Friday, January 25, 2013

Writing a Premise Statement--Why This Tip from Screenwriters Can Help Book Writers of Any Genre

In my online book -structuring classes, we always write a premise statement.  Most new writers have never heard of this focusing tool for books.  It's borrowed from the film world.  Screenwriters use it as their pitch line to sell movies to producers.

How does it help book writers--say, if you're writing a memoir or a novel or a nonfiction book?   

It is the easiest way to see if you have a book at all.  Why?  Because it immediately lets you "test" your book idea in terms of inner and outer story balance (the inner meaning versus the outer event or topic) to see if a reader would be engaged.

I use premise statements several times during the months or years it takes me to complete and publish a new book.  Each book has its own premise statement.  It is pretty rough when I am first starting my book.   It gets more refined and "true" at first draft.  By revision of the manuscript--and my third version of the premise statement--I have something really strong, a good pitch  to help me sell my book to agent, editor, or publisher.

Some of my best premise statements actually got used by the publisher on the back cover or as a "tag" line (a kind of subtitle on the front cover of a book).   

For me as a writer, crafting a premise statement is a great opening exercise when beginning a book.  I write down what I believe my book will be about, condense it into twenty words or less, and live with it as I begin writing and storyboarding my book idea.

Then I watch how the premise statement evolves and changes.  How it reflects my deeper understanding of my story. 

The premise always gives me great focus--this is what my book is about, as far as I know now, so I write towards it every day.

How to Write a Premise Statement
Start with a brainstorming session on paper.  List all the main points of your book--how you'd describe it to someone new.  For instance, "A story about my first ten years when we moved twenty times."  Or, "The best weight loss technique known to women."  Or, "An alien race populates Wichita and hangs out at convenience stores for three years before anyone notices."


Obviously these three made-up book ideas are not developed very much.  That's OK.  A first-draft premise statement is just your best guess as to what your book is going to pivot around.  What's the main outer story--the big event, the plot, the technique or method you want to focus on?  And what's the main inner story--the meaning, growth, change, or benefit?

Put these two elements into your premise and see what you come up with.

Early in my writing career, when I first began working with premise statements, I heard an urban legend about how MGM had crafted the premise for "The Wizard of Oz."  Maybe you've seen the movie--an oldie but goodie.  The premise that made the movie a big hit back then was something like this:  "Dorothy travels to the magical land of Oz and discovers there's no place like home."   

Why does this premise work so well?   

It has both an outer story (the travel to a magical place) and an inner story (discovering there's no place like home).   

It also speaks directly to the reader/viewer:  Kids love the magical aspect, and their parents (who pay for the movie ticket or rent the DVD) love the return to home after the journey.   

Very smart.

Writing a Premise for a Larger, More Complicated Story
One of my online readers wrote me a few weeks ago.  She asked, "How do I go about crafting a premise statement for a larger book with multiple viewpoint characters?"  She wanted to know how to decide whose story to include or take out.

I'm revising my second novel right now.  It has four main characters with their own point-of-view chapters.  This meant I had to create four storyboards, one for each of them, to make sure each of their stories was fully developed.

Then, from the storyboards, I crafted four premise statements, again one for each of these pivotal people.

But a good book isn't just four separate stories.  It's also an overriding theme, a bigger message.  Consider books like The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which has quite a lot of characters.  But the reader gets a single message, a unified feeling, from all these voices.  That's also true in other complicated novels like Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.  Or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  Within all the threads that weave these stories together, there's a single primary message.

To create a premise statement for a complicated book, you need to find this single message.  It's usually the theme of the book--how all the stories are similar in some meaningful way.

When I did this for my current novel-in-progress, I brainstormed on paper about the threads I saw in each person's premise statement.  It wasn't a quick exercise.  But after a while, I noticed the themes of escape and rescue were in each story.  I could draft a premise based on this idea.  It'll be more general perhaps--"A family of artists" rather than "Mel Fisher" alone.   

What Do You Do with Your Premise Statement?
Post it on your wall above your writing desk or on a Post-It note next to your laptop.  Put it on your desktop as a screensaver.  Create a collage about it--to remind you visually what your book is really about.  Add to it and change it as you learn more, as you write more.

You'll use it throughout your book journey.  It'll keep you oriented (and tell you if you're going way off track into another book altogether).  It'll remind you of your original vision for the book and how that might change.  Best of all, it'll make the submission process easier, when you're ready for that, because you'll have the opening sentence of your query letter all done.

Once you get your premise statement drafted, spend time refining it.  Take out extra words.  Replace blah verbs with vivid ones.  Add an unexpected twist.

But make sure you end up with about half outer story (specific place, people, event, era, information) and inner story (meaning, growth, change, learning).

Writing a premise statement is fun and beneficial to your book.  Try one today!