A few years ago I developed a method for distilling a novel-length story into a premise or elevator pitch. It’s quite simple and effective, yet difficult to pull off and it can take quite a while to get right, even with practice.
After experimenting with it, I found it’s much easier to do the exercise before you write a novel than after, as you don’t have to try and figure out what doesn’t go in and you won’t get frustrated by the problems it may highlight.
As well as define your story, your premise needs to imply genre and tone while providing an idea about who the protagonist is without actually naming them.
One more point – you have to be able to see a whole story in your premise.
To create your story premise in a single sentence, you need to know four things:
- who the story’s about
- what they want
- who or what’s standing in their way
- the story’s hook (usually found in the irony).
Unless you’ve already written the story you probably don’t know those things. A bigger problem is that if you’ve written the story and still don’t know those things, you’ve got a major issue that’ll take some serious editing/restructuring to iron out.
So the best time to figure out your story’s premise (elevator pitch, logline, whatever you wish to call it) is before you write it. You can always change the premise later if you come up with better ideas, but its a signpost at the very least, and if you get stuck while writing at least you’ve got something to guide you.
So how do you apply this when you’ve got nothing to start with?
Obviously you have to start with something – an image, character, situation, whatever. A kernel of some kind.
Now try to figure out the answers to those questions above. If you can’t, start with what you have. The answers will probably come to you.
Today I decided to create a premise about a woman who wakes up alone in the woods (covered in dirt, scared, and with no memory of what had happened or where she’d been). It was little more than an image. I only knew two things about her (which I made up on the spot):
- As I write speculative fiction, I decided she needed something from the fantasy realm, so she quickly finds out she’s been missing for a long time. I wasn’t sure if she’d been gone a years, decades or centuries, but it had to be a significant amount of time.
- She’s younger now than she went missing. Much younger – physically. A teenager perhaps.
That’s all I had to work with.
The following premise statements show how I worked through ideas until I had something reasonably tight and strong.
- A young woman wakes up in the woods only to find she’s been missing for years, yet she hasn’t aged. (20 words)
This is a starting point, and lacks quite a few things like conflict and the protagonists desires. It’s a statement about where the story starts and therefore doesn’t work as a premise because it doesn’t give me any idea as to what it’s about or where it might go.
- A young woman who wakes up a decade after disappearing struggles with the fact she hasn’t aged as she tries to reconnect with her disbelieving family. (26 words)
This one is a bit convoluted, though at least it introduces some conflict and gives a hint about where the story might go, but its not nearly enough. There’s only a little bit of conflict implied, and that’s mostly internal.
- A young woman who hasn’t aged tries to reconnect with her disbelieving family a decade after disappearing. (17 words)
This is clearer and implies genre, but its not where it needs to be. The implied conflict still isn’t very strong and it leaves out the disappearing part.
- A young woman who returns youthful after going missing for more than a decade tries to reconnect with her disbelieving daughter while dark forces try to discover her secret. (30 words)
Even though it’s a little more detailed, it’s getting convoluted – you almost need a deep breath to get though it. I think it’s on the right track now though.
- A woman who returns as a teenager after going missing more than a decade ago tries to reconnect with her disbelieving daughter while dark forces close in. (27 words)
Who are the dark forces? Why are they closing in? At least the first part is getting stronger, though still convoluted.
- A mother who returns as a teenager after going missing for more than a decade tries to reconnect with and protect her disbelieving daughter while enemies try to discover her secret. (31 words)
Not really an improvement on the previous version, and ‘enemies’ is just a tad too vague.
- A mother who returns as a teenager a decade after disappearing tries to reconnect with and protect her disbelieving daughter while enemies try to discover her secret. (27 words)
No real improvement, though it’s a bit shorter.
- When a career woman disappears and returns youthful a decade later, she tries to reconnect with her disbelieving teenage daughter while being hunted for her secret. (26 words)
So she’s a career-woman now? Okay, that tells me a bit more about the woman. The conflict is getting more personal as well and the story shaping up a little clearer, but it’s still not very sharp. Also, if you need a comma to ensure it makes sense, rethink it.
- A career woman who disappears and returns youthful a decade later tries to reconnect with her disbelieving teenage daughter while being hunted for her secret. (26 words)
I’m still a fair distance from being happy with it.
- A career woman who disappears and returns a decade younger is forced to protect her daughter while being hunted for the secret of her youth. (25 words)
I think this is getting closer – its sharper, clearer, implies plenty of conflict and reads fairly well. Even if I keep all the information I’ve got in some of the above versions, there’s no need to state it here. The irony’s stronger now too: discovering the fountain of youth might just kill her.
- A missing woman who reappears as a teenager tries to protect her grown children when they’re hunted for the secret of her youth. (23 words)
I’m liking where this is going now. It’s clear, straightforward, concise and flows really well.
I might play with family members (should I have just the daughter or half a dozen children? Is the husband still in the picture? What about her extended family and friends – do they rate a mention here [probably not]?), but I think I’ve got to the heart of it now, and the hook is solid.
Hopefully you can see the path where the last iteration gets it closer to a tightly focused story with a single story problem. That’s all that matters here. Leave your subplots and excess characters in the ‘extras’ pile. They’ll find their place in the story eventually, just not here.
What I’ve produced isn’t perfect by a long way, but I can see a whole story in it now when I couldn’t before, and it’s one which I might be interested in writing.
The next question for me is: “Will I continue planning it out and perhaps even write it?”
This was an exercise, but I think the idea has promise. Considering I’m one of the world’s worst planners (in the sense that planning’s the last thing I want to do when it comes to writing, so I either procrastinate or find ways not to), I might work though the concept here, start to finish, and see where it goes.
Or I might just wait for NaNoWriMo and belt it out based on the premise alone.
Please try writing your own premise and let me know if this method of distilling your story into a single sentence works for you.