General Writing Tips

It’s All Been Done Before: From Premise to Plot

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Writing is a frustrating thing. You start on a topic that you’re really excited about, do the research, create the characters and get to work, until one day, that new book or movie advertisement showcases a story nearly like your own.

Now what? People are going to think you copied the plot? People won’t be as interested since there’s a similar story with a big budget?

Well, let’s just slow down there and regroup. It turns out that there is a very simple answer that should ease your worries: you are using the same premise as the other author/director, but if you were to look at your story, I’d be willing to bet your plot is very different.

I know, I know. “But, Sarah, aren’t ‘premise’ and ‘plot’ synonyms?” The answer is, sorta, in the same way that ‘many’ and ‘much’ are synonyms. However, ‘many’ is used for physical units and ‘much’ is used for an intangible unit. Similarly, ‘premise’ is a general idea of a story and ‘plot’ is a story with specific details.

As an example, we can look at the premise of Hubris: a woman seeks to start a rebellion against an oppressive leader. Coincidentally, this is the premise behind The Hunger Games, Divergent, Wonder Woman, the new Star Wars movies and every other story revolving around female leads in speculative fiction and sci-fi.

Change the summary to “the youngest Siren of her sisters, Telese, seeks to stop the purge of humanity and the end of the Sirens by rebelling against her all-powerful father, Alexandros,” and you have a unique plot that separates the story from all of those listed above.

The reason that this is our topic of discussion today is the usefulness of utilizing premise to build your plot. We can see from these high-budget movies how popular our premise will be. Think of the premise as the beginning sketch of your novel. It’s not the set-in-stone plan by any means. You’ll adjust things, clarify things, add details and change things around as you develop the plot to your novel. But the premise is an important part of beginning your novel and will be shaped by other premises you’ve enjoyed and even ones you’ve hated. It will give you a rough idea of the structure of your story.

Your plot should be the unique assets that you add to your story. You should come up with your beginning, middle, end and everything in between to build your plot to be one that people distinguish from similar premises.

So how do you transition from a vague premise to a unique plot? In this shorter, but important, topic, we’ll look at doing just that.

Embrace the Conformity

The first step to transitioning from your premise to your unique plot is to define that premise, just as I did for my own story above. Don’t stress that it’s going to sound like a million other stories. Rememeber, every premise you devise has already been written. Your job is to put a new spin on it.

If you look at my earlier premise, there are key points that stand out: woman, start a rebellion, oppressive leader. This is my north star for my plot. The way you choose to define your premise will be what you use to guide your plot as you add the details later. In the meantime, get comfortable with a vague, general idea of your story.

Toe Outside of the Box

Now that you have your premise, it’s time to start thinking about three things: your characters, their setting and their adversity. A plot should always seek to be character-centric, even if the environment, for example, is the main adversity. Treat that environment as a character all in itself. Start fleshing out your antagonist and protagonist.

The key here is to keep that premise in mind while you work on your plot. It keeps you from veering too far from your plot and losing the interest of the reader. In this step, you will keep the premise as your central focus, as your plot isn’t quite strong enough to support you. When coming up with scenarios, characters and environments, ask yourself how it circles back to that basic premise. If you can’t make it do so, it’s best to leave it out. After all, your premise is vague enough to encompass a whole lot of ideas, and if one doesn’t fit, it’s not meant for this story.

Kick at the Box a Little

When the beginning phase of your plot is complete–that is, when you’ve come up with a great idea for characters, environment and adversity–it’s time to start adding in those defining details. How does your adversity manifest itself? How does your protagonist react? What is the hopeful outcome that your protagonist is working toward? What is the hopeful outcome of your antagonist? Who will emerge victorious, if anybody?

You are now building the outline of your plot. You’re taking some steps away from your premise, though you’ve still got your fingers on it to keep you balanced. Construct your plot around the original premise, and start adding particulars in to bring a new story up from the earlier groundwork you started building.

Smash the Box to the Ground

With the foundations laid out, it’s now time to let go of the premise. You’ve got the strong beginnings for your plot, and you’ll now start the ever-so-wonderful process of writing. If you followed this example, you should have a pretty solid idea that is ready to be fleshed out in your first draft. You’ll get more in-depth with your characters, develop their backstories, build your world around them, right the history of the adversity between the protagonist and antagonist and begin down the road of resolving that conflict one way or another.

Whenever you see Hollywood come out with a new blockbuster that sounds depressingly familiar, remember this: you’re only hearing the premise of the story, and every premise has been used over and over since storytelling began. Your story is unique because you’ve used the same outline to build a different structure. Just keep writing and planning. Everything else will fall into place.

Challenge: Take a look at the picture of the post. Ask one or more writing buddies to join you in writing a quick story on the photo. You can set it for something like 1000 words or set it for 1 hour of writing. When completed share what you all have written. While the elements will be the same, the stories will most likely be drastically different! Share your stories below in the comments.

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