A blockbuster novel is the goal of many writers, but it can seem like an elusive dream to the burgeoning novelist. Freelance Friday’s series “How to Write The Blockbuster Novel” will walk you through the elements and structure needed to construct the bones of a novel that will enrapture your readers, not to mention agents and publishers if you chose the traditional publishing route.

The changing scene of publishing has shaken the fabric core of how books are selected by readers. With so many book purchasing options available to consumers now like Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, iBooks, and Google Play, how do you stand a chance to grab the reader’s attention? First and foremost, word of mouth is listed as the top reason why readers spend their hard-earned dollars on any given book. So once your family, friends, co-workers, and Sunday school teacher buy your book, it is important to give them a reason to recommend it to someone else as a great read. That kind of word of mouth does not come from your publisher, Amazon rankings, or the number of Goodreads reviews you can wrangle from strangers. While rankings are eventually helpful in boosting your novel’s visibility, how do you get there to start with? In edition one of How to Write The Blockbuster Novel, I will start with the most mystifying concept of all structural concepts: Premise.

Before writing your outlandish characters, plot structure, or even outlining (or Pantsing if you live life on the edge), comes the Premise of your novel. Without it, you end up with a roomful of unique characters living exciting lives and accomplishing extraordinary feats for no apparent reason, whatsoever. First, you’re probably asking yourself, “What is Premise?” I sought the wisdom of multiple instructional writing venues. While there is a plethora of information out there on this subject, the following definition is simple, to the point and comes from James N. Frey of Writers Digest. “The premise is the foundation of your story – that single core statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story.” A premise statement is so imperative to penning the blockbuster novel, that it is the core to everything written after it. Writing characters, their lives, and the heroic feats that leave your readers yearning for more must begin with a foundation that will rock your reader’s world.

So what’s in a Blockbuster Premise Statement?

Agent Donald Maass, Past President of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. lists four stepping stones to a solid premise statement: Plausibility, Originality, Inherent conflict, and Gut emotional appeal. How do you use each stepping stone to create a premise that will drive your novel into the blockbuster arena? Let’s dissect each one.

  1. Plausibility is the likelihood that a set of facts could feasibly happen at a given sequence in time. Let’s look at an example. We have a recently widowed plantation owner and society darling at the cusp of the Civil War. So far, so good. But she is left to protect her family’s land and homestead against Sherman’s army alone. Her vanity, self-centered, and spoiled attitude end up serving her well in the quest to guard her beloved Southern lifestyle by proving the nay-sayers wrong. Through this determination, she single-handedly holds on to her damaged homestead and resurrects it from fragmented remnants only to rise again as a proper Southern Belle. Does this sound like a fantastic story too good to be true? Who would believe that a debutante could be sneaky enough to accomplish these goals? If you haven’t guessed yet, Scarlett O’Hara is the heroine in this very plausible story of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and is one of the all-time best-selling novels ever. Create an over-the-top set of circumstances in your blockbuster novel, then turn your characters loose to make those circumstances seem plausible to the reader.
  2. Originality is what makes your blockbuster novel different from all others. I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times that there are no new plots available to writers – every story has been told. Whether your plot is a story of Quest, Revenge, Love, or Greed, the ingredients you chose to develop your plot recipe must be as original as DNA. You ask yourself how am I going to do this if all the plots have already been written? Would you believe that Star Wars by George Lucas is virtually the same story as the Bible? Let’s take a look. The main character is thrust into greatness, each seeks a greater good beyond themselves, both have very unique fathers, and the world’s entire salvation depends upon their success as protagonists. Chose original action points in your plot and deliver an ending with a powerful punch of originality. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
  3. Inherent Conflict is more than an inconvenience on your character. This type of conflict encompasses the stakes your protagonist has on the line, and death is the resulting factor if your character does not achieve the goal. Let me back up a moment and tell you that there are multiple forms of death: professional, psychological, or physical. A blockbuster novel makes the stakes clear no later than the beginning of your second act – that to fail means certain death. Maybe you are thinking right now that your character does die at the end of your story. That’s a great ending, but the reader should be worried about death for as much of your blockbuster novel as possible. Silence of the Lambs features all three forms of death. I was worried sick that if Clarice Starling didn’t succeed professionally as a newbie agent and stop Buffalo Bill, that sweet girl and her dog would die a horrible death in that awful hole where others had clearly been killed before her. And Hannibal Lecter’s own brand of psychological warfare from his cell would cease if he were not able to direct Starling on the wildest ride of her life. This is inherent conflict at a blockbuster level folks.
  4. Gut Emotional Appeal must hit you right in the stomach and make you take a long look at your own life. If you don’t create characters that the reader can identify with and push them toward achieving their story goal, then you’ve missed out on the most important stepping stone of all. Your premise must contain characters that are believable, flawed, and make you want to see what they will do at every turn. This includes protagonists and antagonists alike. We all wanted Harrison Ford’s character Richard Kimble to find the one-armed man that killed his wife and prove once and for all to Tommy Lee Jones’ character, FBI agent Samuel Gerard, that he was not her killer. The 1993 movie The Fugitive made us love and understand the plight of both men. We were emotionally involved in the chase and prayed for a desirable outcome for both characters. Gut emotional appeal will keep your readers turning page after page if you nail this stepping stone.

Create a long sentence (or two) that foretells your story’s premise using all four stepping stones. Once you have refined this statement into an articulate premise statement, use it as a guide to expand the bony structure of your Premise Statement into a Blockbuster Novel worth reading. Below is a premise for Twighlight by The Writer.

When 17-year old Bella agrees to move to nowheresville Forks, Arizona, and live with her estranged father, she finds herself powerfully drawn to classsmate and bad-boy vampire Edward Cullen, with whom she begins an obsessive love affair culminating in her desire to be turned into a vampire, until the affair and Bella’s life are threatened by James, a predatory vampire who targets Bella for death because she is a “hard target,” as he loves the hunt more than the kill.  This leads Bella to unite with Edward and his vampire family, who kill James, effectively bringing Bella closer into the vampire fold.

Next month’s edition of How to Write the Blockbuster Novel will dissect Theme.


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