The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

The Premise

We were talking about the premise last week and how having a premise will help you stay on track with your outline, and help keep your story structure and character arcs in line. The bare bones purpose of the premise is to show your character, the stakes, and define the character’s goal, and imply the story’s resolution. You can use your premise later to pitch your book, write the cover copy, and create a media kit. Note that there is also an emotional / moral premise, aka theme, which is what you, the author, set out to prove. Think love conquers all, the end justifies the means, or ruthless ambition leads to destruction. We will discuss theme at a later date.

How do you come up with a great premise?

Remember that the premise is a statement, usually one or two sentences, which defines what your book is about.

The easiest way to create a premise is to break it down into parts.

Part 1: When

Part 2: Action

Part 3: But

Part 4: Point

The parts put together look like this:

When this particular thing happens, your character is moved to action, but the action is opposed by this other thing, creating problems which point to some conclusion.

Part 1: When. When equates to the event in your story which provokes your protagonist to act. It most likely is the inciting incident of your story. The When is your story problem that your character needs to solve. The When gives the reader a sense of what your character is up against.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season…

Part 2: ACTION. The Action clause defines the character’s goals, motivations, and relationships, and tells the reader who the character is.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives…

Part 3: But. The But section is all about the conflict. The But section shows the opposing force and all the peril that the character must overcome.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives…But fearing the loss of tourist revenue, the town’s mayor forbids the closure and endangers all…

Part 4: Point. The point clause is the chaos component, or those events in which all potentially could be lost. The reader can see how the potential loss will lead to (point to) the resolution of the story.


Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives, but fearing the loss of tourist revenue, the town’s mayor forbids the closure and endangers all, so Brody, the Ichthyologist, and a grizzled ship’s captain must go to sea to capture the killer shark, where they engage in an epic battle of man vs. nature.

Once you have your draft of your premise, it is a good idea to test it out. Ask a few trusted readers to give you objective feedback. Note that the best objective readers are those familiar with the craft of storytelling. Your mom is probably not a good option unless she is a novelist. Ask your readers if they can see the whole story and can see a general idea of the story structure. Ask your readers if they can see a beginning, middle, and end. Take your readers’ critiques with gratitude and make adjustments if necessary.

You may need to repeat the process several times before you have the perfect premise, but now that you do, you know exactly who your characters are, your plot, and how to outline your novel. You have saved months and years of writing to discover these things.

See? Smart!

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

The Premise

I was sitting with my critique partner last week, and the topic of the premise came up. We were talking about his new story outline, which he has been working on to have the structure solid before he began writing. This is a great idea, especially for pansters (those writers who write by the seat of their pants without an outline and who don’t necessarily know where their story is going) because it saves time in the long run. Without an outline, my writer friend could spend months and years writing pages and pages that ultimately he wouldn’t end up using. This is something that he has done in the past, unfortunately. He learned a great lesson because that particular panster style can be a waste of valuable writing time. He’s a much smarter writer now. He works out all his plot points, characters, and accoutrement in advance before he writes a word. Yeah. Smart.

So what is a premise and why do you need one?

The story premise is usually one or two sentences, and it usually expresses some universal truth. If you know your story premise before you create your outline you will have an easier time writing your pages and keeping your plot and character arcs accurate. The story Premise provides the natural structure of the story and expresses the entire story in those one or two sentences.

To put it simply, the premise is the statement that defines what your book is about.

But do you need one? If you have your premise, you will have an easier time pitching to agents, editors, and publishers because you will know what your story is about.  You will have an easier time marketing. You will also have the premise to lean on if you story gets side-tracked. You can ask yourself if the scene matches the premise. If not, stop writing, and write a scene that does. So, yeah, you need one.

Coming up with a good story premise can be difficult, though.

Next week barring deadlines and snow drifts I will be breaking down the premise writing process into a few small steps to make it easier.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Show V Tell

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been contemplating Show v Tell, trying to offer some information about the elusive topic and trying to explain why, in fiction, showing is better than telling for the majority of your story, though both are necessary.

Now that you have the general idea about what showing is compared to what telling is, how do you know if you are telling when you should be showing? When you submit your work for publication and you get a rejection that says you have Show v Tell issues, what is it that agent or editor saw on your pages? [Most rejections from agents, editors, and publishers are generic responses to your submission. They just don’t have time to write individual rejection letters. It is a rare thing for  you to receive an actual critique, but if you get one, treasure it, and thank agent or editor or publisher for it. They spent a lot of time to figure out your story problems. This means they liked your work enough to help you as a writer.]

When agents and editors read the below words as they consider your submission for publication, they will probably do a word search. The word search will count the number of times you use these words in your story. If you use them a little, that’s okay. If you use them a lot, it’s a problem. If you use “felt” 100 times in a 300-page manuscript, you use “felt” a lot, and you are definitely telling. An agent or editor may kick back your manuscript before they read past page three. Don’t give them  that opportunity to reject your work. Note that there is no clear ratio on the use of telling words, but if it seems excessive to you, it will most likely be excessive to an agent or editor.

Do a word search [Control/Command + F] in your manuscript and look for the below words. These words are red flags.

  •         See/Saw
  •         Thought/Think
  •         Considered
  •         Heard
  •         As
  •         Knew
  •         Could see
  •         Felt/Feel/Feeling
  •         Realized
  •         Could tell
  •         Watched
  •         Pondered
  •         It was
  •         When
  •        -ly (adverbs)

As you start doing the word searches, don’t be shocked by the number of times you use each of these. It’s all part of the editing process. It’s all part of mastering your craft. As you become more comfortable with the concept, show v tell will begin to permeate your work. You will start noticing these words as you write them, and eventually, subconsciously, you will write in a way that uses more showing and less telling. And that is a good thing. Whether you intend to self-publish, or go the traditional route, search for these words and consider revising your sentences. Polish your work. Your story will be better for it.

Also look for these key phrases that are red flags:

  •         To (verb) – to drink, to run, etc.
  •         In (emotion) – in fear, in disgust, etc.
  •         With (emotion) – with relief etc.
  •         Could See
  •         The Sound of

If you can edit your sentence to show the events as they occur rather than tell the reader the event occurred, then consider revising the sentence to do that. Use a thesaurus for alternative words and phrases. There are references available that offer writers word-choice options, and they are highly recommended.

  • Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
  • Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus
  • The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws
  • The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes
  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

I hope these posts have helped to explain a difficult topic. Take the time to master your craft. You are an artist. Be a good one.

Next: Reader’s Choice

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Show V Tell

Last week we talked about the showing part in Show v Tell. This week we will take a look at the telling side of the equation.

What is telling? Telling is writing with a style that uses primarily narrative exposition. It is explaining the story to the reader. The writer uses this style to provide the backstory so the reader knows a character’s history or how things led up to current events. Or the writer wants to educate the reader on the villain’s prison history to explain why he is now a serial killer. Or the writer wants the reader to know all about the politics of Whigs to set up the story set in 1700’s Scotland. Generally, telling includes what is known as information dump, which is too much information given to the reader all at once. Telling is usually boring. As Chuck Wendig says, “When executed poorly, exposition is a boat anchor tied to the story’s balls. It drags everything down.”

Telling is supplying information through the narrator to the reader.

The key thing to consider is what is it that the narrator is saying? Is it something that can be expressed visually through action and interaction of your characters? You should probably revise the scene to express that information visually through action and interaction of your characters. Is your narrator providing long-winded information that the reader won’t need to know until chapter six? You should probably insert that part of the  information in chapter six. If your narrator is droning on and on about anything, you can bet you are telling, and it’s probably boring your reader to the point of closing the book. That is not good.

That said, do realize that both showing and telling are necessary to convey a story. Novels are  a mix of both showing and telling, and you should use both when you write. Don’t be afraid to tell your reader a bit of information. Not every part of a story will require strong imagery and active details. Not every part of a story needs to be shown. But don’t let your narrator run rampant.

I wrote some really bad examples of show v tell for your reading pleasure, in hopes that you might be able to see the difference between the two, and why showing is better than telling in fiction.


They went to the store and saw a funny clown with balloons. The clown had red hair, and black and white suit with giant puffy pink buttons. His face was painted white and he had a huge smile painted on his face with red makeup. His shoes were big and yellow and he had a loud horn which he used to get people’s attention. He blew up balloons. The balloons were all shapes and sizes and also were of many colors. Jim’s favorite color balloon was blue. The clown made the balloons into animal shapes like a dog, and a bird, and a dragon. He was really funny, too.


Bonk, bonk.
Jim turned around at the sound of the horn.
“Do you like balloons?” The clown stretched a balloon with his white-gloved hands.
“Uh, sure,” Jim said.
The clown inhaled a huge lungful of air and used it to blow up the balloon. He smiled when the balloon was full. As he wrapped the end of the balloon around a finger to tie it off, the balloon flew away, spiraling around the room while making fart sounds.

Can you see the difference? In the telling section, the narrator is just giving information, while in the showing section you can see what happened. Both showing and telling provide the same information, but as a reader, don’t you like the showing option better?

Next: Showing v Telling clues to look for in your writing.