Hollywood doesn’t have everything wrong. Okay, maybe Quantum of Solace didn’t need a $230 million dollar budget. (Probably another reason why MGM went bankrupt. Again.) But what the suits and producers did get right is the log line. You know what this is, that one sentence nugget that encapsulates the story. Delivered short enough to pitch to an executive while riding up an elevator. Do you recognize this movie?
After a series of grisly shark attacks, a sheriff struggles to protect his small beach community against the bloodthirsty monster, in spite of the greedy chamber of commerce.
Even if you don’t recognize it as Jaws, you’re sure to be intrigued by the concept. In this simple sentence we have three things:
- The protagonist (a sheriff)
- The protagonist’s goal (to protect the beach community)
- The conflict (the shark and greedy politicians)
I know there are writers out there who would cringe at the idea of planning and distilling their idea before they write. They simply sit at the keyboard and let the writing and characters flow. I have nothing wrong with this. But treat this as pre-writing. Idea generation. Stream of consciousness. Whatever you want to call it. But don’t delude yourself into thinking this is a sound way to craft a novel.
Imagine if buildings or bridges were constructed in such a manner. Whatever whim the architect felt that day would be added onto the structure. Soon the whole structure would collapse under its own bloat. This happens too often with novels.
A great book to check out, if you want to add structure and purpose to your writing is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Although he wrote primarily for theater, his lessons can easily transfer to the writing of a manuscript.
Egri starts his discussion with the premise, which is a more robust version of Hollywood’s log line. According to Egri, “You must have a premise — a premise will lead you unmistakably to the goal your play hopes to reach.” It acts like a blueprint to keep you focused as you write. With the finish line in mind, you’re better able to make all the parts of fiction (characters, plot, description) work in concert.
Egri boils his premises down to three parts: The character, the conflict (which he expresses as an action verb), and the resolution. The last part is crucial. For the premise, you aren’t necessarily trying to pitch your idea to an agent, but figure out where the story is going. You need to know the ending.
Take his example for Othello. Egri states the premise as: Jealously destroys itself and the object of its love.
He considers Jealously to be the main character (Othello). Destroys is the conflict, as the play centers around Othello’s self destruction. The premise also includes the resolution (both Othello and Desdemona are destroyed). Egri also adds that this premise is meaningless until the author takes a stand on the premise. Only when the author champions or discredits the premise, does it spring to life.
All this is quite esoteric and vague, which is the key difficulty with Egri. I spent quite a bit of time working on a premise when I started writing my third novel. I’m not sure if I could sum up my protagonist as a character trait like jealousy, but I was able to figure out her character arc, thus knowing how she would end up at the end of the novel.
John Truby is another writer who advises authors to know their endings first. His book, The Anatomy of Story, is a bit overwhelming at first. He attempts to break storytelling down into stages, much like Chris Vogler does with Joseph Campbell’s hero archetypes.
His best advices comes from his chapter on Premise, and specifically with how he views characters. Truby expounds that it’s the character’s change that will satisfy the reader the most, and keep him turning pages. He states that all characters start the story with an internal weakness or character flaw. Only through the conflict presented in the book, will they then overcome this flaw and emerge as a new person.
But rather than tackle this in a straightforward, linear fashion, Truby advises you start at the end with how you want your character to be. Then work backward to discover what weakness is the polar opposite of the ending character. For example, take Michael’s character arc in The Godfather. He ends up the tyrannical ruler of the Corleone family. To fully show this change, Michael needed to be the opposite of this. Thus at the start, he is unconcerned with the family business, pursuing legitimate work. Essentially, Michael’s weakness is timidity.
Truby goes on to say that the conflict that takes place over the course of the story needs to attack that weakness so that the character has plenty of time to fully make the transition from weakened character to mature character.
I make my living as an elementary school teacher. How, you ask, does this have anything to do with writing a novel. Let me explain.
A few years back, the mucky-mucks up in their colonnaded buildings decided that kids needed a specific set of educational standards—guidelines for what to teach and when. I got into teaching just as this wave of standardization hit full steam. My school, in fact, was one of the first to embrace standards based teaching. One key element of teaching this way is called backward mapping.
Instead of simply teaching a lesson because it’s in the book, or you think it’s a good lesson, you look to your end goal, the standard, and see if the lesson moves your students toward that end. Essentially, you’re just like an author, corralling your characters toward the resolution of the story.
Backward mapping breaks down like this:
- First the teacher looks at the state standard. In other words, figure out what the students need to know or be able to do
- Next, devise an assessment to determine if the students have mastered this standard.
- Finally, design your lessons to drive student toward your assessment, and ultimately the standard.
The backward mapping process also works for writing:
- Start with your character at the end of the novel. What will he or she be like. This is the going to tie into your premise as well.
- Next, find the opposite of this character. This could be many things, but think of ways to give your character a flaw or a weakness. The starting character needs to be as far away from the ending character as possible to maximize the drama.
- Finally, craft your conflicts and obstacles to force that character to change. This is the verb part of Egri’s premise.
Sounds simple in theory. In practice, it can be a bit more daunting. For my last two novels, I spent nearly a month just on these three steps, and working out a decent premise.
Obviously, the hardest step is number three, because that’s where you write your novel. It’s the same for teaching. The tests and the standard are the easy part. It’s the teaching that stymies many an instructor.
A novel is a seemingly insurmountable challenge. So many chapters and characters and plot points. Often writers don’t know where to begin. I suggest starting at the end. Work backward to find how your character will begin her journey. Then, at least, you’ll have a road map to guide you. You might veer off course a few times, or take a few side trips, but your ending destination will always be the same. Your character will develop and grow. What else could any aspiring author want?