I’ve decided to plan this part of my novel by going through John Truby’s guide, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller – step by step – to make sure the foundations are rock-solid before I embark on my first draft. This book is packed with great advice, so let’s put it to the test.
The first thing Truby focuses on is The Premise. This is what your story is about, condensed in one sentence.
Why is deciding upon a premise early on so important?
It’s your inspiration, the driving force behind the story, the excitement that gives you the perseverance to finish the manuscript! That said, get the premise wrong, and it will ruin the whole book, as every decision you make hinges on it. Apparently, 9 out 10 writers fail at the premise.
It’s all about developing an idea. It’s not a stage you can rush.
The first step of developing a premise is to look inward. Truby suggests coming up with a story idea that ‘may change your life’. To do that, you have to explore your own character – and likes and dislikes. One exercise he suggests is to write down a ‘wishlist‘ of all the things you’d love to see in a book. Here’s mine:
Here’s mine (in no particular order)
- A female protagonist in a fantasy story who isn’t a warrior, princess, assassin or witch – just a ‘girl next door’ who finds herself living an incredible adventure
- A fantasy with a really moving, and realistic, love story that builds in parallel with the main adventure story
- A book that defines friendship beautifully, the way Tolkien does about Frodo and Sam’s friendship in LOTR
- A story where good and bad aren’t easy to spot, and often confused – like Game of Thrones
- Massive character development – love stories where the main characters are never going back to their old selves by the end
- Exploration of what ‘courage’ really means
- An atmosphere of darkness, shadows and threat, which permeates the whole book
- Creation of a fantasy world I want to live in
- Creation of a female protagonist I want to be
- Epic… it’s gotta be epic – the kind of story that gives you goosebumps!
After writing the ‘wishlist’ we’re supposed to comb it for core elements that keep repeating themselves. Looking at mine I see: real, atmospheric, inspirational.. and epic. Yes, those are the kinds of novels I love… and the kind I strive to write.
So, what’s my premise?
A young woman discovers a talisman that, if used, will release a cruel dictator from a magical prison. She must make find a way to make sure this talisman never gets into the wrong hands. Not only that, she finds herself enlisted help ensure that the influence this evil man has over her world, is stopped for good.
What are the possibilities in this premise?
To show how two average people rise to great deeds.To show how love can blossom when circumstances take us out of our comfort zone. To show how fear and courage are non mutually exclusive. Even if you’re terrified you are capable of great acts of courage.
What are the challenges and problems of this premise?
For an epic story like this, the challenge is to get the reader to really invest in the outcome for the two main characters. Not only do we want them to succeed in vanquishing evil, but we also want them to fall in love. The challenge, as with all epics, is to make the story as ‘intimate’ and ‘personal’ as possible. Although fantasy readers expect and enjoy tropes, it’s important to ‘break the mould’. This isn’t just an epic fantasy adventure – it’s also a love story – so it needs to break away from fantasy stereotypes.
What is the designing principle? (This the principle that makes this story stand out as unique among its genre)
I touched on this in the previous paragraph. An epic fantasy adventure in the grand tradition of Tolkien, Terry Brooks or Tad Williams – but with a love story at its centre. Have both of the protagonists majorly flawed. She is afraid of death (and life!) and he has spent a worthless, wasted, life.
What’s the best character?
Our heroine – a young woman who is both afraid of dying, and of living. Who must face the shadows, the things that terrify her most.
What’s the conflict?
Who are my heroes fighting, and what are they fighting about?
They are fighting the darkness that threatens to destroy their world – and the worst sides of themselves.
What’s the basic action, the ’cause and effect’ pathway of this story?
Two unlikely individuals save the world, and fall in love along the way!
How do the characters change?
Heroine: she is terrified of life and learns to embrace it.
Hero: he is a wastrel and learns to take a stand for something.
What’s the moral choice both protagonists have to make?
She must decide if letting fear get the better of her is worth sacrificing her world for.
He must decide if letting nothing touch him is worth sacrificing his world for.
Does this premise appeal to a wider audience?
Yes, it not only appeals to those who love traditional epic fantasy, but those who like to see women as protagonists, and those who like romance in their stories too.