Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Art of Extrapolation.

One question people ask writers, one big mystery of the universe, is "where do you get your ideas?" And writers answer that in a ton of different ways that range from discussions about creativity, imagination, or the practicalities of beginning with a blank page.

But I always end up talking about premises. Before I have a premise, I have nothing--maybe a nugget or two, little story concepts that juggled around long-term memory until they click together in some meaningful way and I have a premise.

See, ideas get me to a premise, but a premise becomes my story. A good premise extrapolates straight into character and plot. By the same principle, if a premise doesn't inherently suggest the story that should follow, I know it's incomplete. More ideas need to click into place.

A lot of writers struggle with extrapolating from their premise, however. They have a great idea that gets them twenty pages in, and then, they lose steam. What happens next? That sense of long-term purpose is buried within your original premise.

Say, for example, that you have a story idea about someone discovering they have a superpower. (Overdone. I know. But we'll make it unique, okay?) This is such a common idea that you should already be able to think of plenty possible conflicts--the MC is afraid of being discovered; are they alone; where did the power come from; what if the FBI or evil scientist discovers them?

From these inherent conflicts, we also have some basic plot points--they have to discover/receive their power (inciting incident;) they must learn how to use their power, or they set out on a quest to discover where it came from. All clearly ACT I. Our leap into ACT II starts when they are discovered, or almost discovered, or they learn about a bigger purpose for their powers. And the climax in ACT III is where they deal with their ultimate conflict.

Those are all the building blocks inherent to this premise. Most anyone can look at this premise and get an idea of what will happen next.

What's missing is the unique twist. The hook. The aspect of a premise that grabs you, makes it sound interesting. This is the bit that will really define your character and their world and make it worth writing to you. And let's be honest--until now, it probably hasn't been that interesting. Right? You've heard all those plots before.

To continue the example, let's make this premise unique. Let's try and do something completely different.

Say our MC's superpower gives them the ability to know when someone will die, before it happens. A classic plot is about the character's journey to try and prevent people's deaths. In our version, what if the MC sells their power as a service--preventing the death of those who can pay? It switches up our entire premise. We could start extrapolating from here, and get a whole new plot, all new conflicts.

Or, perhaps our character can teleport. We could make them thieves. But what if instead of robbing banks, they join the police force, they solve crimes on their own. We could try a genre mashup: the editor of a highschool-paper can reads minds and uses their ability to write an "anonymous" gossip column, ala Gossip Girl meets Smallville.

This all sounds a little more interesting, yeah?

Purposefully extrapolating from a premise works great when trying to take a premise and developing it into a full novel. From my own experience, though, there's a few things to watch out for later down the road:

Premature story death –

  • Sometimes if you’ve attempted something that you can’t seem to execute, the story can waffle and fail. That may mean your premise needs work. Or maybe it’s time to abandon a non-functioning aspect of your premise. At other times, it means you wandered away from a core aspect of your premise that you need to return to. It’s important to learn when to abandon a premise, and when to stick to it.

Loss of interest –

  • Other times, you come up with a story concept that has a great hook, but it’s not exciting to write about. Evaluate what about your premise isn’t engaging you. Should your MC change ages, is the setting wrong, do you need an emotional climate versus a political one? Backtrack and try a new direction.

Not knowing how to explore a premise—

  • This I think, is the worst of all. How many books can you think of that had a great premise, buy wandered away from it in the writing? A good premise foreshadows the MC’s journey, goals, conflicts, and climax. If your story shifts focus or doesn’t explore the premise in writing, go back to your original premise, and consider what natural building blocks it suggests. Did you follow through those? Or did you start writing on a tangent?

A good premise leaves you with all the pieces you need. Learning how to explore it can help you maintain a sense of direction and purpose down the road. For someone like me who can't/doesn't outline, this is an essential way to keep myself from wandering off track.

Truly and always,
-Creative A

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