Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Which comes first: Premise or Story?

I’m so jealous of people like J.R. Ward and our own Stephanie Doyle who say that their stories and worlds and characters just land on them all in one lump, fully formed. While some of my books have been easier to write than others, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a book that came quite that clearly, where I didn’t seriously rethink some key element of the story while writing the first draft (never mind while revising).

And my latest book is proving to be one of the hardest I’ve ever tried to write. (I know, I know… I said that about the last one, too. And the one before. And the several I’ve abandoned midway. This one's the hardest, okay??? Leave me alone.)

But I had a possible epiphany last week and it got me thinking: which comes first -- the premise/high concept or the story?

I know it’s a chicken and egg thing and there’s no one right answer… and it’s much like the plot vs. character question -- and that's one I fully believe you can approach from either direction, as long as they’re integrated. That is, you can either think in terms of which characters would work best with a plot you've concocted, or what plot would best torture the characters you've imagined… And the end result can be a character motivated plot either way. In fact, if your brain works even remotely like mine, chances are you think about character and plot at once.

So, yes, I came to grips with the character vs. plot issue ages ago – probably while working on my very first novel, but I’m realizing with these slightly bigger, more complicated, world building books I’ve been writing recently, that in both cases (two different series ideas) the first thing I came up with was the world – the overall premise. Then, based on that premise, I developed a complicated world with lots of rules and lots of backstory (for one series, going back thousands of years), and finally, only once I had all that together, did I start to think of characters and plots to fit in with my premise and world.

And my possible epiphany, while agonizing about the story for my latest book and whether it really works and/or is the best story I can write at this point in my career, is that maybe I’m too wedded to the rules of my world and my overall premise. Maybe I spent too much time on the world upfront. Maybe I did it all ass backwards!

And regardless of how I should have started, (kind of moot, now), if I’m struggling to fit my story and characters into the world I’ve created, why not make the world bend instead of the forcing the story and characters into it? Seems like a “well d’uh” moment, now that I type it, but it felt like a serious lightbulb and/or slap my head moment an hour ago. That is: You idiot, Maureen, you’ve spent all this time trying to force a character and story into a set of rules and a backstory you chose for your world/premise… but if this is the first book in a series, even if that set of rules was cool, even if you already told your agent about it and she loved it, even if you liked it a lot yourself -- if it’s not working, um, change it.

Basically the problem is that now my characters have started to take shape, I no longer think the story I had mapped out for them is the best story for those characters (who are starting to seem real to me). So I’m thinking of changing some pretty major elements of my world. And I mean major. Maybe to the point where humans know that my otherworldly characters exist, whereas before the hero’s entire conflict, and the conflict between the hero and heroine, arose out of keeping his identity a secret… Hmm…

So, those of you who write "other world" stuff… paranormals, urban fantasy, fantasy, or sci-fi… which do you come up with first? Premise? World? Story? Characters? Or does it all come to you at once (and if so, I may have to kill you.)

Then, once you’ve set down the rules for your world, do you allow yourself to change those rules? I mean at some point it needs to be cast in relative stone, or the whole thing’s too fluid, (and I've been thinking about another post on this topic, related to world building...), but at what point do things need to freeze? I thought I was past the point of no return… but maybe not…

Why do I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a very high cliff with no railing????


Stephanie Doyle said...

Geesh that sounds like a lot of work Maureen :) All that thinking...

And just to clarify my books don't come fully formed. Just enough previews to get me from beginning middle and end.

But again lets recap the downside. I wrote a book set in 1698 that is never going to sell.

So I decided to try a Western which could be the next new big thing...(This idea only came 1/2 formed. The opening scene and one in the middle.) and I can't write it. Because I can't think my way through the story.

But then the other day BAM - lightening strikes. It's a freakin' VIKING romance. No one is doing VIKING. Scottish, Regency Victorian, possibly cutting edge Western could work... no I get a Viking story. Clear as the mother bleeping day.

So I would rather have some of your ability to think through a story. Change as needed. Rework midstream to make it better.

As for your questions... just go with your gut. There are no rules. It's your book. Do what you think makes sense and if that means letting go of something you let go.

Kristen Painter said...

Usually a scene comes to me with a character and a situation. But then, no two books have really started from the same inspiration.

Kimber Chin said...

And THAT is why I write contemporary. Sure there is still some world building and rules but nothing compared to what you have to do in sci fi or paranormal.

I work best when I start with a single character. I build the story about the character. Premise I'm not too solid on. I usually figure that out after the story is written (oh, yeah, this is about the consequences of telling the truth...)

Eileen said...

My answer is yes. I've worked it both ways. My paranormal came to me originally in a snippet of a scene, but then a story idea pretty much dumped itself in my lap. The romantic suspense story I'm working on now and the one that came out last March definitely started with premise, premise, premise. Each book is its own journey.

Alli said...

Oh, Maureen, you think too much. :-)

Mine is usually premise, character then story. World building comes from researching history and trying to incorporate myths into my modern day world (eg Incan myths and beliefs into modern day Peru story). And even though I like to keep close to the history, I do allow my worlds to bend in a small way that doesn't distort history too much but makes the story chuff along.

I have lots of ideas flying around my head but it's not until I have an idea (premise or character) that nags and nags and nags do I do something about it. I figure if it keeps banging around in my mind for a while, then something needs to be done about it. :-)

Molly O'Keefe said...

YOu know - I think anytime your story butts into itself, however you come up with the story, you really have a chance to make your story explode. It's hard because it's so hard and initially, you think it's way too much work and all this stuff will have to be changed but in the end it's always your story trying to tell you something. It's no fun.

viking? I love it. Hey Doyle - have you watched Generation Kill -- the writers of The Wire and Alexander Skarsgard. It's SO SO good.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Molly - I'm giving Generation Kill another shot. I did watch the first episode because it was the same writers, but it didn't hold my attention.

OBVIOUSLY - I must not have seen Alex right away. Now I'm going looking for him.

I miss Alex... these long distance relationships... are just hell. Sigh...

Scotti Cohn said...

A lot of times, I have "ideas" -- which is frustrating because the minute I start to expand and develop them, I usually fall flat. My "ideas" are not "stories" and when I try to develop them into stories, I find there just isn't enough there to work with. Or I just can't get enthusastic about what IS there to work with. It's like my internal editor/agent says "Sorry, I'm just not excited enough about this idea to represent it." LOL

Eileen said...

Scotti, that's the moment when it's time to dig deeper! What is the story really about? Can you figure out a theme? Can you create characters that can show other side of the problem/issue? Granted, some ideas just aren't that great, but a lot of times that first little seed just needs to be germinated!

Maureen McGowan said...

Great comments yesterday, everyone. Sorry I couldn't get to a computer to read them until this am.

I am thinking too much... or maybe the problem is that my brain isn't fertile enough ground right now to let my story seeds germinate properly.

One way or the other, not making any rash decisions right now. (Like starting this book over -- for the fourth time.) At least not until I get some proper sleep and have a chance to think it through and/or have some DWT.

Sinead... your baby doesn't mind a little cider in her milk does she?

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