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

DNA Podcast 035 – The Hero’s Journey Strikes Back!

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In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by Jack Ward for a spirited debate about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Does Campbell’s opus really hold the key to writing satisfying stories? Jack thinks so, but Rob and Don aren’t so sure, and this leads to a long discussion involving comparative mythology, newspaper comic strips, 1970’s vampire hunting reporters, and more sitcom references than an 80’s flashback! All this, and Don’s unhealthy fixation with the obscure scifi comedy Quark are waiting for you in this, the 35th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle Evolved

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m fascinated by story structure, and recently I’ve been probing the depths of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. The Story Circle was Harmon’s way to take Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make it into something practical but still all encompassing. This isn’t new, Christopher Vogler did something similar in his famous memo, which he later turned into The Writer’s Journey, and other writers have done their own takes as well, such as Chris Woo’s fascinating take on it. This is possible because Campbell wasn’t writing a book about writing, but a book about comparative mythology, so he left the more practical applications of his work to others.

In any case, I’ve taken to Harmon’s Story Circle for its simplicity and practicality for writers. I won’t reiterate the details whole thing here (read about it on his original Channel 101 posts, which start here, but this is the most important one), but you can watch this video which covers the points of the thing pretty nicely.

So basically in simplest form it looks like this:

1 – You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – Need (but they want something)
3 – Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – Search (adapt to it)
5 – Find (find what they wanted)
6 – Take (pay its price)
7 – Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – Change (now capable of change)

Which is pretty good, and covers a lot of ground. But, as I was trying it out with different stories, I realized something- it actually resembles another story plotting approach utilized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. Now theirs, which I covered here, is a lot simpler, as it’s basically just about turning story outlines into series of cause and effect relationships using words like BUT, AND SO/THEREFORE, and MEANWHILE. But, I noticed that if we combine it with Harmon’s Circle, we end up with…

1 – OPEN ON You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2 – BUT Need (but they want something)
3 – AND SO Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4 – BUT Search (adapt to it)
5 – AND SO Find (find what they wanted)
6 – BUT Take (pay its price)
7 – AND SO Return (and go back to where they started)
8 – THUS Change (now capable of change)
And what do you know? It works! We have a story structure of cause and effect relationships that build up into a heroic journey. Who knew?

I’m still debating about the usefulness and nature of the Hero’s Journey monomyth as an all-encompassing story form, as you’ll hear about in an upcoming DNA podcast where writer Jack Ward and I go at it hammer and tong about the subject, but I will admit that this is a useful tool for writers. I’m always looking for ways to give my stories the solid underlying structure they need to become more satisfying for readers, and this is yet another tool in my writer’s toolkit to try out.

Rob