Building a Kickass Story Premise: A Checklist

I discussed recently that an outline isn’t enough — an outline is a plot, sure, but you need a kickass PREMISE for the story to be good.

You make your premise before or after you start your plot outline. Really, it’s all about your personal style. I kind of waffle — I have a general idea of what I want to right about.

Before I plot, I have a loose idea of setting, some very rough ideas of characters, and a controlling image, but nothing solid. Sometimes I have a scene or two that came out of nowhere as a seed. But I’m not “married” to any of it — none of its locked down.

Everything can change.

Once I have a very skeletal plot that makes sense, I start fleshing it out an analyzing it.

(Disclaimer: Remember, this is a new process to me, so it is not finely honed, and, since I haven’t sold a book yet, there’s no evidence that it works. HOWEVER, I *do* know that it sure does FEEL a lot easier, and I feel like the book — and even an entire trilogy — is a manageable enterprise with no real fear of spinning out of control, and I’ve never felt that way before.)

Section I: Analyze the idea

1) Is the plot solid, interesting?

a) Does it FEEL right?

b) Is it the story you wanted to tell? (This is your gut. I’m sorry. I can’t fix your instincts, that’s up to you.)

c) Does it seem to hold together?

2) Now look at the Setting:

a) Is it unique, charming, terrifying, or at least somewhat interesting? We don’t need pages of description here, or even paragraphs of it, but we definitely do NOT want the world to be have white walls or be a vacuum with no detail.

b) Is the setting just way too far out there/silly for anyone to believe? If so, it’s not going to work.

c) Is there something familiar enough about the setting for people to sink their teeth into, or your risk kicking them out. Is it familiar?

d) Is it original? It better have something unique, or at least flavorful to it.

3) Who are these characters anyway? Start building them — this is character work, guys, if you can’t do this, then look up some articles or books on it, I don’t have room to discuss it here. Characters are a topic that can go on forever, but here’s a basic checklist:

a) Figure out what your Villain and Protagonist REALLY WANT

b) Figure out what they REALLY DON’T WANT

4) Conflict — see 3a and 3b above? Where those collide, you have conflict.

a) Check your conflicts and make sure your story is about your conflicts. If not, something is way off.

b) Look for extra conflicts to use as subplots or additional items.

Section II: Make it stronger. Increase the stakes!

1) What’s on the line for the main character:

a) Physically (physical stakes ain’t enough!)

b) Emotionally (what does she love? What does she hate? How can you use this to threaten or push around your character?)

c) Morally (yes, MORALLY – moral stakes are important, please refer to Donald Maas’ “Writing the Brekout Novel” for a more detailed explanation)

You don’t need all of these stakes, but having multiple things at stake sure does ratchet up the tension.

2) Now think:

a) How do I make the stakes HIGHER?

c) How do I make them hurt more?

c) How do I twist the knife?

Yes, it’s about being cruel to the characters. Areas to mine for increased stakes: Relationships, personal respect/reputation, the welfare of innocents that depend on the character, etc.

3) Remember, there must be HOPE too! Some people go too far down the road of torturing their characters. There must always be hope in a story as well, especially in a tragedy. It’s the hope that keeps us reading, that keeps the reader engaged.

The BIG IDEA is really all about narrowing down your idea, focusing in on what’s at stake for the characters, and then making those stakes higher.

General rules:

Amplify. Make it all bigger – the characters, the stakes, the setting. As long as it doesn’t get ridiculous, you’re okay. And if you’re writing comedy, a little “ridiculosity” can work too.

Be cruel to your characters, but always make sure there is hope as well.

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