Last week I talked briefly about the Premise of a story, or what is called the Elevator Pitch. It’s the concise one or two of sentences (preferably one) that summarize your story, or something you could toss out in an elevator if pitching the story to someone, as the old cliché goes. The purpose is to quickly and succinctly give the core idea of your story, whether you’re pitching it to an agent or publisher for traditional publishing, or to potential readers for self-publishing.
The Premise is not the same as the back cover blurb. A back cover blurb typically goes into more detail, and is much more of a marketing flare tool to get folks to buy the story. The Premise is something different.
An amnesiac prince of another realm must struggle to regain his memories while trying to stay alive in a war for the throne against his own siblings. (Nine Princes in Amber)
A mother and father must choose between letting their children die or committing murder, when a strange disease forces the children to consume increasing quantities of blood to stay alive. (Suffer the Children)
Unlike the back cover blurb, a Premise should state the protagonist, goal, and conflict. That’s it. It’s the central point of your story.
Before I can write my Premise, though, I wind up going through a series of What If questions to hammer out the story. The reason I do this is because while I’ll have a story idea at first, the idea is not a Premise. To get to the Premise, in other words the solid foundation of protagonist/goal/conflict, I have to first drill down to see who the character is, why he has that particular goal, and what the conflict is to resolve it.
Let’s take my upcoming novella series: Prize Not the Mask.
The idea was that a street level vigilante would be framed for a murder as part of a greater conspiracy (which I won’t explain, as it’ll give away the overall series plot). He’s convicted at trial, and sent to Solitaire Island Federal Penitentiary— the primary prison for anyone with powers, or who used super-advanced technology to commit crimes. The initial idea was that I would explore both character and setting through the prison. We’d see how our hero both changed and held on to who he was while in the prison, while exploring the interpersonal relationships, conflicts, group dynamics, and corruption within its walls. Naturally, the hero means to facilitate an escape from a prison that has only ever had one successful escape (and it resulted in the original structure suffering a lot of damage), but that goes into the overall conspiracy plot and some supposed allies he makes while inside, and I won’t spoil them here.
Just picture the story as something like: super-heroes meets 24 meets Prison Break.
The next step I took was to find out the “who” of my protagonist.
I knew the hero would be Nathaniel Westfield, aka Night Sentinel. He wasn’t rich nor super-trained like a Batman type. He lived in a typically low income area of the city, and had a low to low middle class income, himself. What he had was two gravity-controlling gauntlets that he gained from the alien race that resides on the moon known as the Lunarians (their human-given moniker), and an, unknown to him, ability to see roughly 5-seconds into the future. It isn’t something he can control at the start of the story, isn’t even something he knows he can do. It comes to him on an instinctive level, and happens a lot when he’s in personal combat, which is where he gets his edge.
Pretty basic. More of a character sketch.
So then I started asking my What if questions. Not every answer I came up with made it into the final story, but here’s a little of how the process went for me.
One of my first questions was: What if Nate was framed for this murder, but had actually committed murders in the past?
My first inclination was that maybe he was also some type of Punisher template, but I quickly squashed that idea. For the type of story I wanted to tell, that took things in a different direction. It now begged the questions of how he should be wanted by pretty much all levels of law enforcement, of how his being framed for murder would be a footnote, or even be seen as poetic justice, given the fact that he brazenly killed anyway. It also didn’t add any depth to the character.
Instead, I decided that he was once a criminal, though not a publicly known one. Even most law enforcement never knew “who” he was, just the results of his handiwork. I decided he was once a professional assassin. Someone who could get in, get the target, and get out. Someone trained at infiltration and not leaving evidence behind. And it was something that also played into his current role as a vigilante/hero. It’s how he was able to do what he did.
What if Nate had a son or daughter to worry about?
That question brought with it a lot of possibilities. What if Nate changed his ways from criminal to hero because of his child? Naturally came from that second question, and had me delve deeper into his past.
I decided that Nate stopped being an assassin about six years ago, when his son was 12 years old. I wanted to make his son 18 years old in the story simply because it stopped me from having to deal with endangering an actual child in this story, but at the same time the son was a legal adult while not yet knowledgeable enough to not be at risk. I could still make the readers care.
What if Nate’s wife was murdered? That question came up because in the back of my mind, I wanted him to be a single father. I also wanted it to play a role in why he eventually became a hero. But with his past as an assassin, I didn’t want it to be a random mugging or whatnot.
What if her murder was a result of a hit that Nate did in the past? This naturally played into a what if question about someone out there having discovered who he really was.
What if her murder was retaliation for a failed hit?
There were a lot of other questions that arose as I drilled down into that one, but I’ll summarize it all.
As I drilled down, I learned that Nate had been hired to do a hit on a Lunarian diplomat. The hit failed, and Nate was captured by the Lunarian security forces. Although they kept his presence and the attempt secret from human law enforcement, and had even let him go, the Lunarian Diplomat (since they’re also priests of the aliens’ strange religion) saw a path for redemption in Nate. Naturally, Nate refused the offer and was sent on his way. The aliens were now on to him, so he knew the hit was a bust.
Although he did his best to protect his family, retaliation from those who hired him came swift and hard. His wife was killed and his 12 year old son badly injured. Nate knew he was outmanned and outgunned against those seeking to kill him, and had nowhere else to go. One event led to another, and he and his son were eventually taken in by the Lunarian. When everything was said and done, he was Night Sentinel. He was fulfilling a vow to protect the innocent and shutdown the very criminal types he once worked for.
Along the way, I also discovered that Nate had a history with a current superhero or two. One young hero was the target of an assassination back in Nate’s past, when he was hired to kill the man’s girlfriend as a lesson. Another current hero worked with Nate during his criminal past, and has her own secrets from her current team.
The same heroes (and their teammates in the Sentinels of Society) that will have to find a way to find and protect Nate’s missing son while he’s in prison.
Then there’s the whole What If question series that led to the reasons for Nate’s framing, and why he was specifically wanted inside the Solitaire prison. Him getting framed and put inside the prison is a key element of the conspiracy.
In the end, I had this Premise: A hero’s dark past as an assassin catches up with him when he’s framed for murder, and must escape from an inescapable prison to both protect his son and stop the return of an immortal criminal mastermind.
And I had my nine-part novella series’ central premise. Thanks to all the drilling down of the What If questions, I also had characters, main plot, goal and conflict, and many subplots to explore.
Well, it’s slated for nine-parts, anyway. Sometimes a story will end up being a little shorter, though right now I’m fairly confident in it being nine novellas. That puts it at three novellas per section of the overall story, with three novellas also being the length of an average 100k to 120k word novel. So in essence, the nine novellas equate to a novel trilogy in length.
Next week, I’ll discuss how I outline something of that length, when there are individual novellas involved as opposed to a straight-up novel.