‘So what’s your book about?’
Can there be any other question that awakens so much weary terror in a writer’s heart? Other than perhaps ‘will your writing income be enough to pay the rent this week’?
I know that whenever I’m hit with this I umm and ahh and faddlefapp about, because I find it hard to sum up my stuff in a nice package. Not because I am such a genius that my ideas cannot be boiled down to a form comprehensible to the lowly masses, but more that I am a disorganised and overambitious writer who attempts to stuff too many things into a single narrative and can’t cleanly pick out one to offer as the core to an observer. I usually start blathering about ‘stories about stories’ and ‘the structure loops back into itself’ and ‘metatext metatext metatext’ until people back away with a look of terror on their faces and I can get back to the important business of complaining about comics or something.
But it’s an essential question, not just for a reader but for a writer. Because a narrative needs a reason to be written, over and above ‘it’s a good story’. There are lots of good stories already; why will a reader start reading this one instead of another one? The narrative needs to have a direction, and that direction, that creative and storytelling goal, is what you can offer up when readers / colleagues / judgemental parents ask what this proposed book is about. This is something I struggle with, and perhaps talking about it with you, dear reader, will help me get a better handle on it.
I think that, in almost all cases, writers create narratives from one of two sources – premise or theme. The best of them use both at the same time, but you can still tease them apart and look at them as separate concepts. A work that doesn’t arise from one of these sources… well, doesn’t really have any reason to be written, or to be read.
And yet I’m sure such stories exist. Somewhere.
Anyway, so it’s Premise versus Theme in a steel cage grudge match! Two concepts enter – one concept leaves! Well, actually they both leave, but let’s not muddy the drama with facts.
I was originally going to look at both concepts in the one post, but once I started getting into it the ideas needed more wordcount. So this is part one of a special two-part post, with the second half to come next week.
So okay, let’s talk about premise.
When someone asks you that terrible question, this is what they usually want – the single-sentence high concept for the story. Things like:
- ‘It’s a western in which the cowboys are all werewolves’
- ‘It’s an adventure story about a super-smart hero who fights science crime’
- ‘It’s a thriller where a ninja becomes President in order to stop the Kung Fu Illuminati’
You can see those are all genre-focused premises. That’s a bit heavy-handed on my part, but it’s generally fair to say that genre narratives are usually grounded in a premise, because they generally focus on plot, story and character rather than theme. (Although not all of them, of course.) Things happen in genre stories, and a premise is a package that implies things and the happenings of them. Also, man, I really want to read the book for that last concept.
A strong premise isn’t essential for all forms of writing, although I don’t think it ever really hurts. In some cases, though, it really is essential, and those are when your narrative is in a really competitive field, like TV, film or mainstream comics. The time when you could publish a comic that was just ‘it’s about a superhero who fights crime’ has long gone, and ditto a movie that’s just about a guy who shoots other guys because they’re bad. The premise is the hook that distinguishes your work from all the other bait out there; for all that the DC reboot did wrong (I’ll stop talking about it soon, honest), most of the new titles had solid premises that gave the book a (theoretical) reason to exist.
On the whole, working from a premise is easier because you are writing from it – everything in the narrative emerges from the central concept behind it all, even if it’s a step or two removed from the origin. Which is not to say that it’s not work, of course, but whenever you start to slow down, you can go back and poke the premise until an idea falls from it and then suddenly Obama-Kijuri is fighting not just the Kung Fu Illuminati but also the Gnomes of Shaolin and holy crap this thing just writes itself.
But the hidden danger of writing solely from a premise is that while it’s easy to stay on course, nothing intrinsically connects the strength of the premise to the quality of the writing. By that, I mean that a great premise doesn’t mean a great book; a writer can have a good idea but still lack the skills to write something worth reading. Again, the DC reboot showcases this; it’s littered with titles that have a strong core concept but that are still boring and mediocre. The premise in and of itself isn’t the thing you read; that’s still the words on the page or the images on the screen, and if they suck then the whole thing sucks.
Writing without a strong premise throws up different problems, which I’ll talk about more next week with theme. But in short, it’s what you’d expect – if you don’t have a strong story-focused hook, you can struggle to come up with story events and elements. This is on my mind a lot right now, because at this stage of the draft Arcadia’s premise is… well, it’s there, but it’s not simple and it’s not focused, and it’s making it more difficult than it should be to work out what happens next. I have other tools, but that one is weak, and I need to fix that.
Okay, so that’s enough on that subject. Next week, a look at theme and then an attempt to compare-contrast-synthesise. Or at least to throw around high-falutin’ terms like I know what I’m talking about.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to jot down some ideas about Ninja Gaiden Obama and the House of Flying Republicans. It’s gonna be boss.