideas that would be something extraordinary and new if you combined them? You don’t want to end up with a clunky Frankenstein of a premise, of course, patching too many disparate parts together, but can a couple of these ideas be brought together to create something greater than the sum of its parts?

Note that this is still not the time to become fixated on one particular idea. The initial stages of research will also help to weed out the do-able from the not-as-doable. Research into the relevant topics will inevitably give you new angles and insights, so remember that at this stage, the ideas are still being recast, molded, hammered, kneaded, twisted, bent, embellished, trimmed, or what-have-you.

Further questions that you can bring to your fledgling premises to strengthen them even more include: How can I make the hero and heroine even more diametrically opposed? What is the hero’s noble goal? What is the heroine’s noble goal? What will happen if his goal is not achieved? Ditto for her goal? What’s at stake here? What more could be at stake? Why does it matter? How can I make it matter more? Why does it seem highly unlikely that he/she will achieve their goal? Is this idea big enough to sustain 400 pages of story?

I don’t normally work with groups. Instead, when I’ve narrowed my choices down to three viable and interesting ideas, I write up a 100-word blurb and email it to my friends and ask them which one grabs them, and if they see any immediate way to make it better. I’m lucky if I get a consensus, LOL, but if I have any further tweaks from my girls, I make the changes, then send a similar email to my agent to see if she has an opinion about the various choices. My agent always has an opinion. Usually one of the ideas will be cut at that point, and finally, if I’m still not totally committed (and feeling brave) I may send the last pair of ideas left standing to my editor to gauge her level of interest/excitement about either of them. After all, it only takes a moment of her time. It’s not like I’m sending her some big, long thing that will inconvenience her.

The risk here is that if everyone raves about idea A or B and you’re in love with C, then you have to decide for yourself which one you’re going to pick. Given the personal involvement issue discussed above, C may be your best bet. On the other hand, if there’s some reason why it’s particularly risky, remember that you can always set aside a less-marketable idea that you love and commit to writing it later, after you’re an established writer.

With all of this done, you will have finally, hopefully, wound up with a solid, exciting, feasible story premise that you can write up in a 100-word blurb. There, now wasn’t that fun, quick, and easy? *grin* Now all you have to do is write the book. So, there you have it. Now you know where I get my ideas from.’ I work for ‘em!

About Gaelen Foley

Gaelen Foley

Noted for her “complex, subtly shaded characters, richly sensual love scenes, and elegantly fluid prose” (Booklist), Gaelen Foley is the bestselling author of eleven historical romances from Ballantine Books. Her passionate, sophisticated love stories have been published in eleven languages and have won numerous awards, including the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Booksellers’ Best, the Golden Leaf, the Award of Excellence, the Laurie, the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best First Historical Romance, and the Holt Medallion.

After four unsuccessful manuscripts, her fifth attempt sold to the largest publisher in the world (Bertelsmann). The Pirate Prince hit bookshelves in 1998 and created an instant buzz among romance fans. Romantic Times magazine announced: “There is star quality in this writer!” Word-of-mouth made The Pirate Prince a hit and has continued to propel each of her novels on to greater success, establishing Foley as a leading voice in historical romance.

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