Meet Your 2017 Writing Goals, Part III: Boost Your Writing Progress (Or, How to Design a Writing Intensive)

Welcome back for the third part of my series, (You Can Still!) Meet Your 2017 Writing Goals. 

In last week’s posts I wrote about Clearing the Decks for your writing and Reverse-Engineering & Revising Your Writing Goals. Today I’m writing about boosting your progress. Next time I’ll talk about Setting Yourself Up for Success, so stay tuned for that posts, coming up soon.

Part III: Boost Your Writing Progress — Or, Design a Writing Intensive

In my last post, I wrote about reverse engineering and revising your goals. The reason to assess your 2017 writing goals now is that we’re within spitting distance of the end of the calendar year, and therefore the “deadline” for meeting 2017 goals …before the clock strikes midnight. 

Even if you’ve decided to shift your goals forward into 2018 (I’ve done this with one of my writing goals), you may still want to do an extra “push” with your writing this year to boost your progress and move the ball down the field a little farther than you might get if you a) aren’t writing as much as you’d like to, b) are catching up after a summer writing hiatus or slow-down, c) still want to try to meet your original goal, or d) need a leg up with your motivation.

Doing a focused burst of writing — a short-term writing intensive — is like doing a runner’s wind sprint, where you alternate slower, steadier walking or slow running with more intense bursts of faster running. So doing a writing intensive is about temporarily picking up your pace, then downshifting back into your regular writing habit. (You have a regular writing habit, right? If you don’t, check out my Circle for help.)

A focused stretch of writing can also serve another purpose: It allows you to go deeper into your writing. It’s about putting the focus more intently on your writing. It’s not just about writing faster or more — but it’s also about a quality of experience. Almost like carving out an at-home, immersive writing retreat for yourself. 

In the Deep Dive writing intensive I’m running (starting next week), we’re creating this deeper experience by “clearing the decks” — making space for focused, daily writing at a more intense level by eliminating obstacles and distractions. One of the things I talked about during the free clear the decks teleclass (which you can still listen to, if you’re interested), is mentally making space for your writing, including thinking about what you’re reading, watching, and thinking about during your writing intensive. 

Set Up a Writing Intensive for Yourself

Here’s a simple strategy for creating a writing intensive for yourself:

  1. Give yourself a clear time period within which you’ll complete your intensive, whether it’s a day, weekend, week, or month.
  2. Clear the decks for your writing. Eliminate distractions, set up your life so you can focus on your writing.
  3. Get crystal clear on your writing goal for your intensive.
  4. Have a plan for how you’ll complete your writing goal (more on this below).
  5. Implement your writing plan, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, step-by-step, task-by-task.
  6. Have a reward in mind you’ll receive when you finish.

Have a Plan to Meet Your Writing Goal

When you’re aiming to write efficiently, wind sprint style, you’ll make more of your writing time if you go into it knowing exactly what you’re working on. Sometimes writing is unwieldy at best, but you can still go into it with a clear intention and plan. 

The type of plan you develop will depend on where you are with your current book or script.

Here are samples of plans you could create for your writing intensive. The idea with all these plans is to give you a clear list of tasks to work through, one by one, so you can stay focused and efficient during your intensive rather than feeling overwhelmed, spinning in circles, or getting lost along the way.

  1. Story Development Intensive. If you’re developing a new story, you can create a list of items you want to have answered before you start writing, so you can be crystal clear on your work plan (and so you’ll know when you’re done!). For example, you may want to have your plot points identified, your premise line written, your character profiles developed, and a scene-by-scene outline created, among other things. Here’s my “Must Have” list before writing pages.
  2. New Writing Intensive. If you’re ready to start writing pages, you’ll hopefully already have your own list of story development items complete and ready to go so you can just jump straight into writing pages. If you don’t yet have your story developed, you could go back to the Story Development Intensive, and make your writing intensive about doing that work, or perhaps you prefer to just go for the “pantser” approach and write an intuitive stream-of-consciousness draft. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, and many writers swear by it. I would be remiss in not saying, though, that it can create one of the biggest challenges I see for writers who then have a potentially massive, disjointed draft they then have to face revising and editing.
  3. Organization Intensive. Perhaps you’re at a different stage of work — the organization stage. Many writers spend years drafting various versions and pieces of a manuscript and then find themselves overwhelmed with all the parts and sections. If you’re in this boat, you’ll want to make a plan for how you’ll address getting it organized. I recommend you start by cataloguing what you have and where it’s located, along with a single sentence summarizing each section. While you’re at it, you may want to develop a numbering or naming scheme for your digital and paper files. Once you know where everything is, and what it is, you can move into developing a plan for adding additional writing or moving into the revision stage if you have everything you need (writing additional scenes or chapters can be a natural part of a revision plan, after all). Organizing is a great thing to tackle in an intensive because it’s one of those onerous tasks often best handled in a big burst of work.
  4. Story Analysis Intensive. If you’re at the stage where you have a draft, but you’re not ready to begin revising because you know your story needs more in-depth work, you may want to check out Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know * as a process for analyzing your work. Tackling this level of work could potentially become the entirety of what you do for a writing intensive, depending on how much time you have set aside, or it could be the first stages of a revision intensive.
  5. Revision Intensive. If you’re revising, I strongly recommend having a revision plan in place before you begin. You could use a Story Grid plan, or use a different approach. I’m a fan of Rachel Aaron’s revision approach in her book 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love,* where she has you make a to-do list, a reverse outline, and a timeline for your story so you can more efficiently dip in and out of your story to make corrections and revisions. It’s also worth prioritizing your to-do list from largest to smallest changes, so you’re not undoing work if you suddenly cut a large swath of text.  
  6. Polishing Intensive. If you’re at the final stage, you can do a polishing intensive to spine and proofread your final draft. This may involve first doing a pass through the manuscript to make small changes throughout the text, then printing and proofreading the draft, then making the changes in the final version.

In my own case, I’m currently working on revising pages for the screenplay I’m working on. Since it’s a fairly major revision, the steps I’ve taken to get to this stage include:

  • Meeting with the producer I’m working with and getting his feedback and notes on the prior draft.
  • Summarizing our notes so I could see what needed to be changed and what would stay the same.
  • Reverse outlining the prior draft.
  • Reworking the GMC for the characters.
  • Reworking my Story Grid Foolscap for the overall story (and all of the many things that entails).
  • Reworking the plot points and handling the ripple-effect changes they created.
  • Creating a new scene-by-scene outline for the story, including a scene event, goal, motivation, and conflict for each scene. 
  • Collecting all the scenes from the prior draft that are rework-able and adding them into my new draft in Scrivener.
  • Starting to rewrite those existing scenes and write new scenes as I move through the script — and this is what I’ll be continuing to do before and during the Deep Dive.

Got questions? Comments?

Leave them in the comments and I’ll be happy to respond. :) 

And check out Part I, here: Clearing the Decks, Part II, here: Reverse Engineer and Revise Your Goals, and Part IV, here: Setting Yourself Up For Success.

 

Make Massive Progress on Your Book (or Script!)

The upcoming two-week Deep Dive Writing Intensive starts on Wednesday, September 20th and the last day to join us is Tuesday, September 19th. Join us and get tons of support and accountability to make deep progress on your book or script. Find out more and register here

 

* Amazon affiliate link

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. 

Missed the Writer’s Chat with Jeff Lyons? Fear no more!

My Writer’s Chat last night with guest speaker Jeff Lyons about premise line development was quite illuminating! I’m already inspired to go revisit all my current concepts with the “bells and whistles” test he taught us.

It was a great chat and we had a fun conversation with terrific questions from our listeners, which stirred up all kinds of interesting topics, like:

  • The “bells and whistles” test ​to help you get crystal clear on your story, right now.
  • How a premise line can hold a whole project together.
  • How a premise line can work for creative non-fiction projects (like memoirs), and why it’s so important to have one to guide and structure your project.
  • Drilling down to specific, tangible, external goals that work with “softer” character goals.
  • Which comes first... premise line development or writing?
  • How antagonists work in romantic stories.
  • And more!

If you’d like to listen to the recording, you can register for the Chat Series here: http://programs.calledtowrite.com/join-my-free-writers-chat and you’ll get access to the Archives right away.

You’ll also be notified about upcoming Writer’s Chats in the future, with me and other guest experts, all on the topic of writing, of course. :)

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Work with Jeff on Your Premise Line

Jeff also has a special “Crash Course” in premise line work coming up later this month including getting one-on-one support for “hot seat” participants — I’ve included the details about it below, in case you’re interested. Note that there’s a special bonus when you sign up for the program by Wednesday, February 10th.

Jeff Lyons’ Online Premise Line “Crash Course”

“Anatomy of a Premise Line: 3 Week Crash Course”

Thursday, February 25, 2016 through Friday, March 18, 2016

Ready for the full-immersion premise experience? It’s one thing to read about writing a premise line and another one entirely to jump in and do it, with the help of an experienced professional at your side. If you’ve got a project you’re wanting to get off the ground or one that isn’t quite working yet, join Jeff for his three-week long “crash course” and develop your premise line with his step-by-step instruction and feedback. Given that your premise line can make or break your project, it’s time well spent. 

Jeff is teaching a three-week course on premise line development. It includes an online learning environment, twice-weekly video and chat sessions with Jeff where he’ll do live video-chat sessions with all hot-seat participants (Tier 1) for one-on-one work and review issues, premise lines, and answer questions, online feedback, email support, and class materials. Observer participants (Tier 2) get “fly on the wall” seats to observe all the one-to-one coaching Jeff provides.

The course work includes:

  • Step-by-step premise line development, implementing what you’ve learned here with the guidance of an experienced story consultant.
  • Jeff’s “Premise Testing Checklist”, which includes high concept testing. Just like any product your premise needs to be tested by consumers for feedback.
  • A review of the 7 Components of a High Concept, an instrumental tool in your sales and marketing of your writing project.
  • log line design and worksheet, a must-have when it comes to pitching entertainment industry gatekeepers.
  • An introduction to the synopsis writing process, which is a key deliverable for book agents, publishers, and production companies.
  • Unlimited access to all worksheets and templates for the program so you can use them over and over for all your writing projects.
  • Access to the powerpoint slides of all the lessons with examples, which includes more than 50 slides summarizing all the key concepts and examples in the class.

Bonuses: Participants will also receive a 50% off savings for your first session in my Called to Write Coaching Circle, so you’ll have all the support you need to take your project to the next level and to start writing! Current Coaching Circle members will receive a special, private “town hall” teleclass session with Jeff, just for us, instead of the 50% off coupon. Just let Jeff know you’re a Circle member when you sign up.

Early birds: Sign up by Wednesday, February 10th and you’ll receive a special bonus of Jeff’s “Visual Structure Workbook”, which will help you develop your premise line into a short synopsis, the next step to take after writing your premise line and log line.

Find out more and register here

Just to be clear — I’m not receiving any kickbacks or affiliate commissions or anything when you sign up for his program. Jeff and I just believe our programs have a natural fit together and believe in supporting each other. :) I have, however, included my Amazon affiliate link for his book, so if you buy it by clicking the link in this email, I’ll receive a small commission from Amazon.

Questions? Click here to ask my awesome team.

If the registration link above gives you any trouble, you can try http://calledtowrite.com/jeff.

Join me for a free Writer’s Chat on Monday with guest expert Jeff Lyons on Premise Line Development

Coming up on Monday, February 8th at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, I’m hosting a free Writer’s Chat with my colleague and friend, story consultant Jeff Lyons, author of Anatomy of a Premise Line.*

Jeff recently shared a great two-part article series with us, called “Five Essential Steps to Crafting Your Premise Line“, where he explained step-by-step how to craft a premise line, which then becomes the structural spine for your story (or creative non-fiction project!)

We thought it would be fun to hop on the phone with anyone who is interested and talk more about it. We’ll chat, you can ask questions, it’ll be a blast!

To sign up, go to this page here: http://programs.calledtowrite.com/join-my-free-writers-chat 

The big idea here is that we can do more of these in the future, with me and other guest experts, all on the topic of writing, of course. :)

If you’d like to check out Jeff’s articles first (so you can get your questions ready to ask him!), check them out here:

I hope you’ll join us!

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:

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

Last week I shared an interview with my colleague Jeff Lyons, master storyteller, Enneagram expert, screenwriter, novelist, and author, about his new book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success.*

This week, I’m sharing a powerful two-part article from Jeff about HOW to craft a premise line that will guide all your story development.

Note: Creative nonfiction writers can also benefit from learning these tools, because biographies, “true stories” and other creative nonfiction 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 I

by Jeff Lyons

Before a novelist, screenwriter, or creative nonfiction author writes down a word, or thinks of scenes or characters, an idea sparks the imagination and a story is born. Or is it? When inspiration strikes, many writers think they have a story, when in fact they have something else. Untethered by the foundation of a real story, they risk becoming lost in the story woods, writing down creative blind alleys and painting themselves into literary corners.

How can you know if an idea that excites you one day, will have legs over the long course of developing a book, screenplay, or series of books? The only way to know for sure is to master the skill of story premise development. A story’s premise is more than a quick synopsis, or a simple statement defining the theme or hook of a story. It is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer.

A story premise, along with its tool the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. When properly conceived, it expresses your whole story in one (preferable) or two neat sentences. Finding this premise line is no small task; in fact the process of premise development can be the literary equivalent of water boarding. But when you get it right, the payoff in saved time, money and creative blood, sweat, and tears is worth the agony.   

Fortunately, there is a process that can lessen the pain.

There are five essential steps you can learn now to facilitate mastery of the premise process. (For the full seven-step process refer to Jeff’s book Anatomy of a Premise Line.*)

These steps can give you a repeatable and proven methodology for developing any story. This is a critical skill for any writer, because the premise line is a key ally in writing effective agent or publisher query letters, or pitching film production companies. But, the premise line is more than a pitch tool. When you find a premise line that “works,” then you can know with confidence that you have a story that will stand the test of development.

These five steps will guide your writing process, acting as a roadmap to keep your narrative on track and focused, literally cutting development time in half.

After all, if your story is going to go off the rails, isn’t it better to discover that before you get to page four hundred in your novel, or page 150 in your screenplay?

Step 1: Identify the Core Structure of Your Story

A story is defined as: a metaphor for a human journey that leads to change, as played out by the dynamic interdependence of character and plot. A story is further defined by possessing a natural structure, a structure that is not invented by anyone, including the writer. At this basic level, story structure is a natural force like electricity or the wind. The job of the writer is not to impose structure on a story, but to discover what is already there.

This first step helps you identify the seven structure components present in any story—regardless of genre.    

  1. Character: Stories are about us: human beings, even if it is an anthropomorphized version of a human being.  And this person (protagonist) is central to the telling of the tale, not tangential, even in ensemble stories. Who is your protagonist?  
  2. Constriction: The person at the focus of the story is constricted in some way.  Some “personal problem” haunts them, drives them and motivates them. Try to get a sense of what your protagonist’s problem is and sense how it triggers them into action. The constriction is usually activated by some initiating event that forces the protagonist to move from where they are at the start of the story, toward a new path of action (the adventure).
  3. Desire: The protagonist wants something tangible. They don’t want to be happy, they don’t want world peace and they don’t want to be one with the Universe. They want the money, the girl, or to find the radioactive dirty bomb. They want to get something by the end of the story; what is it?      
  4. Focal Relationship: Stories are conversations, not monologues. No protagonist exists in a dramatic vacuum. Who is the protagonist talking with throughout the middle of the story? What relationship is the focus of the protagonist’s attention? This relationship will be the engine that drives most of the drama in your story, even in multiple point of view stories.
  5. Resistance: More than a personal constriction, there is also the sense of serious, external pushback. Something opposes the goal-seeking of the protagonist, and this force creates dramatic friction. Ideally, this is a person and not some abstract force like Nature or the internal angst of the hero-heroine. This is the central opposition and is bent on stopping the protagonist from getting their desire fulfilled. Who is this opposing force? 
  6. Adventure: Entropy is defined as the tendency of all things to move toward disorder and chaos. This is what has to happen in the middle of every good story. Along with resistance/opposition, focal relationship, desire, and constriction try to sense the messiness that will become the middle of your storyi.e., the twists, turns, reversals, and general mayhem that will occur. This is the adventure. 
  7. Change: You may not see the exact endpoint of your story, but you can sense that your protagonist will not end up where he or she began. While the details of the middle may be a blur, there is a sense of a beginning, middle, and an end. If there is such a sense, then there must be something present that allows for these three points. That “something” is character change. Is this change for the better or worse? Does your protagonist evolve or de-evolve?

These are the seven components of the any story’s core structure. If they are present, then you have a story.  If they are missing, or vague, or so muddled it feels like pulling teeth to find them, then you don’t have a story.  You have something else, and that “else” is a situation. 

Step 2: Assess Whether You Have a Story or a Situation

What’s the difference between a situation and a story? The main difference is that the 7-core structure elements are missing.

But there is a quick way to identify a situation without worrying about a structure analysis.  Any situation has these five conditions:

  • A situation is a problem or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.
  • A situation does not reveal character; it mainly tests problem-solving skills.
  • A situation has no (or few) subplots, twists, or complications.
  • A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space as it started.
  • A situation has a weak, underdeveloped, or nonexistent moral component.

A good example of a situation is the classic twenty-something kids caught in the cabin in the woods with the monster outside that’s going to eat them. The focus of these stories is all about who’s going to die, how bloody is it going to get, and who will get out alive. Protagonists don’t change; there is no deeper message in the material, other than figuring out how to not get eaten; and characters are tested for their ability to avoid danger, rather than having their characters tested. Situations are parts of stories; they are not stories themselves. These five conditions are not present in a story, so if you see them, then you know what you’ve got.

If you find that you have a situation and not a story, then you can reevaluate your idea to see if you can develop it into a story using Step 1, above, or decide to simply take the “situation” route, which would not require the development of a premise line. 

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Read on for Part 2 of this article series, where Jeff will guide us through Steps 3 through 5:

  • 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

Thanks, Jeff!

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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:

 

Solve Your Story Problems In Advance with Jeff Lyons’ Premise Line Development Method

Today I’m sharing an interview with my colleague Jeff Lyons, master storyteller, Enneagram expert, screenwriter, novelist, and author, about his new book, Anatomy of a Premise Line *.

Jeff and I ran a teleclass series and workshop in 2013 about using the Enneagram for story development. In fact, he has another book coming out later this year called Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, so stay tuned for that one, too!

The brilliance of Jeff’s premise line work is that it helps you solve your story problems in advance. Something I see often is writers struggling with massive rewrites of various types, novels, screenplays, what have you, and swearing on their mother’s graves NEVER AGAIN to write without plotting and developing their stories first. 

Jeff’s method is a powerful tool to help you get your story straight before you write your way into a corner and have to reverse engineer a proper story to find your way out again. Take a gander here and you’ll get a sense of how this whole thing works and why it’s so valuable. Then, get thee to Amazon (affiliate links provided) and dive in!

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Why did you write this book?  Does the world really need another book on how to write better?

No, the world doesn’t need another book on how to write. The world has more than enough books on writing, the world is glutted and drowning in how-to-this and how-to-that, when it comes to writing craft.  You are correct.  The world doesn’t need another book on writing.

Which is great for my book, because it’s not a book on writing, or how to write, or what to write, or on anything related to writing. It is a book about story: how to develop a story, how to structure a story, and how to know if you even have a story.

Anatomy of a Premise Line is a book about story development. Writing and storytelling are two different things and they have nothing to do with one another. They are different skills sets and require two different kinds of talents. You don’t have to have a pen or paper, word processor, or be anywhere near a written language of any kind to tell a story.  Stories can be danced, mimed, painted, sculpted, or written, but stories don’t need writers. They only need storytellers. The problem is—and this is why I wrote this book—storytelling (i.e., story development) is not taught in MFA writing programs, or in film schools, or anywhere else, really.

Writers are on their own, for the most part, in developing their story development skill sets. That’s the need this book fills: this book is the missing class you never got in that expensive MFA program, or film school.

What makes Anatomy of a Premise Line different than all the other story development books out there?

That’s just it, there aren’t a lot of story development books out there. In fact, there are almost no books on real story development in the marketplace. That’s one of the differentiators for sure between my book and other books, but the main differentiator is that Anatomy of a Premise Line teaches how to leverage something called a “premise line” to discover and uncover any story’s right, true and natural structure. Many writing books mention story premise in passing; some might even devote a whole chapter to the idea of “what is a premise,” but this is the only book devoted entirely to the subject of premise development and idea testing.

This is the main distinction between Anatomy of a Premise Line and all other books on story development (the few that are out there) in the marketplace. If a story is going to fail, it will first do so at the level of the idea itself, i.e., at the premise level. This book teaches writers how to master this invaluable tool and how to use it to uncover the perfect structure for any story. Every story has a structure; every story must have a structure. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a story, it’s something else.

Anatomy of a Premise Line teaches any writer how to use that structure to build a map that can guide their entire writing process from inception to writing pages. By leveraging the power of the premise line, a storyteller can learn how to harness the natural structure of their story in one or two sentences. The book has many examples from the worlds of film and literature demonstrating how this works.

I liken it to the old saying, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a night; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Anatomy of a Premise Line teaches you how to fish so you can create stories for your whole life, not just muddle through one night of writing with some flavor-of-the-month story technique. 

What is the biggest problem your book addresses for writers and storytellers?

Anatomy of a Premise Line addresses the problem of, what I call, “premature writing.” Think about it, what happens when a writer gets a new idea for a story? They get excited, they chew on the idea a little while (very little), they get filled with anxiety because of the pressure to write something—anything—and they just start to write.

This is, in fact, the consensus advice to writer, “Just write, don’t edit, don’t hold back, just do it—just write. The story will write itself—trust the process.”

Well, for a few lucky souls this approach can work, the “just do it” strategy can produce some useful writing, but for the vast majority of writes this is horrible advice. Writers think that writing will get them where they want to go, but this is not what happens.

Instead, after a few weeks, or months, and hundreds of pages they find themselves lost in the story woods wondering, “Where did the wheels go off the wagon?” The story isn’t working and they invariably have to backtrack to find their way again.  I call this “backing into the story.” Everybody does it—everybody, without exception. That’s the main problem this book addresses, because when you are forced to back into your story you lose writing time, money, and creative energy struggling to get back on track and find your path again. This can be avoided completely!

I’m on a mission to train writers to hold back from the urge to relieve their creative anxiety by starting pages before they know their story’s structure. Develop your story’s premise first, figure out the basic architecture, and develop your premise line; only then can you know if your story is going to work or fall flat. You can know right at the inception of your idea whether or not that idea will support a serious commitment by you as a writer. It can be done. You can avoid “premature writing” and getting lost in the story woods, if you let the premise development process guide you to the right, true, and natural structure of your story—BEFORE you start writing pages.

The premise development process can literally cut your writing time in half by saving you from getting lost in the story woods, and providing a solid story map that can guide you thorough the entire writing process. This is not exaggeration, this is what I’ve seen happen with literally thousands of writers.

Is this book for screenwriters or novelists? How about creative nonfiction?

Story is story; writing is writing. They are not the same thing. Remember, storytelling has nothing to do with writing. Writing is just one form a story can take, and whether that form is a haiku poem, or a screenplay, or a thousand-page novel is irrelevant. Certainly screenwriting  and novel writing are very different activities, and each has its own peculiarities.

But, Anatomy of a Premise Line is about story, not writing, so I don’t care (nor does the book) what kind of writer you are, in terms of your preferred format. All I care about is what kind of story you are telling, and have you discovered your story’s right, true, and natural structure.  Consequently, the book makes no preference as to screenwriting, playwriting, novel writing  or creative nonfiction; it’s for anyone who tells stories.

I really want to ask you about how you write. What sparks a story for you? Do you have rituals?

The way I write is something I would not recommend to anyone. In fact, avoid my writing process at all cost. I do EVERYTHING you advise your readers NOT to do.

Here is my ritual: Get up, have coffee, feed the cat (so far so good), get on Facebook and spend an hour kibitzing, get on Twitter and check statistics and notifications and respond, get on LinkedIn and track all the mail/posts/messages, get on Stage 32 (Stage32.com) and respond to new contacts and review posts, write for a little while, check email, check Facebook again, check Twitter again, repeat. This is my day. I spend as much time on social media distracting myself as I do writing. I find this is necessary for me. I need distractions to write. It’s counter-intuitive, but that’s what works for me. My day is from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. pretty much every day, seven days a week. I’m writing and distracting myself all day long—literally. Run away from this as fast as you can and do not do this if you want a life. You have been warned.

As to what sparks a story, who knows? I think it’s different for everyone. For me it’s a mix of my personal neurotic fears and dreams and wishes and obsessive desires. Right now I’m obsessed about the 11th century because I want to write a novel about that period, and I’m all wrapped up in the corruption of the Catholic Church and Popes, and kinky Cardinals and God only knows where that’s coming from inside my subconscious mind. But, it is, so I have to listen. What makes us write the things we write are all very much about us working out our own personal peccadilloes. So, somehow, right now, medieval Catholic perverts are my path to emotional self-healing. Go figure.

What question should I have asked that I didn’t?

“Chocolate or vanilla?” I still can’t decide.

Thanks, Jeff!

Pick up your copy of Anatomy of a Premise Line on Amazon here.*

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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

 

 

Constructing a powerful premise line as a framework for story structure

Lyons Fin 018In the second class of my interview series with Enneagram and story development expert Jeff Lyons last week, we talked about “The Critical Importance of Premise Line Development.” Today’s post is a recap of what we learned.

Jeff started off by talking about the importance of being clear about what you’re writing is about a situation or a story:

  • A story is about a person on a journey of change, where they are trying to achieve a goal or attain a desire and have a revelation about themselves at the end. Stories include relationships, because, as Jeff says, “Stories are conversations, not monologues.”
  • A situation, on the other hand, is usually some kind of problem or predicament with a solution that tests a protagonist’s problem-solving skills but doesn’t reveal character. Few, if any, subplots, twists, or complications are required to solve the problem, and it ends in the same emotional emotional space it began in. Standard genre beats may still evident but not the deeper underpinnings of story structure.

While Jeff doesn’t suggest that story is better than situation or vice versa, he says that they require different building blocks to successfully deliver them. A story will rely on deeper story structure components, while a situation will rely on entertainment value, great set pieces, and good dialogue, but won’t reveal character or be driven by a moral problem or theme.

And what is story structure?

Jeff defines story structure differently than the way most of us have learned to think of it. Most of us think of things like inciting incidents, turning points, mid-points, climaxes, and resolutions as story structure. Jeff describes these as “story beats” and says that most writing systems that purport to be about structure are actually focused on these typical beats and are missing the deeper, natural structure implied by both premise development and character motivation.

Getting from idea to premise line

When a story idea first arrives, it often comes as an “undifferentiated mass”. It’s a collection of swirling notions and intuitive instincts that don’t translate yet into a clear organized story structure.

Jeff uses premise line development as a tool to begin to decipher the fuzzy, abstract ideas into a more concrete, contained story — the nascent beginnings of story structure. He compares it to stepping down electricity from the power plant into a useable form in a residential setting. It has to go through transformers to make it available at a functional level. The premise line is the first step in translating from that vague mass of ideas into something resembling a story.

The way that he does this is by using seven core elements to begin to tease out the components of the story and shape them, including:

  • Character — do you have a sense of a character who will be central to the story?
  • Constriction — what happens that pushes the character off the line they’re on at the beginning of the story?
  • Desire — what does this character want? At this point, we’re not talking about something specific or tangible, that comes later, but rather a sense of a core desire or motivating force.
  • Relationship — who is this character in relationship with? (Again, stories are conversations.)
  • Resistance — what is the push back or opposition that stops the main character from getting what they want?
  • Adventure and/or Chaos — what is the adventure or chaotic experience the character has that leads them to the epiphany at the end?
  • Change — this is the dramatic epiphany the end — how the character changes as a result of their experiences.

Moving from premise line to visible structure

Once you’ve identified your premise line, you can then move to a more “visible structure” for the story. This is a process of taking what you’ve started with and beginning to develop and flesh out the pieces of the story more deliberately. At this stage of the process, you’ll make the following shifts:

  • The character becomes the protagonist.
  • The constriction becomes the moral problem of the protagonist. (This informs the inciting incident.)
  • The character’s desire becomes a chain of desire (a sequence of goals or desires all related back to the character’s core desire).
  • The relationship becomes the focal relationship for the story, the person the protagonist experiences the journey with.
  • The resistance becomes the central opposition. At the outset and premise level, you may just have a sense of an opposing force. At this stage it would become personal, dramatic, and/or personified.
  • The adventure/chaos becomes the plot and momentum of the story through the second act. (This is the part of the story that includes the typical story beats, like midpoint, low point, and climax).
  • The change is the evolution or de-evolution of the protagonist.

Bridging the gap using the Enneagram

In order to make the transition from that undifferentiated mass of the original idea to the more visible structure of the premise line all the way into a visible, clear structure, Jeff uses the Enneagram to help identify the specifics for each one of these elements, such as:

  • The best protagonist for the story, based on the personal change the story is designed to illustrate.
  • The best opposition or antagonist for the story, designed to help provoke the protagonist into that change.
  • Brainstorming and understanding the protagonist’s core desire based on their Enneagram type, to design a chain of desires that the character seeks that drives the story forward.
  • The best allies or focal relationships for the protagonist.
  • The best likely inciting incidents, turning points, midpoints, low points, and battles/climaxes that will stimulate your specific character and/or be driven by him/her to the final outcome of the story.

The Enneagram doesn’t tell us the ONLY options for each of these, but rather suggests the best form for each of these elements. Then as the writer, it’s up to you to begin to craft the specific story details to deliver that. (Form follow function, after all.)

For instance, at the broadest level, an Enneagram Three seeks approval from the outside as a way of validating themselves, but what they really need is to have their own sense of value and sense of self. So a story about a Three would be designed to play out that journey in a visual, visible metaphor organized around the ideas of approval-seeking as the constriction, taking an action that would cause a loss or challenge based on that approval-seeking as an inciting incident, to a low point where the Three finally realizes they are sacrificing themselves on the altar of approval and giving up everything to do so, all the way to a climactic moment where the Three stops looking outside themselves for approval and decides to find it within.

At a more specific level of story detail, those ideas could play out with a businessman who will never say no to a contract, trying to please everyone and perform by juggling and obfuscation, but he finally says yes to too many projects and the house of cards he’s built around himself comes crashing down. He would then realize he needs to choose projects and work that HE values, and by so doing, recognize his OWN inherent value. It’s HIM that makes the projects successful, not the game he’s playing.

And of course, we can get even more specific from there, as well as fleshing out the details of his supporting relationships and opposition.

Your turn

Do you develop a premise line for your work? Tell us about it! We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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Graphic courtesy of http://www.fitzel.ca/enneagram/graphics.html