Going from Premise to Story...and Plot!!

Hi, Everyone,

Aspiring Author here, first-time would-be novelist, though I’ve had luck with the short story form.

My question is, how do you good folks go from a promising premise to a successful story??

I’ve got a few characters, a setting, a “McGuffin,” and even an initial couple of scenes…I have my characters interacting with each other and with the setting, but I’ve no practical sense of what’s to come after this initial situation.* Is this seat-of-the-pants novel-writing?? 'Cause I don’t like it too much. It’s actually my m.o. for writing short stories, but I have some kind of a block with that when it comes to working on a novel.

But like I said, it’s my first time, and I’m sure a novel isn’t just a gloried short story, an expanded or even inflated short story, so are there different sets of mechanics involved or…what???

Thanks for any and all advice!!

  • I’m trying to write a techno-thriller but can’t get past the initial broad premise to a concrete blow-by-blow plot!

I found this helpful: jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2004/09/21/

He goes through some of the basics for writing scenes. Read through to the bit about “sequels”, and you should have a good idea how to write a propulsive story, even if the plotting is shaky.

For the main plot of a story, I’ve found this helpful as I learn the craft (you’ll have to deal with HULK SPEAK, but there’s some very interesting thoughts behind the Hulk persona): filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/ … structure/

It gives me something to aim at besides a huge “middle” part of “rising conflict”.

They both seem to know what they’re talking about; but then how would I know? :confused:

To add to Robert’s reading list - there are shelves and shelves and shelves of how-to books, blogs and articles, not to mention courses (virtual and physical) and computer applications. (I know - I’ve spent cash and time on quite a few.)

A key question at the outset is whether you’re a ‘pantser’ (i.e. you proceed by navigating through your story by the seat of your pants), or a plotter (i.e. you set down an outline of your story’s structure and your characters before you start writing in earnest). I haven’t read a how-to-write book yet that doesn’t follow the plotter path; in fact it’s really hard to see what a pantser book would be about. If you’re a pantser, there’s a chance you may create something really new and fresh, but you’ll be more or less on your own. The OP sounds as if he or she aspires to be a plotter.

Personally, coming from careers where if I wrote, I wrote for money against deadlines, I don’t want to waste time, and now I try to write in the most efficient ways possible. So I’m very definitely a plotter - although like a famous general (Eisenhower?) I plan very carefully with the expectation of changing the plan as it unfolds. Or in the language of Pirates of the Caribbean, any one of my plans will turn out less of a hard-and-fast code, more of a guideline.

But if you plot or plan, what is the plan or outline composed of? And how do you build the structure and choose the attributes of your characters? This is where a few books, blogs and articles can help. I expect many people here have their favourites: mine include the books of Donald Maas, Robert McKee and Blake Snyder (the latter two from Hollywood - I think the movie industry has a huge amount to teach us about story-telling). Randy Ingermanson’s procedure for generating outlines appeals to me: it seems to me natural and organic, almost botanical. He has a website and is the co-author of one of the Dummies books, in which he explains his method at length.

And of course read and read and read in your chosen genre, become an expert on it, and in your mind dissect the books you admire and whose success, however defined, you wish to emulate - why does the writer structure the story and create the characters in the way she/he does, to what extent does she/he succeed or fail for you as a reader, and how might she/he have achieved the book’s objectives better? Some say the most important task in writing fiction is reading fiction; I believe that to be true.


Everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) is a plotter, whether they realise it or not.
It’s just that some people are silly enough to write their outlines out in longhand and call it a first draft. Well, if you want to run the risk of wasting that much time and energy on something you later decide doesn’t work, that’s up to you.

The three absolutely essential elements of a (good) plot are:

  1. A start point,
  2. An end point (often, but not necessarily, the protagonist’s objective),
  3. A way of getting between the two.

Things you can ask yourself to help brainstorm:

  • What / who is trying to stop the protagonist meet their objective?
  • What goes wrong / how do I raise the stakes?
  • How does my protagonist have to change in order to get to the end?

There are plenty more, of course, and as Hugh notes, a great many books (and website blogs) written on the subject.

I also agree with Hugh that we can learn a lot about story telling from the movie industry. Think about some of the truly great stories from movies and the elements they include.

Thanks, Guys!

I should say that I’ve been lurking these forums for some time and am familiar with the references cited from you all’s previous posts. :smiley:

It may be that this is a question with no answer, no specific answer. I guess I’m essentially asking where stories come from…how to go from egg to full-feathered chicken. :laughing:

Kinda reminds me of getting to know girls, speaking of stories and chicks ( :wink: ) …like, I wanted to get physical with them, but how?? Well, turns out that it wasn’t as simple as just introducing myself nicely and waiting for them to respond. :blush:

Anyway, I’ve used John C. Gardner’s advice before, his cure for Writer’s Block was to go even deeper into the story instead of stepping back – as indicated, I’ve had some success with short stories, and it was due to this kind of an attitude, this sort of mindset. But for some reason, it doesn’t seem to be working with my would-be novel. :cry:

Perhaps I simply don’t understand my characters and setting as well as I’d thought! :confused:

Thanks again for taking time to help. 8) 8)

It’s a hard piece of advice to bestow, especially for someone like me–I’m still on a steep learning curve from clueless toward competent. But if you’re asking how to find out what to fill in between what you have and the rest of the story…

I’ve brainstormed a number of books (only “completed” 3). Mostly what I did is hopped onto the cork board and started banging out cool scenes that I felt should go somewhere in my story, not worrying about the where. Once I had 20-30 cards, I’d let that stew, maybe add a few more as the ideas continued to trickle, and then I’d start organizing them, figuring out how they should connect, in what order. As I did that, it became clear that before I could have my hero hanging from a cliff, I had to give him a good reason to walk up to it, and there had to be someone there who hated him enough to push; so I made more cards leading up to that, planting the seeds of betrayal between protagonist and antagonist earlier in the story, and goals that would lead them both to that cliff.

The Hulk article lead me to create 5 folders, into which I would sort and re-sort my cards until I felt there was enough for the acts of my main character’s plot, and then to examine each act for its sturdiness. I’m still learning to judge that sort of thing.

I try to leave the edges of my “outline” rough enough for improvisation and the discovery of subplots, and not to be too invested in the outline itself. It gives me the freedom to throw some cards out so I might chase a better path to the climax. I recommend that kind of brainstorming for you, since you’ve mostly done the seat-of-the-pants writing in the past; it’s not as rigid as a traditional outline, so if you realize that any card could be thrown out as you write, you don’t feel entirely hemmed in. It’s like a road map across the country of your novel, with destinations you’d like to pass through, but where adventure can still lead you to unexpected way points. You may even change where your final stop will be as you explore the country.

Well, I am a pantser. I never plot. Never have an end point when I start writing. Never know the protagonist’s objective, or if they even have one. Never know what is going to happen when I sit down to write, even when I am in the middle of a book or a chapter.

For me - and this is a personal response, possibly stemming from my journalistic past - it’s the “Hey Mum” factor. What incident or development or event can you imagine that would be interesting enough to make you want to rush home and cry out as soon as you enter the kitchen “Hey Mum…”?

Taking the works of, say, author Michael Crichton, as examples - given your aspiration is to write a techno-thriller - I’d argue that he stuffs his works with techno “Hey Mums” from which quite a lot can be learnt: “Hey Mum, dinosaurs are alive! (And can kill)”, “Hey Mum, bugs from outer space can kill”, “Hey Mum, robots designed to entertain can kill”, “Hey Mum, nano-technology can kill,” and so on.

Of course, that’s just the short answer; the books and articles referenced above are all about what’s needed to develop a short “Hey Mum” sentence into 80,000 to 100,000 absorbing words.

My human isn’t a pantser, he’s a ‘through the glass bottomer’. Just a word of clarification. I don’t mean a glass rear-end, I mean through the bottom of an empty whiskey glass.


Just an update, for the record:

I’ve found the answer. It’s pretty simple and obvious, but I couldn’t see it then.

How to go from a premise to an actual story – and then an actual plot??

Two steps! Still hard work involved, not a magic solution of course…but it works (for me).

  1. Read non-fiction related to whatever your premise is; science fiction, read science stuff; romance, read psychology stuff; thrillers, read politics and economics…et cetera.

  2. Read fiction related to whatever your premise is – AND COPY!!! But don’t just copy one book (unless it really fits with what you’ve got); copy different parts of different books; mash 'em together to create your very own FrankenNovel!!! Copy the plot, or specific plot elements; take different aspects from different stories…copy, copy, copy. Don’t worry about being original – YOU CAN’T HELP BUT BE ORIGINAL, EVEN WHEN COPYING…eventually, something original will arise…we are more than the sum of our parts, and likewise our creations will be more than the sum of their parts…even if you could be perfectly cloned, the minute your clone comes to life s/he will start accumulating different life experiences which will eventually lead to a different person – so don’t worry about copying!!! :mrgreen:

There, that’s it. That’s how I got over my writer’s block. NaNoMo (sounds so much better than “NaNoWriMo”), here I coooommmmmmmmee!!!