Pub Rants

Category: Premise

Any fiction writer who deals in speculative elements must eventually decide: How much of this story requires a realistic, grounded explanation at the end, and how much can I leave unexplained because, hey, it’s magic, supernatural, paranormal, metaphysical, or miraculous? Can’t I just get to the end and say it was all unexplainable and leave it at that?

My short answer is no. In broad strokes, stories ask questions and then answer them. The human brain has some hardwired, logic-based pathways where story is concerned. Part one: Set up the pins. Part two: Knock them down. Sounds simple, but let’s be honest. It’s not.

The first half of any manuscript is easier to write than the second—which is why millions of would-be authors never finish anything. It’s fun to set up lots of evocative, compelling, mysterious, hooky questions at the beginning of a story. Then you get to the halfway point, and you must come up with answers. And not just any answers, but satisfying answers. Meaningful answers. Twisty answers. Worthwhile answers. Delightfully shocking or surprising answers.

That’s hard.

I attended a panel of speculative-fiction writers at AWP many years ago. One panelist admitted that he, years prior, wrote 150 pages about a guy who lived in a house with a door to an upstairs room that couldn’t be opened. Every now and then, a light would come on in that room and shine through the cracks in the door frame. Although the author was having fun writing about this guy and his creepy house, he eventually abandoned the novel—he himself couldn’t figure out what or who was behind the door. He had some ideas, but he knew that after 150 pages of setup, readers would be expecting a big payoff, and he just didn’t have it.

Stephen King tried three times over several decades to write what eventually became Under the Dome. He knew he wanted to write about a town suddenly and mysteriously trapped under a massive, impenetrable bubble…but he didn’t know where the dome came from. He knew he couldn’t write the story without that key piece of information. His understanding that readers wouldn’t accept “the dome just was”—and his unwillingness to accept it himself—is part of what makes King a master storyteller.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill is based on a stellar, high-concept premise: An aging rock star who collects occult objects buys a haunted suit on the internet. It’s not enough to ask readers to just accept that the suit is haunted and be satisfied. Readers are literally reading the book to find out the answers to who is haunting the suit, and why, and what the suit wants from the protagonist, and how the protagonist is going to defeat it. Why is the antagonism between them viscerally personal and not merely incidental? Couldn’t anyone have bought the suit on the internet? Turns out, no. And that is part of the mystery that makes Heart-Shaped Box such a satisfying read.

The fun thing about being a speculative-fiction writer is that your explanations can be spectral. They can defy the laws of our natural world. They can presuppose technologies that don’t exist, discoveries that have not been made. But that’s also what makes writing spec-fic more challenging. Since spec-fic writers can leave some things unexplained, they must search for their story’s best ratio of explainable to unexplainable.

For instance, in Heart-Shaped Box, we suspend our disbelief only so far as is necessary to accept that a vengeful ghost inhabits the suit. That’s all. For everything else, readers’ logical story brains require rational second- and third-act explanations. How did the ghost end up in the suit? How did the suit end up on the internet? How did our protagonist, who was the intended buyer all along, happen to be browsing the internet at just the right time and click “buy” before anyone else did? If Hill had said, “It just worked out that way because it’s supernatural,” the book never would have been published.

Leading readers down a path that ends with “it was all supernatural” is too easy—and whatever is too easy for writers is often not satisfying for readers. Think about the relationship between real life and fiction. In real life, people get obsessed with some dark mystery or true-crime drama, like the Amityville Horror house. We search the internet and watch all the documentaries and movies and TV shows and interviews about Amityville. We feed our imaginations with information. The question of what really happened there is just too compelling to let lie! We consider rational explanations (it was just a crazy kid killing his family with a shotgun) as well as supernatural ones (the evil entity that resides in the house made the kid do it) as we try to arrive at our own conclusions. All the while, we are driven almost mad by the reality that we can never actually know the truth.

That is exactly why fiction is so satisfying! Because the author takes us where reality cannot. The author gives us conclusions and explanations that in real life we will never have. The author answers all the hard questions in ways that our logical story brains accept—at least for as long as we are inside that story world, and sometimes longer. Sometimes, with the very best fiction, forever.

After all this, I wish I could give you some magic ratio of explainable to unexplainable that will make every story you write satisfying. I can’t. Every story is different. Every speculative subgenre shoulders its own set of reader and fan expectations.

What I will offer is this: Readers won’t suspend their disbelief if you’ve given them nothing to suspend it from. The more suspension of disbelief you’re asking of readers, the stronger your story’s logical, rational, realistic framework has to be. Build plausible conditions in which your speculative conditions can thrive, and tie up all your loose ends. If you want happy readers, that’s a good place to start.

Genre Isn’t Everything and High Concept Isn’t King

In the writing world, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on genre. After all, knowing what you write, who it’s for, and how to reach your market are critical elements of many a successful career, and so much of that boils down to understanding genre. There’s also a low, constant buzz about concept. What does high concept mean, is it necessary, and how does it play into an author’s potential to achieve bestseller status or sell into Hollywood? This month, I present a new way to think and talk about fiction—one that argues genre isn’t everything and concept isn’t always king.

Conceptual appeal gets a lot of positive press, and high-concept stories do tend to rise to the top of any given slush pile. Why? Because they feel new and fresh and pitchable and buzzworthy. If you’ve ever received a rejection that says your manuscript is “too quiet,” what the person doing the rejecting is most likely commenting on is your concept. Or lack of concept. They want an idea that feels bigger, something that’s going to stand out on its genre’s shelf rather than conform to it.

But is high concept really the only way to get your book published? Absolutely not. In fact, concept is just one of four ways that stories appeal to readers. In addition to conceptual appeal, there is also emotional appeal, experiential appeal, and literary appeal.

Conceptual Appeal

A story with conceptual (or high-concept) appeal is built on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise.

That’s a definition you’ll find floating all over the Internet, but it’s about zero-percent helpful to writers trying to wrap their creative brains around the idea of conceptual appeal. That’s because the pitch for a high-concept story must be much more than clear and brief. (In other words, you can deliver a clear, one-sentence pitch for a story that doesn’t carry a single hot ounce of conceptual appeal.) So what’s the missing ingredient that will make a highly pitchable story truly conceptually appealing?

Stories with conceptual appeal deliver something unique—some fresh twist or never-been-seen-before what if…? that makes people’s eyes light up. If your pitch gets strangers (not friends and family) saying…

  • That’s a million-dollar idea!
  • How in the world did you come up with that?
  • I can’t imagine how your story is going to resolve that problem!
  • I wish I’d come up with that idea!

…then congratulations! You have a story with conceptual appeal.

Here’s another key feature of stories with conceptual appeal: They will only be new and unique once. After they explode onto the scene, they get broken down into tropes that get reimagined by writers writing to the market, hoping to capture the vast readership you’ve amassed. (Ask any agent who was in the biz in the wake of Harry Potter how many query letters they received for middle-grades featuring magic boarding schools. Ask how many they’re still receiving.)

This is not a judgement statement by the way; it’s merely a description of how high-concept books cause genres to shift as readers develop appetites for new types of stories they never knew they were missing.

Emotional Appeal

The emotion-driven story engages our hearts, our primal selves, maybe even our very souls. It promises to make us Feel Something Big that will stay with us long after we finish reading. Whether that something is joy, sorrow, or terror, authors whose stories are foremost an appeal to emotion do their best work when they’re tapping into the human condition. These stories often dive deep into the following:

  • Connection (family, friendship, love, reconciliation, redemption)
  • Endeavor (conflict, struggle, indomitable spirit, triumph against insurmountable odds)
  • Separation (failure, pain, loss, death)

Experiential Appeal

Stories with experiential appeal must be experienced to be felt or understood. They are difficult to describe (and even more difficult to pitch), and any attempts to do so often end with, “You just have to read it to get it.” In the movie world, there are plenty of great examples of experiential appeal: Memento, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception, and The Matrix*, to name a few. Experiential fiction often intersects with the speculative genres—especially science fiction, magical realism, and horror—but it doesn’t have to. You can write a story in any genre that unfolds in a “you just have to read it to get it” sort of way.

*Before we move on, let’s chat about The Matrix, which many might argue is high concept. I disagree. Remember that stories with conceptual appeal are based on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise. Can you write a clear, one-sentence pitch for The Matrix? Can anyone? Sure, you can briefly encapsulate the core premise: “What if all humans were living comfortable but virtual lives, and the cost of waking up to the truth meant living in a dystopian hell?” But this concept as pitched doesn’t even come close to the experience of the movie itself. So although the writers landed on conceptual appeal, it was their choice to let the story unfold in an experiential way that truly blew moviegoers’ minds. Therefore, the conceptual appeal of The Matrix is secondary to its experiential appeal.

Literary Appeal

Writers who aim to appeal to readers’ sense of literary excellence put the writing itself first. The artistry of the style, voice, rhythm, meter, lyricism, phrasing, use of poetic devices, and so on, are as important (if not more) than plot, action, or a snappy pace. In other words, these are stories readers find worth reading for how they are told.

A term adjacent to “literary” is “upmarket,” which you might see on agents’ and editors’ wish lists. Upmarket refers to works that employ familiar features, tropes, or structures of genre or commercial fiction but that are told in a more literary writing style. So if you’re a writer striving to appeal to readers who appreciate the artistry of language, but you also want to play in the sandbox of a favorite genre, then you are an upmarket writer. Hooray!

The Genre-Appeal Grid

Now that you know the four ways fiction can appeal to readers, what’s next? Check out the grid below, which features the four appeals across the top and a few (but definitely not all) genres down the side. Where does your current work-in-progress fit? Keep in mind:

  • Knowing your story’s genre as well as its primary appeal can help you figure out how you want to approach the telling of that story.
  • A story can appeal to readers in more than one way. Maybe, like The Matrix, your book has a primary appeal and a secondary appeal.
  • More isn’t better. Trying to write a story that appeals to readers in all four ways is like trying to write a story that crosses too many genres: you’ll end up with a muddy mess that in its manic attempt to be for everyone will actually be for no one.
  • Whichever square on the grid feels most like home to you can help you define your niche and author brand. You’re the one who writes experiential historicals! You’re the one who writes literary westerns! And you! You’re the one who writes high-concept romance!
  • Or every book you write can belong to a different square. You decide!
  • Every square on the grid is valid. None is better than any other. Your success lies in how you execute the story you want to tell, for the readers you want to write for because they value the same things about story that you do.

Photo by Gratisography from Pexels

A few years ago, I presented at the monthly meeting of a writing organization that wanted to know more about what agents are (and aren’t) looking for when they read submissions. I ended up talking about how premise, plot, and prose make a three-legged stool, and how when one leg is missing, the stool falls over—and the submission is likely to get a rejection. I’ve always wanted to expand on that idea for a more general fiction-writing audience. So this month, that’s what I decided to do.

+Premise +Plot -Prose

A manuscript that falls into this category promises a cool, unique premise, hook, or concept, and it’s well structured, moving along at a good, genre-appropriate clip…or at least it appears to be at first. Agents aren’t going to make it very far into this manuscript because the prose itself is a problem.

When I say prose here, I’m talking about two things. I’m talking about craft: spelling, grammar, semantics, syntax, mechanics, punctuation, etc. I’m also talking about art: voice, style, rhythm, imagery, symbolism, use of poetic devices, and so on.

A writer’s mastery of craft is relatively easy to assess. There are rules and standards about such things, after all, and a writer’s ability to demonstrate functional knowledge of those rules and standards should be requisite for professional-level publication. However, judging a writer’s mastery of art is far more subjective. One human’s Elmore Leonard is another’s Cormac McCarthy. Furthermore, the relative artistry of a writer’s prose is examined differently through the various lenses of genre and intended audience.

Style aside, what agents are looking for when they’re reading sample pages is the feeling that they’re in good hands. They want the sense that the writer knows what they’re doing, that they’ve both mastered craft and delivered artistry that will satisfy the expectations of a particular market.

Improve Your Prose

+Premise -Plot +Prose

This manuscript is built on a mind-blowing, never-been-seen-before idea, and the prose is gorgeous, but there’s no plot. No sequence of events leading one into the other in a logical, plausible way that builds suspense, raises stakes, and keeps readers turning pages. No cliffhangers, turning points, or reversals. No artfully planted clues that give the reader a fair shake. No satisfying sense of wholeness or completeness. No connections between the first half of the manuscript and the second.

This manuscript can often be summarized “characters doing stuff, having conversations, and thinking thoughts.” It rambles. It indulges the author’s whims. It feels like an early draft.

Plotting a novel is not the same thing as writing down a list of things that will happen in your story or summarizing scenes on stacks of notecards. No, plotting a novel is like trying to solve a puzzle. It’s a painstaking back-and-forth between working on the whole and working on its parts. It’s about making connections and ensuring that every character, scene, description, internalization, line of dialogue, etc., has a job to do and earns its real estate on the page. Even pantsing (writing by the seat of one’s pants) is a method of plotting—pantsers, too, must eventually arrive at a structure that the human brain recognizes as “story.” It’s just that a pantser’s process is to get there by writing multiple drafts.

Agents will read further into this type of manuscript than they will the previous type. If you’ve hooked them with a great premise and masterful prose, then they’re more likely to stick with your story to see if the plot is sound—if the story hangs together and if you nailed the landing. But if you haven’t, you’re likely to receive a pass.

Improve Your Plot

-Premise +Plot +Prose

This manuscript is well written with an airtight plot, but it feels bland. Derivative. Predictable. A little too tropey. Like it rolled off the assembly line into a bin marked “Stories We’ve All Seen Before.”

Of all three types of manuscripts in this article, this one is most likely to get represented and published. It’s a “good” book, a “competent” book. That makes it a safe bet for a lot of agents and editors. But will it be a standout or become a bestseller? Will it earn out its advance (if an advance was offered)? Will its sales bring you subsequent contracts with improved terms? Without a twisty, unique premise, probably not.

Note that for the sake of this article, I’m using “premise” as a synonym for “concept,” which brings the idea of “high concept” into play. There’s lots of info online about high concept (what it is and why it rises to the top of slush piles), but I’m not going into that here. What I do want to say here is that if you’ve mastered prose and plot, don’t stop there. Do the work—and it is work!—of developing one-of-a-kind ideas, premises, hooks, or concepts. As Larry Brooks writes in the book I’m recommending below, “At the professional level to which you aspire, you really cannot, with great confidence, sit down and write just any old thing that appeals to you.”

Improve Your Premise

This month, take some time to assess where you are with all this. Rank premise, plot, and prose in order of your greatest strength to your greatest opportunity. Pick up one of the recommended books and commit to exploring how you can give your next manuscript the best possible chance at becoming a bestseller!

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels