The Key to Writing a Fast First Draft: The Breakout Premise

By Posted in - On Writing on September 4th, 2011 4 Comments

Maybe you’re one of those divinely inspired Mozartian writers who take dictation from a higher power, but most of the rest of us have to spend some time on preparation in order to write a fast first draft. All too often drafts written in the white hot heat of passion result in the writer getting overwhelmed when the time comes to edit. That’s if they finish the draft at all. If you have even the loosest of plans, you’re more likely to avoid those problems.

With NaNoWriMo only two months away, now is the time to start thinking about what you’re going to write and how you’re going to write it.

My suggestion?

Work on the one paragraph premise first. Develop an attachment to a unique character battling another character who stands for something you hate, in a situation set up to create the maximum number and intensity of obstacles and complications to your heroine obtaining her goal.

By creating a premise where conflict is inherent, written into it from the very first germ of the idea, you are unlikely to run out of steam or focus half way through. It’s advice I received from Donald Maass, agent and author of the Writing the Breakout Novel and Fire in Fiction, and I’ve never forgotten the wisdom of it. If you do that, your story will be built on a solid foundation and whichever way you take it after that, the tension will still be built in from the start.

Where do ideas come from?

Delve into your past life for something that made you hot under the collar, in a good or a bad way. Emotion-fueled writing flows more readily than over-intellectualized writing, and creates a story that only you could tell, from your personal experience and perspective, regardless of market trends and genre expectations.

Read the news to find real-life conflict stories. Even if you’re writing a genre novel news stories can translate into a fantasy world in ways that will ensure it springs to realistic life in the reader’s mind.

Watch things like TED videos that get you thinking about the world we live in and the things you care deeply about.

Read a lot of novels of the kind you’re thinking of writing. Make a list of what worked and what didn’t, in your opinion. Use that list in developing your own idea.

Do the same with films.

Developing the idea:

Trawl the internet for advice on how to develop your premise further, such as Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps and 8 Advanced Tips for Creating a Powerful Genre Pitch.

Watch videos like the one below, and make notes. There are tons of them on the internet, and they help you focus during the generation phase. I love what he says about the “breakout premise” and how to give the reader reasons to care about what’s happening to your character.

And enjoy yourself! This is the most fun part!

If you’re struggling to develop a breakout premise, you can find help at Free Expressions Seminars and Literary Services, where Lorin Oberweger offers one-on-one development help to writers.

You can also check out book blogs and Goodreads for published novels with premises that hook you from the get-go. Pick them apart and figure out why they work.

Post your favorites in the comments below!

You may also like:

NaNoWriMo: From Idea to Plot


(4) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Cara - Reply

    September 4, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    As always, Lia, excellent advice!

  • Michael - Reply

    September 4, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    A novel I read recently that hooked me from the get go was The Ritual by Adam Nevill. I'm a big fan of Nevill, an English literary horror writer, but while his first two books slowly build up the tension, The Ritual drops you right into the thick of it, lost in the forests of northern Sweden, the character and his party hunted by some unseen beast.

    It literaly comes out of nowhere and from the get go you're left unbalanced and trying to find you feet before this thing comes back.

    What really sets it apart, though, is that this is just one level of the confilct in the story, Nevill sets more tension between the group themselves; old university friends who find out they have less in commen now than whaht they thought.

    It's almost a character study of the main character, set in a survival-horror setting, well worth a read.

    And yes, great post Lia, thank you for the video!

  • Robin - Reply

    September 5, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Began The Donald's book last week and am now in the process of revising, again. This was a great post, Lia. Thanks.

  • Robert Sloan - Reply

    September 6, 2011 at 10:33 am

    This rocks! I agree with you 100%. I never outline, pantser to the core. But I am one of the fastest rough drafters I know. I do Three Day Novel every year and just did one including a rough edit from beginning to end that was absolutely necessary.

    I call it my Starting Conflict. I know what the book's about. I think I know what the main conflict is. It's the idea for the book boiled down into a paragraph that doesn't even need to be a good one.

    When I don't have it, I fish around for thousands of words starting with a mood scene or something until something comes up. By the time I know what the premise paragraph would've been, I've spent hours putting junk on the page that's completely irrelevant. Usually I have to cut a big pile of prose before getting to the real beginning.

    So I can sometimes get away with reaching that by freewriting about it. I still think it's much simpler to call that freewrite to figure out the premise paragraph what it is rather than pretend it's part of the book.

    If it's a sequel, usually I know that premise paragraph well because I know where I left off and picked one of the dangling story threads as the Starting Conflict. I don't even always write it down. I know that's what it is though because I've got an answer on the tip of my tongue if someone asks "What's your Nano going to be about?"

    That's one of the things that Nanowrimo helps. They have that text box for writing a brief description of your book before you even start. Use that tool if you're doing Nanowrimo, it's a big help especially if you don't outline.

    The other great speed writing technique is to outline so well that you know everything that's going to happen and you're just coloring in a good sketch by doing the final prose. But if you're a pantser, the premise paragraph is fantastic. It gives you a place to start and after that it can be totally character driven.

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