ON WRITING

“It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years of writing. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.” Andre Dubus

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Insecure Writers Support Group Post - the Premise, the Pitch, the Synopsis

If you've gone the novel route, at some time you'll need to write a Premise (ideally before you put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard), then you'll need a Pitch if you're seeking an agent or planning on stalking an editor at a conference, rushing to catch him/her as they run to the lift (elevator) to escape all the eager writers flapping manuscripts in their hot little hands. We're not finished yet...if the agent/editor likes your Pitch, then they'll probably ask for the first three chapters of your novel, accompanied by a Synopsis. All this work! Are you with me in thinking getting the idea, writing the story, editing the story, editing the story, editing the story...is the easy part? Hands up if you find the Premise, the Pitch, the Synopsis jolly hard work?? 

Research is one of my favourite things, so as I'm ready to perfect these scary little add ons to my novel, I've hit my favourite place for writing questions -- the Writers Knowledge Base. Here is the result...a conglomeration of solid advice. I'll use the royal 'we' in my post 'cause we're in this together. And this will be a LONG post 'cause I wanted to have them all together. I hope you find something useful.

Story Premise


According to Writer's Digest: “Premise” comes from two Latin words, meaning to put before. "The premise is the foundation of your story-that single core statement," says James N. Frey, “of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story.”
For example, the premise of The Three Little Pigs is “Foolishness leads to death, and wisdom leads to happiness.” (It”s not three little pigs get scared by a wolf and make bad building decisions.) Every story has one premise. Only one. This premise is the underlying idea of your story-the foundation that supports your entire plot
Source

There are two aspects of story setup where small changes can create the biggest payoff. Tweaking these before we've put words on the screen is also relatively painless. After all, we haven't had a chance to fall in love with our characters, setting, and plot choices. Setting up the conflict and the story question really begins from our first sentence, and if we don't know what that is going to be, we're probably not quite ready to start writing even if we are pantsing it. If everything comes down to the story question, then the success of the book ultimately begins and ends with that question. But how does premise tie into that question. Are they the same thing? Or slightly different?

The premise or concept includes a number of different elements. 


When EXTERNAL STORY QUEST forces CHARACTER to confront her INTERNAL PROBLEM or STAKES, PLOT illustrates the THEME.

The premise isn't just about the theme. We have to start with the external story quest. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner points out that one of the most common mistakes she sees in queries or hears in verbal pitches is that writers have a hard time conveying the actual story of their novel. She explains that it's critical that we make sure "the character's emotional journey is illustrated in the real-life action of the story." One feeds off the other. The internal problem complicates the external story quest and leads to the growth of the protagonist. The protagonist's journey, in turn, develops the main theme, which further facilitates our choices in the obstacles we throw at her.

The "And so?" Test

Use "And so?" as a test of relevance as we plot a story. "What does this piece of information tell us that we need to know? What's the point? How does it further the story?" What consequence does it lead to?" Any time that something happens and we can't tie the answer to "And so?" back to the main premise, we are derailing the momentum of the story, which "should follow a cause-and-effect trajectory beginning on page one so that each scene is triggered by the one that preceded it."

Does everything in the story's cause-and-effect trajectory revolve around the protagonist's quest (the story question)?


What Is the Story Question? 

It's the ultimate test of whether a premise is compelling. It's the premise boiled down to the thing that the reader has to know, the reason the reader keeps turning the pages to the end. For example...

Will Katniss Everdeen survive the Hunger Games?

Will character overcome the opposition? 

For "overcome," we can substitute any verb that suggests conflict. And here we are, back at conflict.

Note that the example from THE HUNGER GAMES is very specific and external. Because Suzanne Collins did such a great job setting up the conflict in the first book of her trilogy, we all know what the Hunger Games are by now, so I don't need to define it. If "Hunger Games" was instead "Zombie Crunch Time" and we were trying to pitch that to an agent, we would need to be able to boil down the idea in a few succinct words. The closer we can come to nailing that explanation in a single, compelling sentence, the more likely it is that we've nailed the premise.

Rachelle Gardner suggests that before we pitch to an agent, we make sure our book has "a protagonist with a choice to face (a conflict), obstacles to overcome, a desired outcome, and consequences (the stakes) if the goal is not reached. Again, that's easier to set up before we've written. And chances are, that if we haven't done a good job setting it up before we've written, summing it up after we've written is going to be more difficult.

The "What If?" test

It's a great idea to see how many "What If" questions we can find in a premise. Let's take another whack at HUNGER GAMES – a good choice because most of us have read it.

What if in a post-apocalyptic society children were forced to fight to the death as a spectator sport?

What if one of two children forced to fight each other to the death was in love with the other?

What if while two children were forced to fight each other to the death, one had to preserve the other's life?

You get the point. It comes down to a compelling read because as a reader, I just must know the answer.

The "So What?" Test

It has been suggested that readers actually search for the answers to three different questions while they are reading. "So What?" the first of these questions basically demands to know why the premise matters, why it is different from what readers have already read a thousand times?

Applied to the premise, the "So What?" test helps us ensure that the premise has a hook—something intriguing to make the reader choose to read this book, to buy this book, instead of one of the many other choices on the shelf. If the premise itself doesn't pass the "So What?" it's probably not time to write yet.

The "Oh Yeah?" Test

The "Oh Yeah" test is one of plausibility. It grounds the premise and forces us to lay the groundwork. Why would the things that happen in the story happen? Why couldn't they happen any other way? If there's anything unfounded in the story, anything that happens only because the author needs it to happen that way, then the reader will sniff it out. Plot holes kill a premise no matter how compelling that premise may be. And plot holes can usually be patched by laying solid groundwork from the beginning. If the premise itself doesn't pass the "Oh Yeah" test, well . . . you get the idea.

The "Huh?" Test

The "Huh?" test applies to anything in the story that the reader can't follow—anything that doesn't make sense. And that goes for the premise as well as every, single sentence in the book. If the reader can't follow the idea, can't follow the action, can't tell who is speaking or what is going on, then he or she will quickly stop reading.

If the premise doesn't fit into a simple, compelling format, it probably isn't distilled enough to work yet. It can sometimes help to try writing it in different ways to see what pops.

QUESTIONS TO ASK WHILE WE'RE NOODLING AROUND WITH PREMISE

Once we have a really solid premise, it's easy to restate it in any number of different ways and have it always hold up. Here are a few more formula we can use to examine a premise and see if we can add something or change something to make it more compelling.

One sentence mistaken belief:

Character believes misconception or twisted life view, until discovery and series of events that result in disaster.

Two sentence inciting incident: 

When inciting incident launches character on quest to avoid consequence, she must overcome her obstacle to success before she can defeat antagonist, save loved one, or retrieve the MacGuffin.

Character premise: 

A character must do something to keep antagonist from doing something else or else reason why we care?

Story action launch: 

Book title starts when character discovers/is pushed/something happens leading to dire consequences.

First page set-up:

On the first page of Book Titlesomething strange leads character to question/discover/investigate something previously taken for granted which leads to consequence.

Ticking clock premise: 

Will character discover/expose who (antagonist) is doing something bad in time to save herself or some other poor schmuck from dire consequence?

Quick reminder, these last ways to examine premise are just for us while we're noodling around trying to get a handle on what we're writing. I wouldn't necessarily recommend using them as your ultimate pitch. Many agents have stated that they don't like rhetorical questions in query letters, and throwing a premise question into a query might be too close for comfort. Bottom line? Do your research into what specific agents like and don't like.



Image representing TechCrunch Elevator Pitches...

What is an elevator pitch and why do you need one? An elevator pitch is a short one- to two-sentence description about the book. It’s the briefest of the briefest descriptions you can develop. The reason elevator pitches are important is that we have an ever- shrinking attention span, so you need to capture someone’s attention in a very short, succinct pitch.

How do we begin crafting an elevator pitch? 

STEP ONE: Look at the core of your book. What is your book about, really? Looking at the core of your book will help you determine the primary message. 

STEP TWO: Look at the real benefits to the reader. (Not what you think the reader wants to know but what they actually need.) What’s in it for the reader?

Writers often kept the best sentence for last. This comes from being an author and saving the crescendo of the story until the final chapter. You don’t want to do that in an elevator pitch. Lead with the tease that will pull the reader in.

LED elevator floor indicatorWhen would you use an elevator pitch? You might use it to promote yourself to the media, to book a speaking event, or to pitch a blogger. Elevator pitches can be used for a number of reasons and in a variety of ways. Once you create a great elevator pitch, you may find yourself using it over and over again. That’s a good thing!
Image via Wikipedia

Components of a great elevator pitch

All elevator pitches have particular relevance to them, but for the most part, every elevator pitch must:
  • Have emotional appeal
  • Be helpful
  • Be insightful
  • Be timely
  • Matter to your reader!
Essential Elements of a Powerful Elevator Pitch
  1. Concise: Your pitch needs to be short, sweet, and to the point.
  2. Clear: Save your five dollar words for another time. For your elevator pitch to be effective, you must use simple language any layperson can understand. If you make someone think about a word, you’ll lose them and the effectiveness of your elevator pitch will go right out the window as well.
  3. Passion: If you’re not passionate about your topic, how can you expect anyone else to be?
  4. Visual: Use words that bring visual elements to your reader’s mind. It helps to make your message more memorable and brings the reader into your story.
  5. Stories: People love stories. It’s the biggest element of the elevator pitch: tell the story. I also find that when the pitch is woven into the story, it often helps to create a smoother presentation.
How to Craft Your Killer Elevator Pitch
  • Write it down: Start by writing a very short story so you can tell the story of your book in two paragraphs. This will get the juices flowing. As you start to edit your story down from 200,000 words to two paragraphs, you’ll start to see why it’s important to pull only the most essential elements from your story to craft your elevator pitch.
  • Make a list: Write down 10 to 20 things that your book does for the reader. These can be action statements, benefits, or book objectives.
  • Record yourself: Next, record yourself and see how you sound. I can almost guarantee you that you will not like the first few drafts you try. That actually is a really good thing. If you like the first thing that you write, it probably won’t be that effective. Recording yourself will help you listen to what you’re saying and figure out how to fine-tune it.
  • Rest: I highly recommend that you give yourself enough time to do your elevator pitch. Ideally you want to let it rest overnight, if not longer. Remember the elevator pitch is perhaps the most important thing that you created in your marketing package. You want to make sure it’s right.
Having a prepared “pitch” for your book will help you enormously, whether you are pitching the media, an agent, a publisher, or even a bookstore. Having a short, concise pitch will get and keep someone’s attention and also, increase your chances for a positive desired outcome. Keep in mind that if your elevator pitch is tied to current events, it might change as events change. A good elevator pitch can be fluid, but it should always be an attention grabber. In a world cluttered with information and filled with noise, the shorter and more focused you can be, the more exposure you will get for your message!



DEFINITION: A synopsis is a brief summary of the major points of a written work, either as prose or as a table; an abridgment or condensation of a work.                                                                                 Wikipedia.


One thing writers hate doing but will inevitably have to do (one day or another, at least) is the Dreaded Synopsis. An agent may request it in his/her submission materials, or an editor might want it once your agent has you out on subs.  Most agents would want a short, simple synopsis.
You have to learn to do this. You need it before you’re published, and you’ll certainly need it afterwards. Specifically, you’ll need to be able to write the 1 or 2-page synopsis.
You may well say. It’s hard to boil my whole ingenious novel into a few key sentences.  To convey the depth, the emotion, the literary power of your novel in 500 words or less–impossible!
Ah, but is possible.  It can even be fun (if you enjoy mental torture).  To learn how to write a short synopsis, I took workshops, read books, and wrote a few drafts until I had a gleaming 1-page book summary.  And after all that practice, I realized I had my own method (built from the methods of my various teachers, of course), and I’m sharing that method with you here.
To use this worksheet, fill out the questions in sentence form. Though your story may not follow this exact format, try to find some critical event in the story that can be placed in that space.  You will likely notice that the worksheet is very similar to the Hero’s Journey (because most stories follow that format!), and I have filled out the questions using my All Time Favorite Movie as the example.
Once you have filled out the worksheet, rewrite them on a fresh sheet of paper and try to eliminate words, tighten sentences, and variate sentence structure. How many words do you have? You want to shoot for under 500, and you want to have some “space” left for inserting connective words (e.g. meanwhile, then, after, etc.). You also want to have extra space to add any events that are needed for explanation/flow.
Rule of thumb: You should only name three characters in a short synopsis – usually, the protagonist, antagonist, and possible love interest/side-kick/contagonist. All other characters should be referred to by their roles (e.g. the waitress, the mother, the basketball player).
Rule of thumb: You must tell the ending! The purpose of a synopsis is to show an editor/agent you can tell a story from beginning to end. You will not entice them into reading your whole MS if you don’t share the ending – you’ll just tick them off! :)
Rule of thumb: Do not include subplots unless you have extra space at the end!!!!!  Stick to the MAIN PLOT EVENTS.
FILL IN THE BLANKS
1. Opening image
An image/setting/concept that sets the stage for the story to come.
Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated.
2. Protagonist Intro
Who is the main character? Give 1-2 descriptive words and say what he/she wants.
Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland.
3. Inciting incident
What event/decision/change prompts the main character to take initial action.
When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it – a message from a princess begging for help. She has plans to defeat the Empire, and she begs someone to deliver these plans to a distant planet. Luke goes to his friend and mentor, the loner Ben Kenobi, for help.
4. Plot point 1
What is the first turning point? What action does the MC take or what decision does he/she make that changes the book’s direction? Once he/she crossed this line, there’s no going back.
Ben tells Luke about a world where the Empire rules and Rebels fight back, where Jedi Knights wield a magic called the Force, and how Luke must face Darth Vader – the man who killed Luke’s father and now seeks to destroy Luke too. Luke refuses, but when he goes back to his farm, he finds his family has been killed. He has no choice but to join Ben.
5. Conflicts & character encounters
Now in a new life, the MC meets new people, experiences a new life, and meets the antagonist/villain.
To escape the desert planet, Ben and Luke hire a low-life pilot and the pilot’s hairy, alien friend. Luke, Ben, Luke’s robots, the pilot, and the hairy friend leave the planet and fly to the Death Star, Darth Vader’s home and the Empire’s main base.
6. Midpoint
What is the middle turning point? What happens that causes the MC to make a 360 degree change in direction/change in emotion/change in anything? Again, once he/she has crossed this line, there’s no going back.
Once on board the Death Star, Luke discovers the princess is being held as a hostage. He and the group set out to find the princess, while Ben sets out to find a way for them to escape the base.
7. Winning seems imminent, but…
What happens that makes the MC think he/she will win? She seems to have the upper hand, but then oh no! The antagonist defeats her and rushes off more powerful than ever before.
After rescuing the princess, Luke and the group try to escape. Ben sacrifices himself so they can flee, and Darth Vader kills Ben. The group flees the Death Star on their own ship.
8. Black moment
The MC is lower than low, and he/she must fight through the blackness of his/her emotions to find the strength for the final battle. What happens here?
Luke is devastated over Ben’s death, and he is more determined to fight Darth Vader and help the Rebels defeat the Empire. Luke joins the Rebel army, and helps them plan an attack on the Death Star’s only weakness.
9. Climax
What happens in the final blow-out between the MC and the antagonist?
The Death Star arrives in space near the Rebels, and the attack begins. Luke joins the assault team of fighter ships. The Rebels suffer heavy losses, and soon Luke is one of the few remaining pilots and ships. He takes his chance and initiates the final attack. Guided by Ben’s voice and the Force, he manages to fire the single, critical shot to explode the Death Star.
10. Resolution
Does everyone live happily ever after? Yes? No? What happens to tie up all the loose ends?
With the Death Star destroyed and the Empire severely damaged, the Rebels hold a grand ceremony to honor Luke and his friends. The princess awards them with medals for heroism.
11. Final image
What is the final image you want to leave your reader with? Has the MC succumbed to his/her own demons or has he/she built a new life?
Though Luke is still sad over the loss of Ben and his family, he has found a place among the Rebels, and with them, he will continue to fight the Empire.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated.
Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it – a message from a princess begging for help. She has plans to defeat the Empire, and she begs someone to deliver these plans to a distant planet. Luke goes to his friend and mentor, the loner Ben Kenobi, for help.
Ben tells Luke about a world where the Empire rules and Rebels fight back, where Jedi Knights wield a magic called the Force, and how Luke must face Darth Vader – the man who killed Luke’s father and now seeks to destroy Luke too. Luke refuses, but when he goes back to his farm, he finds his family has been killed. He has no choice but to join Ben.
To escape the desert planet, Ben and Luke hire a low-life pilot and the pilot’s hairy, alien friend. Luke, Ben, Luke’s robots, the pilot, and the hairy friend leave the planet and fly to the Death Star, Darth Vader’s home and the Empire’s main base. Once on board the Death Star, Luke discovers the princess is being held as a hostage. He and the group set out to find the princess, while Ben sets out to find a way for them to escape the base.
After rescuing the princess, Luke and the group try to escape. Ben sacrifices himself so they can flee, and Darth Vader kills Ben. The group flees the Death Star on their own ship. Luke is devastated over Ben’s death, and he is more determined to fight Darth Vader and help the Rebels defeat the Empire. Luke joins the Rebel army, and helps them plan an attack on the Death Star’s only weakness.
The Death Star arrives in space near the Rebels, and the attack begins. Luke joins the assault team of fighter ships. The Rebels suffer heavy losses, and soon Luke is one of the few remaining pilots and ships. He takes his chance and initiates the final attack. Guided by Ben’s voice and the Force, he manages to fire the single, critical shot to explode the Death Star.
With the Death Star destroyed and the Empire severely damaged, the Rebels hold a grand ceremony to honor Luke and his friends. The princess awards them with medals for heroism. Though Luke is still sad over the loss of Ben and his family, he has found a place among the Rebels, and with them, he will continue to fight the Empire.
FINAL WORD COUNT: 452
I hope this helps you all!  I know I use it as a general guide every time I write a synopsis.  Sometimes, I even use it before writing a novel to help me get an idea of the general plot I want to follow.

REFERENCES:

PREMISE:
http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/the_premise_of_your_story

http://childrenspublishing.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/six-tests-of-solid-story-premise-and.html

ELEVATOR PITCH: 
http://www.amarketingexpert.com/craft-an-exceptional-elevator-pitch/

SYNOPSIS:
http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/04/17/how-to-write-a-1-page-synopsis/



23 comments:

  1. Excellent tips, Denise!! Whoa, I'm impressed.

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  2. Wow, this is quite the comprehensive post. Thanks so much for compiling it...and for the link(s) :). Yeah, pitches and synopses scare me a lot. I seem to suck at writing them!

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    1. I'm always that some people like doing these.

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  3. Amazing content here today Denise! Definitely one to book mark and work through with our manuscripts in mind. We could use this in our writers group :)

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  4. I'm bookmarking this! AWESOME!

    Thank you!

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  5. Denise, when I come to your blog, I feel like I'm in a workshop. Plenty of food for thought here, not to mention matching up to see if I've hit all the points in what I'm working on now. Thanks.

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    1. I'm sure you already do it well Joy.

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  6. Wow, this is so cool, Denise. Thanks bunches. Going to cut and paste the whole darn thing.
    Karen

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    1. Thanks for visiting Karen. Glad it's useful to you.

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  7. This was quite comprehensive and intense. You could study this post all week! The ghost of Mark Twain always thought synopsis sounded like the name of an ancient Greek philosopher! :-)

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    1. Wish Mark had dropped by and collated it for me.

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  8. Excellent post Denise. I am thrilled as I am plotting my trilogy and writing the first book. Hugs for sharing this great info.

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  9. A lot of love and research went into this. I put it in my favorites so I can read it over and over. Never too early to plan out the synopsis and first three. Having a submission package put together is helpful for that unexpected request :)

    .......dhole

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  10. Well, Denise,

    THIS IS AMAZING.... You summed it up so BEAUTIFULLY. I am aghast. The time you spent on this shows how much you care and LOVE the whole process. Yes, even the dreaded synopsis and query. LOL. You are a lady in love with words and putting the pieces of a "word" puzzle together challenges you and sparks your passion for writing.

    Thank you so much for these tips. I certainly will be squirreling this post away in my files.

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    1. Glad it was helpful Michael. Now i am putting it to practical use.

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  11. Helpful post. Happy International Women's Day, Denise!

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  12. This is a really useful post. Bookmarking for future reference!

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  13. Wow, what a super helpful post, Denise! I'm definitely saving this in my craft notes binder... (which isn't so much a binder as a bunch of archived emails and saved .docs and printed sheets and scribbled notes...)

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  14. Hi Denise!

    What a great, comprehensive post and you've covered so many aspects of it! Thanks for sharing!

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