Developing A Raw Idea Into a Premise


It’s time for the next novel. Like many other psychopaths, I’ll participate in NanoWrimo [again] this November. Some writerly friends are also joining in the mass hysteria. What’s scary for me—on their behalf—is that many still have no idea what story they’ll be writing. Hell, I outline short stories & flash fic, so I can’t imagine beginning a novel without a SOLID, well-defined premise worthy of investing thousands of words and hours into.

That investment is too damn crucial to be left to chance.

It’s like settling for cheap fishsticks when melt-in-your-mouth sashimi is available at the other end of the table.

Constant waves of ideas batter the shores of my mind, bringing the little fishies close. Some get caught in the riptide, or flow right back out to sea. A few actually launch themselves on the beach and flop around until I toss them back in. Most don’t have the sacred combination of  freshness, strength, deep-diving ability, beauty, and tenderness needed to nourish an entire novel.

So how do I decide whether a concept is an idea-fishstick or premise-sashimi?

If an idea wants to swim near the surface for a while, I let it. It will either develop, morph, and flash silver in the sunlight, or it will sink out of sight. A few keep on bobbing. They tread water and refuse to go away.

When a concept lingers, I lob rocks at it. Does it have enough inherent conflict? Is it determined and feisty? Is it really a novel-length idea—something I want to spend months and months chewing on and living with? Is the concept unique? Is it weird enough to plumb & entertain my imagination? Does it sparkle? Does it burn? Is there at least one character begging me to tell his/her story? Is there gut emotional appeal at the heart of it? Does it break through the static of all my other thoughts? Am I kinda obsessing over it?

If a stubborn concept has stuck around this long, it deserves a chance. I haul it onto the sand and slice it open. I pick it apart and look at its innards, sample its freshness—its rawness. This filleting is done at my desk with pencil and paper, while driving, in the shower, upon waking, while clipping my fingernails, during meals. Few make it to this stage. Even then, about one in three concepts survive and move on to next level. And for me to haul it home, the concept has to be a big, juicy, tasty, gnarly Great White of a story.

Now I decide if this thing is truly edible. A lot of the testing has already taken place, but this is where I make sure. This is my (fish-analogy-free) development process:

How far-reaching does this concept go? How deep can I make it? Who is my MC? What does s/he want? What is stopping him/her from obtaining that? What is the core conflict? What subplots can feed into that central component? Can I interlace internal and external conflicts so they ride on parallel rails?  Who is the antagonist? For all characters: what is each one’s role and purpose, motivation(s), strengths and (especially) faults? What is the world like? What are its rules? How can I make this idea stand out from the millions of others out there? What are the settings? What do I already know about the topics involved? What do I need to learn? What emotions will this story elicit? What strings inside the reader will it twang? Can I tie ALL these things together in one gorgeous, beautiful whole?

Mic Check
This might seem out of place, but I draft the first scene at this point. Even before I know the nuances of the story, I know how it begins. Before I invest any more time in this concept, I need the assurance that there is a fresh voice waiting to breathe on the pages. This is all about style, and word choice, and what the character has to say in his/her own words. This might take a few iterations—like asking a ouija board the same question a few times—but the character should come alive on the page. Once I’m confident I can channel this character’s story and give him/her a voice, I keep developing.

By this point I have a haphazard pile of scribbled post-it notes, notebook pages, sharpied napkins, a OneNote file full of details. Which is cool and all, but do I have a solid premise? My way of testing this critical aspect is to write the pitch as though crafting a query letter. This takes a lot of work. Like, a lot, a lot. But, if the core of the concept is strong, the basic structure and details quickly fall into place. I don’t worry about “voice” at this early stage of pitch crafting. This won’t produce the final pitch, but this version should clearly show the premise, MC, conflict, and stakes. A second part of this process is then boiling the pitch down to a single sentence. If it feels close-enough-to-solid, I’m golden and move on to outlining.

At this point, I’m absolutely sure my premise is as solid as it can be. I still have months of writing & revision ahead of me, but I’m confident that I have sashimi. In such a subjective industry, I have no idea how the premise itself will be received by agents, editors, or readers. I can’t change another person’s tastebuds any more than I can change the type of stories which swim and splash in my imagination. What I can do is lay a firm foundation on which to build those stories. And if I continue that same level of purposeful development until I have a polished manuscript, there won’t be a fishstick in sight.


See the where this process led me in prep for NaNoWriMo:

8 thoughts on “Developing A Raw Idea Into a Premise

  1. Oh don’t be that way . . . there’re two types of writers, plotters and (by the seat of your) pansters. I prefer books by pansters as they’re more inspired. We all need to find the way that works best for us though. If you need to plan, good for you. Me, I never know where my characters will take me. Either way, it all gets sorted with GOOD editing.


  2. With my first novel I used a combination of planning and flying by the seat of my pants. It turned out all right, but I think ended up needing to revise more than I would have if I would have been a little more structured in the beginning.

    This will be my first year participating in NaNo and I have done a lot more planning. I know I won’t have time to daydream for three hours between chapter 8 and 9 trying to figure out what will happen next.

    Thanks for sharing your process!


    • For some folks, pantsing seems to work great.
      Even without all the detailed planning & forethought of an outline, I hold pretty firm to the idea that a solid premise beforehand is essential. But, hey, maybe I can’t see beyond a plotter’s preference. 😉


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