Figuring Out What to Write

Some writers have problems deciding on what ideas to use and what to leave on the table. However, the solution is pretty simple- you need to sell yourself the idea before you sell it to an audience. If you’re not interested, an audience likely isn’t either.

One approach to solving this problem is writing a book blurb for your story, which lays out the fundamental ideas of the story in an interesting and lively way that attracts readers. If you get excited reading/writing this blurb, then that story might be for you!

Blurbs are written using formulas, and one of the best I’ve come across can be found here.

However, if writing a full book blurb is still too much for you, a simple core premise logline might be better at getting you started.

A Core Premise is the central idea of your story and a seed from which the rest of the story will grow. With it, you’ll know the story you’re trying to tell, and have a guiding star leading the way to the end!

To find your Core Premise, you’re going to use a very basic technique that writers for movies have been using for a long time. In the movie business, writers often approach producers and directors with ideas for films, but they use a very simple structured version of their idea called a logline to get maximum effect and make the producers interested. If they can use it to sell a movie to producers, you can use it to sell a story to yourself- so let’s get started!

A great Core Premise needs to describe most of the following things:

  1. One or two adjectives about the main character. (to give them personality)
  2. The main character’s role or job. (Don’t use a name, just their role for now.)
  3. Anything that’s important to know about the setting or setup for the story.
  4. What the main character’s clear goal is.
  5. One or two adjectives about the opposition. (to make them interesting)
  6. The antagonist, opposition or challenge they face. (Also no names, use roles instead.)
  7. A hint of what will happen if the protagonist loses, or the stakes involved. (to add drama)

These can be presented in any order, but usually go in the above order, and will produce one or two sentences that look like this:

A mousy college student (adjective, who) working in a used bookstore (setting) must find a mysterious book (goal) when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits (adjective, opposition) that will escape the store at nightfall (stakes).

An overworked executive assistant (adjective, who) at a large corporation (setting) must choose between her work and her family (goal) when a long-time rival (adjective, opposition) threatens to steal a big project (stakes) during a family crisis.

A high school student (adjective, who) must find a way to tell her long-time crush her true feelings (adjective, challenge) before she moves to a new city and they lose touch forever (stakes).

It’s actually pretty easy and fun once you get the hang of it!

Try using the ideas you brainstormed to come up with a Core Premise that follows the rules above. You don’t need to use all the information you came up with, just the main ideas. Also, don’t be afraid to try different versions of the premise with different details until you get one that you like.

Once you’ve turned at least one of your story ideas into a good-looking Core Premise, then you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this story idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  2. Is this story going to be one you think will interest your target audience?
  3. Is this story going to make your readers feel something?

If a premise gets three solid answers of “yes!” then that’s the story you need to write. If none of them get a “yes” for all three questions, then you need to go back and brainstorm some new ideas and turn those into premises that will work for you.

Another Book Blurb Formula

Found this info in a thread on Royal Road on writing good reader-catching story blurbs by Vincent Archer. I thought it was worth sharing, his original source was a bit vague, so I couldn’t trace it. (Bolding mine for emphasis.)

The blurb is supposed to catch your readers’ attention and sell the story, not tell the story.

I’m going to pick from Author’s Society: Fiction book blurbs start with a situation (a), introduce a problem (b) and promise a twist (c). They usually end with a sentence that emphasizes the mood (d) of the story.

So you start with a catch-up sentence, since often, people will drop the blurb if they don’t like the first sentence, and you end with a kind-of-cliffhanger so that people go from blurb to story.

Blurb sample using the formula (along with ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘d’) lists:

For nearly twenty years since they’ve opened, the Gilded Gates of the Infinite Labyrinth have brought power and wonders to the subjects of King George III. Fueled by the resources from the place beyond the Gates, the modern age is in full swing across the British Empire (a: situation)

But the Hordes of Napoleon are not standing still. They will not stop until they can achieve total dominance, and ending the British advantage is what they plan for (b: problem).

Jonas Sims never planned to be a Labyrinth Professional and be involved in high stakes games (c: plot twist)

Now he, and the rest of his team have to level, push themselves forward and grow beyond their origins (d: story mood)

Or the Sun may set upon the Empire at last! (final hook)

Another one to illustrate the method:

The town of Las Viadas has two sides, like the twin swings of its saloon’s entrance. One seedy, one bright, and never the two meet. (a: situation)

But sometimes, people go into the saloon and don’t come out, and that’s something sheriff Marcus can no longer ignore. (b: problem)

The thing is, sometimes people who haven’t gone into the saloon come out, and no one finds that strange. (c: twist)

Getting to the truth will not be easy, nor will it leave the sheriff untouched by the weird. (d: mood)

Unless he goes in and never goes out. (explosive suspense)

Of course, you can have a full paragraph for each part rather than one or two sentences. You just need to keep your sentences very short, to the point.

There’s lots of tried “recipes” in writing. We’ve been writing novels and doing mass market publishing for centuries now. Everyone wants to be an amazing writer, but for most of us, myself included, using tried recipes and putting our own touch on them works better than attempts at being “truly innovative”.

You can pick my story and try to see how the classic Hero’s Journey steps apply, and you’ll find they’re all there (well, except the very end, since there’s 5 chapters left). It’s all about the presentation.

Same thing for the blurbs. Classic version works nearly perfectly. The best ones follow the recipe without you realizing it’s there.

It’s not a bad little formula, and I think sells stories pretty well.

(a) Situation

(b) Problem

(c) Plot Twist

(d) Story Mood

(f) Story Hook

You could even use it to sell a story to yourself to decide if it was worth writing. Create a blurb for a story you might write, and see if it gets you exited enough to write it!

Rob

J. Michael Straczynski on the secret to his writing

Yep. That’s basically it. You need to write until it’s instinctual, and that comes with a whole lot of practice. (Which he’s had, in spades!) Always keep writing!

Stories Made Simple Ep.3 – The Spine of Action (Part 1)

In this episode, Rob begins delving into the Spine of Action, and how understanding it can make your stories better.

Reading for Better Writing

Occasionally, I get asked by students who want to write fiction what they should read to become better writers. My immediate answer to this question is always the same- On Writing by Stephen King. It’s THE book by one of the greatest literary craftsmen of the last hundred years, and in itself almost functions as a perfect introduction to the art of writing fiction.

However, what about once you’re ready for something a little more advanced than King’s essential starter?

Until recently, my answer was to recommend people read Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, it’s a book on scriptwriting, but much of what’s in that book applies to writers of fiction just as well. Snyder’s unique Genres are a great tool for focusing your story, and his master plot outline can bring a story into clear (if formulaic) shape. However, it’s a book of structure and tips, not so much about the nuts and bolts of writing fiction, and that always left a bit of a gap.

Well, now I have something to fill that gap- advice that will take an author’s writing to the next level, or at least give them piles of tips from the hands of another master writer.

36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk

As the name suggests, this is a collection of writing essays by Chuck Palahniuk originally done for the writing site Litreactor.com. They were done between 2005 and 2007 on a monthly basis. Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, is the writing teacher you wish you had, and the advice he gives as he pulls back the curtain in those essays is invaluable to anyone who wants to write fiction. He’s the graduate class to Stephen King’s undergraduate class, and I cannot overstate what an effect reading those essays had on my own approach to writing.

I highly recommend anyone who has started writing, and perhaps finished a few stories, to go and find a copy of that essay collection. The official collection is only available on Litreactor.com as part of a paid membership, which I recommend you go for, however if you’re lacking in cash there are a number of bootleg collections floating around if you do a simple search. These essays will be most helpful to people who have written a bit already, and are meant for people who are serious about writing, but if you are they’re worth every second you spend reading them.

Palahniuk also starting writing occasional new essays for Litreactor.com, such as this gem about thought verbs, and it will give you an idea of what to expect. It was the reason I sought out more of his writing advice in the first place.

Happy Writing!

Rob