Writing the Premise of a Story Before Writing the Story

Ever thought about writing the premise of a story before writing the actual story? No? Well, put on your open-mindedness hats, guys, because it’s about to get real. (Agents hate her! Learn the one writing secret to save yourself years of frustration!) No, but seriously…

It’s a pitch. Get it? The premise of a story is also known as the pitch, but I’m not calling it that because pitching makes writers nervous.

What is the Premise of a Story?

The premise of a story is what your story is about. Simple.

Oh, you want more? Okay…

I give this talk on self-editing for fiction writers (which you can play on-demand on Udemy or wait for the free webinar) and I always start the talk very, very, very zoomed out. I ask writers about their “Mission Statement,” which is another way of talking about the premise or the “what is your story about”.

Basically, it’s a combination of your character’s main transformational experience (do characters have to change?), the story that takes them to that experience, and a sense of your theme.

For example:

A girl who is accidentally infused with moon magic must fight for the ones she loves, in a society bent on seeing her and the witch who saved her life as the enemy.

That’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. You’ll notice it’s not the whole story, but we have a sense of the character, what the character has to do (or how the character has to change), what the character is up against, and any other key characters or story elements. In this case, the witch (Xan) gets a mention, as does the society that “sacrificed” Luna to the witch when she was a baby.

What is your story about? Who is at the center? What do they have to do, or how do they have to change? What is the main conflict? (Or, if not the main conflict, a big conflict?) What is your theme?

Now, imagine that you’re not just doing this for your book after the fact…

Starting With the Premise of a Story

Let’s say that you’re actually creating the premise before you create the book. This is a smarter, more efficient way of writing. Remember, the first thing I ask of my revision students is: What’s your premise?

You’re going to have to know it eventually. But most writers don’t even start putting their premise together until long after they’ve written their story. Maybe even long after they’ve revised it.

Most writers don’t think about their premise until it’s time to pitch.

Why is this an issue? Well, you don’t want to spend five years on a novel only to realize that you may not have enough story to attract agents, publishers, or readers. (Even if you publish independently, you still have to attract readers. You still need to be able to tell them what your story’s about so that they click that all-important “Buy” button!)

What if you don’t have enough story to truly turn out a compelling, saleable project? This is why I highly recommend writing a premise (or the bones of one) for the project you’re about to start working on first.

Is there enough meat? Does it sound exciting? Or is your premise loose and vague, like, “A coming of age story about a boy who has to learn the true meaning of friendship.” I’d contest that there’s not enough meat on that bone yet. The story needs some additional layers, some specificity, some action, so that it doesn’t sound so much like a lot of other stories I’ve read.

Try It Backwards

Before you sit down to work on your next project, as you work on your current project, or before you revise a draft manuscript, stop what you’re doing immediately—do not pass GO, do not collect $200—and write out a premise.

You’re only doing it for yourself. You’re not pitching. There’s no agent hovering over your shoulder, watching you. Write out what your story is about. Is there enough? Do you have a solid premise of a story? Are you focused? Or do you need to add more layers, action, tension, and/or meaning to your work?

Catching potential issues and course correcting at this highest, most zoomed out level could literally save you years of work, and keep you from following a misguided path all the way to a disappointing conclusion.

If you haven’t tried this yet, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

What do you think of this bass-ackwards approach?

If you’re struggling to pressure test your story and see if there’s enough substance, or if you want to catch pitfalls and opportunities at the outline level, hire me as your developmental editor. Let’s get at it together!

 

Comp Titles in a Query and Other Questions About Book Comps

Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)

comp titles in a query, book comps, comparative titles, comp titles
Your book comp are calling. But are you using them well?

Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them

The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.

The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:

My manuscript has the quirky sensibility of How to Say Goodbye in Robot and the freewheeling voice of Sorta Like a Rock Star.

Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:

Age of Book Comps

It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.

But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.

Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query

Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp onlyThe Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and  by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.

As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.

Similarity to Your Book

You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Lifesimilar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using  by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.

Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List

Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.

Number of Comp Titles

The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.

How to Find Book Comps

This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.

Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.

As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!

How to Write a Logline

When I talk about how to write a logline, I mean crafting a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.

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An epic novel pitch session is about to go down.

Most Writers Struggle With How to Write a Logline

If you think queries and synopses are hard, fiction loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.

Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.

How to Write a Great Fiction Logline

That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:

1) Connect your character to your audience

2) Connect your plot to the market

Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”

Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building.

To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”

Putting Your Novel Pitch Together

So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)

Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).

Fiction Loglines in Character-Driven Novels

If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.”

With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.

With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”

Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).

Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.

Want help with how to write a logline? Hire me as your query letter editor and we’ll work on it together.