Get My Free Guide to Crafting Your Premise Line (With Guest Expert Jeff Lyons!)

Earlier this year, my writing pal and colleague Jeff Lyons and I put together a two-part article series called “Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line.” It’s been such a popular post (we even did a Writer’s Chat session on it), that I decided to compile the article into a free guidebook for you, along with a workbook for helping you craft your own Premise Line.

For writers, whether you’re writing fiction, screenplays, or creative non-fiction, a premise line is an incredibly valuable tool that will help you both develop and test the basis of your story. 

A premise line is more than just a logline or synopsis. They’re related, but different animals.

Using a premise line has become an integral part of my story development work. Not only do I use a premise line to develop my story, I use it to track my work, test the concept, and more. In the guidebook (or in the two-part article here and here), you’ll find out how to develop a premise line yourself. Then you can use the workbook to craft your own. The workbook comes in two formats: A PDF format for printing and handwriting your answers into and an RTF format for easy importing into Scrivener or Word, where you can type into it directly (my favorite!).

Enjoy!

Download the Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here:

If you like the guide, be sure to let us know in the comments. 

+ Here’s the Latest

  • Give me your feedback on a new writing program idea! If you haven’t given me your input yet, I’d love to have it. I’m planning to run a writing intensive this fall and I’d love to hear what you think. You can participate in my online survey here. Thank you so much for your time (the system says it’ll take 3 minutes to fill out). 
  • It’s our 5th anniversary! My online Called to Write Coaching Circle has been active for five years now. We’re thrilled to have worked with hundreds of writers all over the globe. In honor of our anniversary, look for a special savings on the Circle in this space tomorrow. Our next session starts on Monday, September 12, so it’s the perfect time to join us, take advantage of our special anniversary rates, and make the most of the back to school energy the fall brings. 

Free Guide: How to Choose Your Next Book (or Screenplay)

…When You Have Way Too Many Ideas to Choose From

As someone who used to struggle to come up with a single idea but then became overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer number of story ideas I came up with, I’ve had to find a way to navigate through the realm of choosing writing projects. Each one of my ideas seemed equally important and valuable, and I couldn’t stand the idea of trying to “just pick one and write it,” lest I make the wrong choice, betray one of them for another, or worst of all, let any one of them go.

I had to come up with a process to help me make decisions.

Luckily, as a coach and entrepreneur since 2002, I’ve had my fair share of decision making challenges and support in making those decisions over time. And thankfully, the processes I’ve learned translate brilliantly into choosing writing projects.

(And by “writing projects” I generally mean long form books or screenplays. :) )

In 2015 I wrote a three-part series of blog posts about these methods, called “Choosing Your Next Writing Project.” Writers all over used it to choose their next book or screenplay from among their many, many ideas and found great relief in knowing what to move ahead with next.

Rather than feeling stuck in the paralysis of not being able to choose or having to “give up” any of their ideas, these writers felt empowered to choose and run with that choice.

I’ve now put together a “reprint” of my original blog posts, edited, updated, and assembled in one place for your ease of reading, along with a step-by-step workbook that will walk you through the process I describe for choosing your next book, or screenplay, which you can download below. (If you prefer, you can read the posts in the original series online here, here, and here.)

Here’s what you’ll want to know about it:

  • This process assumes that you have some number of possible book or screenplay ideas that you’re trying to choose between. If you’re instead in the place of needing to come up with ideas, this particular process won’t be helpful to you yet, though you may want to read it to see if it sparks ideas for you start with. I expect to create a book brainstorming guidebook at some point down the line, so stay tuned if that’s something you need help with. (In the meantime, you might like this post.)
  • This process is also specifically designed for choosing among long form writing projects (novels, feature scripts, books, etc.). This is because long form projects tend to trigger a different kind of stuckness than short form projects do (usually because they require less commitment, though there are certainly plenty of ways we can get stuck with short projects too).
  • You can read all the posts online without getting the download but you might prefer to have the new guidebook I’ve put together since I’ve updated the content and also included a workbook version (both in a PDF you can print out and write on by hand and in an RTF format you can import into Word or Scrivener and work on digitally). 

If you’re wondering how this works, check out this comment from Naomi Dunford of ittybiz.com, who used the process to choose her next novel project:

naomi dunford“OK, I have more project drama than anybody else on earth. I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here. You see, I always wanted to be a writer. The dream was always so big, so real, so important. But sometimes with dreams that visceral, the detail gets lost in the shuffle. In this case, the detail was ‘for God’s sake, woman, you know you’re going to have to pick something and start, right?’

That one critical element always felled me.

There was nothing I couldn’t use as an excuse to avoid picking a project and getting started. Resistance! Procrastination! Yeah-buts! Fear of failure! Fear of success! I’ve got the whole gamut. It’s driven my parents crazy, my kids crazy, and two husbands crazy, too.

But! I went through your exercises and I’m happy to say… I have selected my project, and I feel SO confident about moving forward.

To anybody reading this, if this can work for me, it can work for ANYBODY. I am the Resistance queen of the world, and it even got ME going. That’s saying something. Highly recommended.”

Want it for yourself?

Download The Guidebook Here

The Guidebook includes an overview of the process in a PDF format, along with a workbook in a PDF and RTF format. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener and work with it there.

Click the image below to download the Guidebook now.

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Get Clear on Your Characters with GMC (Plus a Free Character Profile Template!)

Something I tackled in my most recent screenwriting assignment was getting clear on who the characters are and what motivates them, especially since they weren’t my original characters. This project was a rewrite of a writer-producer’s script so the characters were his, though they now feel like “ours.”

Part of the process of getting there was working through the characters’ GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict) to understand them more deeply.

Cathy Yardley first introduced me to GMC. I’ve done some plot work with her on other projects, and loved her book series where she describes the concept of GMC. The book series is offered collectively in print as Rock Your Writing, also available in a six-part Kindle series, including Rock Your Plot and Rock Your Revisions. She recommends another book called GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, The Building Blocks of Good Fiction that I found helpful as well. (Amazon links for all of these books are in the References section, below.)

What I find most useful about GMC is that it gives me a way into my character’s head.

The jury is still out on whether or not I’m more of an intuitive writer (one who excels in character and dialogue but has a hard time with plot and structure) or a conceptual writer (one who does well with plot and structure but struggles with the character and dialogue). So far, my take is that I’m more of a conceptual writer.

In any case, it helps me to have a character profile for each character I’m working with, and adding GMC to my character profiles has been exceedingly helpful, so I’m sharing it with you. (This would be a useful tool for creative non-fiction writers too!)

Note: If you’re interested in seeing my entire character profile template, you can download a copy of it at the end of this post. 

How GMC Works

We break goals, motivation, and conflict down into both external and internal GMC. This helps us understand both what’s driving the character externally and internally. This syncs up nicely with Shawn Coyne’s External Content Genre and his Internal Content Genre, though they are different tools (I’ll write about this more in a future post — The Story Grid* methodology has completely rewired my brain for story in an incredibly useful way).

Here’s an explanation of External and Internal GMC.

External GMC

  • The character’s EXTERNAL GOAL is the WHAT they are trying to achieve or accomplish by the story’s end. This cannot be vague in any way. Cathy Yardley once told me that an external goal has to be something that you can easily check off in a box when it’s done. For example, disable the bomb, check. Or, catch the bad guy, check. It can’t be something like “get my mom to approve of me,” because it can be too unclear about whether or not that has actually occurred (although I suppose it could be verbally said, “I approve of you” but there’s still room for interpretation — does she actually mean it, etc.).
  • The character’s EXTERNAL MOTIVATION is WHY they are trying to achieve that goal. What reason do they have for trying to reach their goal? What’s at stake, what are the consequences if they don’t make whatever it is happen? That’s their why. For example, everyone in the building will die (if the protag doesn’t disable the bomb). Or, the bad guy may kill again. This can be considered the “Because” clause.
  • The character’s EXTERNAL CONFLICT is the OPPOSITION to achieving the goal. What or who gets in the way? Usually this is the antagonist but it could also be the establishment, the environment, etc., if it’s a human against the state or human against the world kind of story. This could also be considered the “But” clause if you think of these as a sentence.

For example: Carly wants to disable the bomb because otherwise hundreds of people will die, but the antagonist has hidden the bomb and is taunting Carly with killing people one by one as clues until she finds it. 

Internal GMC

  • The character’s INTERNAL GOAL is about HOW the character is trying to feel or hoping to feel. It may or may not be tied to the external goal. And it probably isn’t something that can be ticked off in a check box. It’s more of a feeling state, such as happiness or independence, or vengeance. It can also be a spiritual goal. The internal and external goals CAN be in alignment but they can also not match up — which can create excellent internal conflict for your character. (Don’t forget, we want them to suffer — our readers and viewers want to worry about our characters, that’s why they’re there!)
  • The character’s INTERNAL MOTIVATION is WHY they want to feel that way. Often this is tied to their backstory, or personal goals outside the story. The internal motivation is the emotion that drives the character. For example, a character may have been overly controlled for her entire life by her parents, so she’s trying to create an independent life for herself.
  • The character’s INTERNAL CONFLICT is WHAT might be stopping her from reaching that state of being. This could be caused by the character themselves, but it can also be tied to the external GMC and cause problems for in achieving it. With our example, our character might suffer from insecurity, and keep turning back to her parents for help.

I like to put these together in a chart, like the one below (spreadsheets are handy here), though I also just make bullet point lists when I’m writing in Scrivener since it doesn’t play that well with tables.

Here’s an example:

  External Internal
Goal Carly’s external goal is to disable the bomb… Carly’s internal goal is to forge out on her own…
Motivation Because otherwise hundreds of people will die… Because her psychologist parents have been holding her back for years with their oppressive personalities…
Conflict But the antagonist has hidden the bomb and is taunting Carly with killing people one by one as clues until she finds it.  But she struggles with insecurity so keeps turning to her parents for support and encouragement, and even worse, now needs their help her track down the bomber.

 

It’s useful to see how the internal and external can work together here. 

I often rework these multiple times until I feel that I’ve landed on something that works. And then I’ll often rework it again, once I’ve finished a script, because I tend to pick up more nuance and information as I interact with the character over the course of the story.

It’s an ever-evolving process.

Want to Check Out My Character Profile Template?

It includes the GMC points I outlined above along with a handful of other useful and streamlined items I assemble for each character. It comes in a PDF and RTF format, along with a Quick Start Guide. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener for easy customization and editing.

Click the image below to download it now.

Let me know what you think in the comments!  

 

References

* All book links are Amazon affiliate links:

 

Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line, Part II (Plus a Free Guidebook!)

Today we’re continuing with Part 2 of a two-part article from story consultant Jeff Lyons, author of Anatomy of a Premise Line.*

In the first article, Jeff reviewed the first two steps of the process:

  • Step 1: Identify the Core Structure of Your Story
  • Step 2: Assess Whether You Have a Story or a Situation

Now he’ll guide us through assembling the building blocks we’ve created into an actual premise line:

  • Step 3: Map the Core Structure to the Premise Line Template
  • Step 4: Finalize the Premise Line
  • Step 5: Test the Premise Line with Objective Readers

Note: Creative nonfiction writers can also benefit from learning these tools, because story is story and biographies, “true stories” and other creative nonfiction all adhere to the same storytelling principles as fiction.

Read the article below, or download our Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here:

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Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line, Part II

by Jeff Lyons

Now that you’ve identified the core structure of your story, and assessed whether you have a story or a situation (and made any necessary adjustments to your situation if so desired), you can continue on to Step 3, mapping the core structure to the premise line template. And if you’re still still unsure whether you have a story or a situation, you can use the premise line template as your key to unlock this mystery. 

Step 3: Map the Core Structure to the Premise Line Template

This template takes a very specific form of four clauses (this draws on basic grammar, we’re simply using the clauses that make up sentences). Mapping the core structure elements identified in step one to this template will quickly tell you if you have a workable story.

Let’s breakdown each clause into its constituent parts to see the true power it offers your writing process. 

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Clause #1:  Protagonist Clause

Take your sense of the first two components of the Core Structure (character and constriction) and combine them into a sentence clause (the structure components are in bold).

You have a sense of a character. Now is the time to give them some dimension. Who are they? What takes them from a state of just being and sparks them into action?  Some call this the inciting incident; maybe you don’t have that clearly in your head yet, that’s okay. What else might push them to move forward (or backward)?  What happens to this person that gets them to act and begin their adventure?  The protagonist clause is really saying, “When something happens…”—what’s the “something”?

We’ll use the novel/movie Jaws, by Peter Benchley, as an illustration how this might play out in execution:

Protagonist Clause: … a fearful, “outsider” Police Chief of a small, coastal vacation town is asked to investigate the possible shark death of a local swimmer …

Here the main character is clear, he is constricted with fear and doubt, and there is a sense of the spark that brakes his inertia, i.e., he is asked to investigate a death.

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Clause #2:  Team Goal Clause

Take the next two components of the Core Structure (desire and focal relationship) and combine them to give you the next clause in the premise line.

This clause captures the sense of a tangible want and defines the relationships involved, especially the core relationship (if any) that drives the middle of the story. Now is the time to give a clearer idea of what the main character wants and who is moving through the story with them. This should also give a sense of the motivation for the desire, not just the thing that is desired (i.e., “with purpose”).

Using Jaws, once again, we get the following:

Team Goal Clause: … his worst fears are realized when a marine biologist confirms the cause of death, prompting the Chief to hire a crusty local fisherman to hunt down and kill the beast—forcing the fisherman to take the Chief and biologist along on the hunt  …

The protagonist wants to catch the shark and he’s doing it with his team. There is deliberate purpose in this and a clear, tangible goal.

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Clause #3:  Opposition Clause

The next two components of the Core Structure (resistance and adventure) combine to give a clear statement about the opposing force acting to upset the story’s applecart.

This is where the writer tries to give a sense of the stakes, the big-picture jeopardy of the adventure, and the central opposing force acting against the character’s action.

For Jaws we have:

Opposition Clause: … only to find himself caught between the town’s greedy mayor demanding a quick kill so beaches can be reopened, and the controlling, resentful fisherman who thinks the Chief is a wuss, and who doesn’t need or want the Chief and biologist on his boat …

The opposition forces are Quint, the biologist, and the Mayor on the human side, and the shark on the non-human side. The opposition is not singular in this story, the way it is in many stories—but it is still unified dramatically. The writer has identified the nature of the “serious pushback” and the chaos that will ensue, including the final outcome if the pushback wins.  Here the “opposing force” is defined, as well as the tendency toward disorder, in a clear and dramatic statement that fits perfectly with the idea as a whole.

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Clause #4:  Dénouement Clause

The chaos component of the adventure crosses the third and fourth clauses due to the nature of crisis: it spreads and is messy and is often indistinguishable from the resistance it creates and the change it generates. So, in this final combination we see how adventure leads to resolution, the order implicit in all chaos. The last two components of the Core Structure (adventure and change) combine as follows:

Dénouement Clause: … leading to the three men bonding as a team as they battle the monster, where the Chief proves his value and courage, overcomes his fear of the water, and secures his place in the community when he saves the town by killing the beast.

The complexity of the adventure unfolds in the bonding of the men, who have been in conflict throughout, and with the escalating danger from the shark. The final disposition of the protagonist is that he finds his place in this new world he lives in and overcomes his fears. The writer expresses the change that is at the end of all disorder and chaos, as well as the change that is personal to the character from the Protagonist Clause. There is a coming full-circle in a sense; the beginning, middle and end all tie back to the first and most fundamental step of sensing a protagonist and a personal story.

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Step 4: Finalize the Premise Line

This is how the final premise line would look (note the clause identifiers):

Final Premise Line: A fearful, “outsider,” Police Chief [Clause #1] of a small, coastal vacation town is asked to investigate the possible shark death [Clause #1] of a local swimmer, and his worst fears are realized when a marine biologist confirms the cause of death, prompting the Chief to hire a crusty local fisherman [Clause #2] to hunt down and kill the beast [Clause #2]—forcing the fisherman to take the Chief and the biologist [Clause #2] along on the hunt; only to find himself caught between the town’s greedy mayor [Clause #3] demanding a quick kill so beaches can be reopened, and the controlling, resentful fisherman [Clause #3] who thinks the Chief is a wuss, and who doesn’t need or want the Chief or the biologist on his boat—leading to the three men bonding as a team as they battle the monster; where the Chief proves his value and courage, overcomes his fear of the water, and secures his place in the community when he saves the town by killing the beast [Clause #4].  

Here you can see the entire structure of the story in a single sentence. Granted, this is a bit convoluted and cumbersome grammatically, but this is a good example of what you end up with after a few initial passes of the process. You can refine as you need going forward. The point is, you have your story, its structure, and a roadmap for writing. It all fits, it all flows and it is a metaphor for a human experience resulting in evolutionary change; it is a story. Armed with this premise line you could confidently move forward to writing pages, knowing your story’s armature was strong. 

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Step 5: Test the Premise Line with Objective Readers

Once you think you have a solid premise line, then is it time to start writing? NO!  If you’re smart, you’ll “unit test” the premise line.

Find three or four trusted readers who have experience with storytelling, who you respect—maybe even hire a professional consultant—and get their feedback. Your mother is not in this category, unless she is a novelist. You need objective feedback, not hand holding.

Does the premise line work for them? Do they “see” the whole story and get a gestalt picture of the overall structure? Does the idea pull them in? Do they sense the beginning, middle, and end and would they write this themselves if they came up with the idea? 

These are just a few of the questions you want them to answer. If you get more passes than thumbs-up, then you have to reassess and decide if you want to move forward with a new idea, or fix this one.  If you get a lot of thumbs-up, then you’re probably good to go to begin pages.

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These five steps will help you develop a powerful story premise that can be your early warning system protecting you from story creep and months of lost writing time.

Once mastered, premise development can guide your entire writing process, while giving you an effective and professional pitch tool to use with publishers, agents and editors. 

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Thanks, Jeff!

Jeff LyonsAbout Jeff: Jeff Lyons is a published author with more than 25 year’s experience in the film, television, and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and lectures through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences.

Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, and The Writer Magazine. His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success* is published through Focal Press and is the only book devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His second book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, is due in 2016. Visit him at www.JeffLyonsBooks.com and follow him on Twitter @storygeeks.

*  Amazon affiliate link 

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Want the Workbook Version? Download our Master Your Premise Line Guidebook here: