Hello again! Because I’ve been in the planning stages of a new project for a little while now, I thought I’d talk about What Comes Before You Start Writing. I know we’ve all read a million posts from various sources about outlining, but I’d like to talk about something a little different, and that’s giving yourself the tools to outline well, or perhaps work without an outline entirely (if you’re more of a pantser).
I’ve read a lot of books on writing. Everyone has his or her favorite – Stephen King’s On Writing, Save the Cat, The Writer’s Journey, etc – but mine is called the Anatomy of Story by John Truby. And the reason for this is that the book goes into lots of great detail about how to know your characters and your story so well before you ever begin writing, that you will always know what your character would do in a given situation. This is particularly helpful if you do like to outline, but end up straying.
Based on this book, I created a sort of cheat sheet for myself – something I could fill out for each new project without having to go back and re-read the entire book (though I do that from time to time). I’d like to break down this sheet into a short series of posts to keep everything brief and organized, so today I’ll go over creating your premise, with my next post concerning digging into character a bit, and finally a sequence of steps to help you structure the book around your character and your premise.
The first thing any story needs is a premise. A short, concise description of your book in a sentence or two that describes the overarching idea – like a logline. Example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s premise is, One girl is chosen and imbued with supernatural strength to fight the forces of darkness (yes, I basically stole the opening from season one, but it works!). Or Harry Potter: A young boy finds out he’s a wizard and enrolls in a school for magic, then learns he might be the only one who can stop He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named from taking over the wizarding world.
The TV show and the books hinge on these basic ideas. At the very core of each episode or novel is the idea that this girl must fight evil because it’s her calling as the Chosen One, or that this boy must learn magic not only because he’s a wizard, but so he can stand a chance against the Dark Lord only he has ever faced and lived.
Once you have your premise, you’ll want to think about your story execution at its most basic level. As in, what method you’ll employ to tell the story. Is your story a fantasy? Then you might be using a Journey method, where your characters are sent on a quest to find something/retrieve something/achieve something. Or perhaps your story is a mystery, in which case you’ll be using a Procedural method, and so on. Identifying early on exactly how you plan to execute and design your story will help if you ever get stuck and don’t know where to go from that point.
Another thing I like to consider in depth at this stage is my story world. I write a lot of fantasy, so this is a huge step for me. I can spend months building my story world, putting boundaries around it, and determining exactly where within the vast setting I’ve created the story will actually take place. But this is also important for contemporary stories. If your book is a contemporary YA, what is the main setting? The local high school? The coffee shop where your main character works? The basement living room? Determine all the different spaces your characters will definitely use and the various reasons they will.
The last thing I try to sort out before going into more depth about my character are the possible story challenges that await me with the premise I’ve chosen. If I were writing Buffy, I’d say one of the challenges would be making Buffy relatable. As a super girl with super strength and powers, my job would be to keep her from falling into the trap of the “Strong Female Character” and make her a relatable character who is also strong.
I know some of this might feel “remedial” or basic, but until I started actively writing all of these things down, I didn’t realize just how little I actually thought about these things. I’d reason I had them in my head, and that was good enough.
So now that we’ve outlined some of the basics of our premise, our world, and our challenges, we’ll start thinking about character, and finally the structural steps that will help you build a solid story that you can take anywhere it needs to go.
I hope this is useful! Once we’re able to put all the pieces together, I think you’ll find yourself with a handy tool for future projects!