MBM: Premise vs Plot – Which Do You Have? by Janice Hardy

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Welcome to the last day of

MARCH BOOK MADNESS 2013!

If you’re new to March Book Madness, it’s an excuse for me to discuss everything about writing, editing, and reading books with some amazing authors and readers. If you’ve missed any days, make sure to catch up. It’s been awesome.

Here’s the schedule:

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Today, Janice Hardy is here to finish up March Book Madness

Janice is the author of the Healing Wars series (Balzar & Bray/Harperteen): A fantasy adventure for ages 10 and up, The Healing Wars trilogy follows Nya, a war orphan with the unique ability to heal—or destroy—with her touch.

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Her books look awesome, don’t they? I just added all three to my to-read pile. Click on the covers to check them out. I first came across Janice on twitter. I noticed she posted tons of cool writing links for authors. The longer I followed her, the more I learned. How lucky we are to have Janice finish up our March Book Madness. So here she is.

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Do You Have A Premise or a Plot? by Janice Hardy

I keep a file with all the book ideas that come to me. It’s closing in on 40 ideas right now, but that doesn’t mean I have 40 books waiting to be written. Many (okay, most) of these ideas are nothing more than premises.

And a premise isn’t a plot.

Great ideas can make great books, but only if that idea includes the vital components of a plot. A character with a problem that must be solved or they will suffer the consequences of that failure.

Goal–Conflict–Stakes.

Quite often, a premise lacks at least one if not all three of these. It’s usually a great idea filled with lots of potential, but it’s all setup or setting and there’s no story.

  • A farm girl gets transported by tornado to a magical world of talking animals, wizards, and witches.

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What’s the goal here? Do you see any conflict? Are there any stakes? Is there an indication what the story is going to be about?

If you describe you book by premise only and can’t pinpoint the goal of the story, that’s a big red flag that there’s a problem with the book. If your protagonist isn’t trying to do anything, then what’s the point?

This is where a lot of story ideas fall flat (and why the book hits a wall around page 100 when you try to write it). The premise is good, but there’s nothing actually going on. There’s nothing to drive the plot or the story.

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Let’s add a goal

  • A farm girl transported by tornado to a magical world must travel to the capital city to ask a wizard for a way home.

Now the premise has direction. It’s a quest story, where the goal is to get something (the way home). But there’s still no conflict or stakes.

  1. What’s keeping this girl from this wizard?
  2. What will happen if she fails?
  3. Why should readers care if she gets home or gets to the wizard?

Just having a goal isn’t enough if there’s nothing standing in the way of that goal. The struggle to overcome obstacles is what keeps readers interested. They want to know how something will turn out. They want that conflict, be it an external obstacle or on internal problem (both is best). Something needs to be in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal.

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Let’s add some conflict

  • A local witch swears vengeance on the farm girl who accidentally kills her sister and steals her magic shoes.

It’s a start, but an angry witch bent on revenge is a weak obstacle. Sure, the witch can do all kinds of mean and nasty things, but this problem doesn’t really have anything to do with the goal of getting to the wizard. If the farm girl can avoid the witch, the problem is solved. If she can’t, then what happens? From a plotting standpoint, the witch is going to constantly try to stop the farm girl, so the scenes and situations will likely all be the same. And be a major snoozefest after the second or third scene that goes exactly the same.

When you’re devising your story conflict, try looking for problems that connect your conflicts with your goals and tie the premise together. For even stronger conflicts, look for things the protagonist did to cause their own trouble.

  • To appease the wizard who holds the key to her way home, a farm girl must steal the broom of the local witch whose sister she killed.

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Now the goal is in direct conflict with the problem. The farm girl did something that hinders what she wants. She has to face that action in order to get what she wants. The witch’s death has meaning that carries over the course of the novel. It’s not just a problem that makes things physically harder, but a problem that must be faced to be resolved, both externally and internally (can you say guilt?).

But it’s still not there yet because nothing happens if she fails. Just having a dilemma isn’t enough if the outcome of that dilemma doesn’t matter to the character or the reader. That’s where your stakes come in.

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Let’s add some stakes

  • To escape a world ruled by a manipulative wizard, a farm girl must steal the broom of the local witch–a witch who’s sworn vengeance against her for killing her sister and stealing her magic shoes.

Now we’ve got a plot to fit our premise and plenty of conflict and stakes to play with. The goal of the plot is to escape the magical world and the witch who wants the farm girl dead, and the wizard holds the key to that goal. To get it, the farm girl must put herself directly in the path of danger and that forces her to face the consequences of her actions. It’s all interconnected and shows the various aspects of what happens when a farm girl gets transported by tornado into a magical world.

Great ideas are only the first step to a great book. Spend a little extra time to ensure your idea has a defined goal to drive the story, and enough specific conflicts and stakes to keep the plot moving.

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Writing Exercise:

Unsure if your idea is a premise or a plot? Try writing a one-sentence summary that covers the core elements.

  1. Who is your protagonist?
  2. What is their goal?
  3. What’s in the way of that goal?
  4. What will happen if they fail?

Feel free to share in the comments!

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Janice Hardy RGB 72Bio:

Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE, and DARKFALL. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

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Find her:

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Rebecca:

Thanks, Janice! I have a file of ideas, too, but several — if not most — are premises and not necessarily plots. Seeing your examples with Dorothy definitely helps clarify the difference between a fun idea and a compelling story.

After Sadie was published, I got a lot of questions like, “So what’s your book about?”

Crazy enough, I didn’t know how to answer. Oh, I knew how to give a 330 page answer. But a quick answer? It took me a while to shorten it to something that didn’t make me look like a bumbling idiot. Having a quick one-liner is perfect.

If you’re struggling to answer too, use Janice’s writing exercise to create it.

Thanks again, Janice, for your thoughts. And for all the guest posters this March! I have a ton of notes I’m ready to tackle over Spring Break next week when I — finally — get some time to write.

I can’t wait.

Remember, if you’ve missed any March Book Madness posts, click on the links at the top to catch up. There’s a lot of valuable information. Well, as Porky Pig would say, That’s all folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed March Book Madness as much as I have.

Have a great Easter weekend!

Have you tried the writing exercise yet? Can you name the four essential elements of your stories? Remember to share your ideas in the comments.

Premise Vs Plot by Janice Hardy

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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

26 thoughts on “MBM: Premise vs Plot – Which Do You Have? by Janice Hardy”

  1. This is great advice to hone in on a plot. Creating that simple sentence (okay it’s not simple, but you know what I mean) can really help focus me.

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  2. I’ve loved all of March Madness. Thanks for hosting such a fun series of posts, Rebecca. Janice, this post was perfect. I’ve jotted down all your tips and now have to go back through my novels and do the hard crunching to get down to the bare bones of the plot. Have a great Easter weekend.

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  3. Thanks, Janice. Good, easy to understand illustration of premise vs. plot and how to get from the first to the second. I only wish it was that easy for me to come up with a “Wizard of Oz-quality” premise and plot. :-) But Dorothy never gave up, so I dare not. ;-)

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    1. I hear you on that. It’s so frustrating to have a great idea and NOT be able to get that one sentence figured out. I have ideas that have been rattling around in my brain for years waiting for inspiration :) We’ll both get there!

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  4. Very thought provoking post. This is my main obstacle: I have so many “brilliant” premises but can never formulate a workable plot from them. Any further reading/exercises you can recommend?

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    1. No mater how great the idea, it all comes down to a character with a problem. I like to figure out who the situation hurts the most, and who has the most to lose. That’s usually ends up being my protagonist. Then I figure out the one external problem that has to be solved or else. That’s the core conflict. Then I look for who is in the way of solving the problem. That’s my antagonist. The rest of the plot comes from figuring out what the protagonist has to do to solve that problem and what the antagonist will do to stop them. It sounds simple (and complicated) but it really does come down to what is your protagonist trying to do.

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  5. Great advice (and great advice about following Janice–I already do!). This has helped me to realize that I have a premise, rather than a plot, for one of the novels I’m working on. So now I don’t feel as bad letting it go for now, until I can give more thought to how it can work.

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    1. Glad it helped! That’s the thing about a premise idea, it just needs to gel more until you figure out the plot elements. I’ve had books that took years for the right pieces to finally fall into place. Sometimes it happens fast, other times slow.

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