“I was musing with a friend over why [Sense8 was cancelled), and it occurred to me that the best shows can usually be summed up with a very simple “subject verb object” statement that encompasses both premise and plot, so audiences near-immediately know what they’re getting into. (This doesn’t apply to books, this is just what kinds of shows more easily ensnare new browsing viewers) Consider:
“A teenage girl slays vampires.
“A vampire fights supernatural crime.
“A crew of thieves swindles bad guys . . .”
I think the idea behind the one-sentence premise does apply to books, too, but I think it’s more complicated than subject/verb/object. (Of course, I do.)
I’d start with protagonist/conflict verb/antagonist, which gives you AG’s “A teenage girl slays vampires.” (I’d swap out “fights” for “slays,” but that’s a quibble.)
The problem is that there’s not enough there to be interesting. That’s probably because Buffy spawned a slew of teenagers whose stakes are sharp, so the original twist (wait, the little blonde isn’t the victim?) has been co-opted into the mainstream. But I think there has to be more in the basic premise, something that lifts it above “X fights X,” that answers the question, “Why should I care?”
Go to another one of AG’s examples: “A crew of thieves swindles bad guys.” That’s your vintage “biter bit” plot, and it intrigues because it’s bad guys vs. bad guys. It succeeds because it’s really interesting thieves who form a family bond and fight those who make the Evil Speeches of Evil, stories with clearly drawn moral lines even though both sides are on the wrong side of society’s moral line (that would be Sterling, most of the time). (Implicit in all of this is that the stories are well-written: good writing can save a bad premise, but bad writing will sink a good one every time.) So it’s “A family of thieves, grifters, and hackes fights rich people who prey on the helpless.” Now we got ourselves a premise.
That’s why “eight telepaths fight a sociopathic doctor” isn’t as strong as “Eight telepaths who have formed a psychic bond fight the sociopathic doctor who is trying to lobotomize them.” That’s not “telepaths fight doctor,” that’s “family fights lobotomizer.”
Of course, as i said above, no story premise is a guarantee of success; that lies entirely in the execution plus a whole lot of industry stuff that’s just depressing to talk about. But I agree with AG that the ability to state the premise simply is key to writing a story that holds together. When I teach conflict, I teach the central question that must be answered by the end of the story: “Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get the goal?” The answer does not have to be “yes,” there’s nothing wrong with the protagonist failing unless it breaks the contract to the reader (see Moonstruck as an example of the protagonist failing but the contract being fulfilled for the romance reader). Then you use that stout stake to govern the rest of the novel. Go anywhere you want in the discovery draft, but once you have that main question/premise/statement, that’s your stout stake that the rest of the story is tethered to, the party you invited that reader to, your contract with the reader.
So to go back to AG’s original point, Sense 8 had premise problems from the beginning, not because it didn’t have a great premise, but because it kept wandering from it. The parts of Sense8 that were enthralling were the places where the sensates connected: Will, Sun and Capheus saving Noni in the beginning, the karaoke scene, Lito and Wolfgang partnering up, Will and Sun standing with Capheus, and so many more. Whenever they focused on the sensates fighting for each other again evildoers, the show was mesmerizing. Whenever they wandered into side plots or were deliberately opaque about what was going on–Sarah Purcell comes to mind here–the show was annoying. Sense8’s second season was really good because I got to see these characters again, but as far as the plot goes, it was a lot of promise and very little pay off. There are a lot of bad vibes around Lito’s new acting gig but I do not know why. Sun’s on the lam with her evil brother after her, and I don’t know what’s going to happen there. Kala’s marriage is taking a bad turn but I don’t know why. There are other clusters trying to kill our cluster and I don’t know why. I’m okay with mystery and expectation, but I’ve seen the entire second season, and I still don’t know why. The final episode was the worst in this respect: the sensates are finally all together except for Wolfgang and I don’t get to see that meeting, the meeting two whole seasons have promised me. The season ends, Wolfgang’s still in big trouble, everything’s up in the air, and I’m feeling frustrated and cheated. Sense8 is not fulfilling my viewer contract because it’s not sticking to the main premise: I don’t get to see these eight people safe at the end having defeated the Bad Guy. Will the Sensates defeat Whispers and the BPO? Who knows? The series is over.
So my advice is, after the discover draft, figure out your premise/central story question/promise you made to the reader on the first page/reader contract, and then as you revise, paste that sucker at the top of your computer screen and make sure everything attaches to it so at no point will your reader say, “Why am I reading this?”
That seems draconian, I know, but it’s the glue that will hold your story together.
Now I must go cogitate on this for Nita because I’m definitely wandering in Act Two. I’m still in discovery draft, so that’s okay, but knowing my stout stake can only help.