We’ve discussed how to entertain your audience with novelty much less than the other ANTS. Since novelty can be generated by anything the audience isn’t used to, it’s hard to get specific about what makes it work. However, the benefit it offers to stories is too large to ignore, and if we don’t discuss it, it becomes easy to neglect. So let’s cover how to set your entire story up for success by using a novel premise.
Finding a Novel Premise
Think of your premise as a big-picture strategy for creating novelty in your story. You can generate novelty in additional ways, such as beautiful description or a witty narrator, but using a novel premise is especially helpful for several reasons.
- It gives you a launching pad for thinking up novel details and including them in the story.
- It makes those novel details feel more appropriate to the story, increasing their impact.
- It creates a selling point you can use to woo agents, publishers, and potential readers.
So what makes a premise novel?
- It has elements that people don’t experience in their everyday lives. That doesn’t mean everyday experiences aren’t valuable to write about, just that they aren’t novel.
- It hasn’t already been covered in lots of stories, thereby making the novelty wear off. Nonfiction works like documentaries can also impact the novelty of concepts.
- It has far-reaching implications for the protagonist rather than being trivial, e.g., everyone in the setting eating rye bread instead of wheat.
- It’s just familiar enough to evoke the imagination. For instance, a universe made entirely of floating bubbles may not feel novel because people don’t have the context to speculate what that would be like.
While that gives storytellers lots of flexibility, it’s hard to come up with ideas using such broad criteria. Below are some common categories for novel premises that can get you started.
- Unusual Setting. A speculative fiction setting that hasn’t been used often can provide a lot of novelty. Settings that people are more used to, like a zombie postapocalypse or a historical setting, will attract enthusiasts and add a little novelty, but not as much as ideal. A dreamscape, hell, or a planet ruled by plants would be settings with higher novelty. An existing story in this category is Mortal Engines, which has roaming cities that devour other cities.
- Trope Mix and Match. Take contrasting elements from different subgenres and pair them. You might have a horror where the Easter Bunny is the killer, a romantic comedy involving the Grim Reaper and someone cheating death, or a political thriller starring schoolchildren. These premises usually make silly stories, so you should be interested in comedy. An existing story in this category is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
- Subversion. Take a genre you’re familiar with and twist it on its head. Often, switching protagonist and antagonist roles works well. For instance, your story could be about peaceful orcs defending against a brutal elf invasion. You might tell a cosmic horror story from Cthulhu’s point of view or an epic fantasy where the chosen one is evil instead of good. An existing story in this category is Redshirts, which is about the throwaway characters in a Star Trek TV show.
- Uncommon Hero. Give your main character a novel characteristic that few protagonists have. For instance, it’s still fairly unusual for main characters to be ghosts – and know they’re a ghost, that is. Your character might be a minion or an imp living in the drawer of someone’s fridge. An existing story in this category is Dexter, which is about a serial killer who kills serial killers.
- Reality-Bending Problem. Some problems can change the nature of the story enough to add novelty. The protagonist might be chasing the villain backward through time, history might be subtly rewritten from one scene to the next, or the protagonist might be under a curse that makes everyone forget them the next moment. An existing story in this category is Memento, which is told backward to reflect the experience of a protagonist who can’t form new long-term memories.
Novelty isn’t binary; it falls along a gradient. This means your premise doesn’t have to be completely unique to generate novelty, and it’s helpful to differentiate your premise even if it will never stand out. If your premise isn’t as novel as you’d like, you can help make up for that by implementing it in a unique way.
It’s most essential that whatever you pick is something you’re excited about. Otherwise, you might have a premise you can advertise, but it’s unlikely you’ll deliver the experience your audience is looking for.
Make Your Premise Matter
The next step is to make sure your premise isn’t left by the wayside. While working in description of your novel story elements is helpful, it isn’t enough. To actually get novelty from the premise during the story, it has to matter throughout. You want a premise that will alter the conflicts in the story so even when the story is at its most intense, the novelty is still there.
That means the premise should affect the problems the hero has to solve and the way the hero solves them. It could create obstacles for the hero, or, alternately, it could give the hero an advantage in surmounting them. Let’s go over this with some example premises.
Setting Example: Dreamscape
With any fantastical setting, it’s expected that threats will be fairly setting specific. So your dreamscape protagonist shouldn’t be running from some guy with a gun. Instead, a nightmare could chase the protagonist. That nightmare could be similar to a guy with a gun, but it should still be dreamlike. Perhaps the person holding the gun is made of black smoke, or they always wear a mask that looks like a person the protagonist knows.
You also don’t want the protagonist to defeat dream monsters as though they’re not in a dream. So they can’t shoot the nightmare with a gun either. Even transforming into a fantasy knight with a lance may feel disappointing, because that’s from another setting with less novelty.
Instead, some dream logic is needed. Maybe the protagonist’s fears created this nightmare, but the protagonist doesn’t know that. They also don’t know that they have the power to banish it. Once the protagonist starts to catch on, they gather sentimental items to bolster their courage. Those things provide protection while the protagonist faces their nightmare, allowing them to resolve their emotional issues and defeat the nightmare once and for all.
Main Character Example: Ghost
A ghost easily fits into a fairly familiar setting, so the ghost’s problem doesn’t necessarily have to be that strange. But ideally, being a ghost will still make a difference to the plot. Maybe the story is a murder mystery where the ghost is solving their own murder.
Next, the way a ghost solves this murder should change because they’re a ghost. They might interview other ghosts to solve the murder. The protagonist would naturally have trouble interacting with living people, making it difficult to tell anyone what they found or warn them about the killer. On the plus side, a ghost could easily eavesdrop on the conversations of the living.
A ghost might also need some source of personal danger, and since they can’t die, naturally it will be specific to ghosts. Perhaps the other ghosts they interview quickly pass on, and each time the protagonist is at risk of being dragged to the afterlife with them. The killer might realize one of their victims is haunting the vicinity and hire a exorcist to banish the ghost to hell.
Subversion Example: Protagonist Orcs and Antagonist Elves
The risk with this premise is making the orcs seem too much like generic heroes and the elves too much like generic villains. It must feel like they are orcs and elves. So the best way to start this plot is with a form of aggression that is uniquely elven. Instead of the elves attacking on horseback and cutting orcs down with their swords, maybe they’ve been poisoning the orcs with the berries from their giant tree. This turns the otherwise-rowdy orcs into peaceful and willing slaves, allowing the elves to maintain a semblance of pacifism.
Then, when the orc clan attacks the elves in response, other species such as humans assume the orcs are the aggressors. If the protagonists have to deal with stereotypes that resemble typical orc depictions, it will matter that they’re orcs.
Altogether, the entire plot of your story doesn’t necessarily have to be about your novel premise, but the premise must significantly alter the way it unfolds. Otherwise, either your premise will fall flat, or your story will be pulled in two different directions.
Dig Into the Details
Now that we’ve covered the big-picture premise and the broad strokes of the story, it’s time for the most important ingredient for novelty: the details. Because any idea will lose its novelty quickly, continually introducing new and fun details is what keeps the novelty of your premise going.
A novel tidbit should itself be unusual and somewhat unexpected, but it should also fit the context you’ve established. If you break theme and introduce something that doesn’t follow the rules of the story you’ve created, it’s more likely to feel bizarre than novel. The premise is a big help here; as long as you pick things that feel natural to it, they’ll probably fit in.
Generally, the novel details of a story come from:
- Finding unique ways to depict the premise, so it’s not like other stories in the same subgenre or that use a similar main character.
- Looking for the small ramifications of the unique (and often fantastical) things that have been established.
Let’s look at how that might be done with our premise examples.
Dreamscape settings are pretty unusual, so it’s not as important to set this one apart from other dreamscapes. Still, what is a dreamscape, exactly? How does it work? Just answering these questions will help it feel more unique.
Since I mentioned nightmares in the previous section, this dreamscape has to be a setting where the protagonist can make their nightmares real. Let’s say it’s the protagonist’s personal dream, but they don’t have conscious control over it; they simply accept all the weird things that happen without question. The dreamscape is constantly changing and surreal, and populated with things that are very personal to the protagonist.
Given this framework, it’s time to dream up fun little tidbits that could happen in a scene.
- The protagonist’s favorite childhood stuffed animal is a supporting character. When remembering the real world, the protagonist remarks that the stuffed animal was very quiet back then, and the stuffed animal explains that they were shy.
- The protagonist heads off for school, which involves stepping through a single doorway into a classroom where everyone is taking a test the protagonist hasn’t prepared for. The stuffed animal remarks that this school seems to have more tests than lessons.
- At lunch, the protagonist grabs a fork to eat their spaghetti with, only to find their spaghetti is now a bowl of soup. So they grab a spoon and return to find it’s a steak. So they grab a steak knife and finally return to find it’s a sandwich and they don’t need any utensils.
A ghost protagonist who knows they’re a ghost, while still pretty novel, has been done enough that it’s important to make the depiction unique in some way. Since the story will be from the ghost’s perspective, maybe the world looks different. Instead of the ghost seeing their own body as transparent, the living world might look like a transparent and eerily glowing ghost world. Other ghosts, meanwhile, could seem perfectly solid and in vivid color.
- Since the structures of buildings are ghostly, the protagonist has to figure out how to climb ghost stairs, and if they lose their concentration, they’ll start sinking into the floor.
- Solid-looking doors to the afterlife will randomly appear in a variety of shapes and colors. Sometimes the protagonist runs into them.
- The antagonistic exorcist can enter the ghost realm and look like a solid ghost, surprising the protagonist. This also enables the antagonist to physically drag the protagonist toward a door.
Orcs and Elves Details
This one’s a little tougher, because driving this premise home means invoking the standard orc and elf tropes. So instead of differentiating by making orcs and elves different, the goal is to breathe new life into their depictions by changing mood and context. In addition, this story would be a great place to poke fun at high fantasy in general, adding more novelty in the form of humor.
For the orcs, we might imagine what normal life for an orc from a high fantasy world would look like.
- A human evil overlord shows up trying to draft a horde army. Some orcs roll their eyes, while others pretend to play along, laughing behind their hands the whole time.
- The orcs pass the time with a poetry contest, and they all consider the poems with the most harsh-sounding words to be the best poems.
- Outsiders hear the poetry contest and think the orcs are conducting a dark ritual of some kind.
Meanwhile, since elves are depicted as so superior much of the time, their typical characteristics might be repackaged to look less ideal. Unfortunately, making fun of them would reduce their threat level, so let’s make them creepy. The elves will appear peaceful, friendly, and smiling even as they destroy their enemies.
- They might ask visitors if they would like to help plant a tree, and then give the visitor a crown of flowers that sends roots into the wearer, growing until a tree is there. The elves comment on how lovely it is without any recognition that something horrible just happened.
- When the orcs show up to fight the elves and get their comrades back, the elves don’t hit back; they just dodge amazingly fast until some subtle magic or drug has time to take effect.
- For the last several hundred years, the powerful elven leader has been sitting perfectly still at the top of their giant tree, contemplating their next elven chess move. Before the climax, an orc ends up there, assumes the leader is a statue, and rearranges the pieces. This awakens the final boss.
Fun details still need to fit into your plot, but coming up with some early might offer ideas for where your plot could go.
When creating a novel premise, keep it as simple as you can. If it takes a full explanation, it will take more investment for people to appreciate, and it will be harder to sell. If you can explain it in a few words and people think it’s cool, then you have a winner.
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