Reading: For Me, It's All About Premise
Give me a story I can lose myself in.
As a reader, I’m a sucker for a high-concept, uniquely premised story. I want something hot off the imagination press, an idea nobody ever thought of before. Probably even more so since the COVID-19 craziness hit. When I escape, I want to escape hard.
Just so we’re all on the same page, let me tell you what “high concept” means to me. It applies to fiction with an easily stated premise and a strong, intriguing plot. High-concept stories usually appeal to a wide audience. They make people stop and think, “Wow. I want to know how this plays out.”
Here are three examples of high-concept premises. See if you recognize them.
1. An orphaned boy attends a school of witchcraft and wizardry after learning that he’s a wizard.
2. A girl is among twenty-four teens forced to participate in an annual, televised fight to the death.
3. A wealthy businessman develops a dinosaur theme park after scientists figure out how to genetically recreate dinosaurs.
Did you identify (1) the Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling; (2) The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins; and (3) Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton? Each is a high-concept story with a unique premise. Before they came along, the world had never seen anything like them.
In contrast, a low-concept story is typically character-driven rather than plot-driven. Here’s an example of one of my favorites:
· A man looks back on his friendship with a quirky individual. (A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving)
Not all taglines that sound high-concept offer a unique premise. Consider this one:
· A pervasive virus turns recently deceased people into zombies ravenous for human flesh.
That premise fits the definition of high-concept fiction, but it isn’t unique. Far from it. You can’t even tell what fictional work I’m describing, because there are so many. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, Train to Busan, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Cemetery Man, Shaun of the Dead, quick somebody slap me I can’t stop spurting zombie titles!
Thanks. I needed that.
The zombie premise would have been unique the first time it was presented, but the stories that followed were derivative. Everybody wanted to jump on the undead bandwagon and ride it all the way to the bank. And zombie stories continue to abound! I guess you can never have too many.
On the other hand, a unique premise doesn’t have to be brand-new. It can also be a twist on a well-worn concept. For instance:
Done to death: Somebody gets kidnapped and held for ransom.
Same premise, with a twist: Rachel’s thirteen-year-old daughter has been kidnapped, and if Rachel wants to get her back, she must do as the kidnapper says: pay a ransom and abduct another child. The kidnapper is another mother whose child has been kidnapped—by someone whose child has also been kidnapped. And on and on. They’re all relying on the next person in the chain to save their child. (The Chain, by Adrian McKinty)
Just finished reading that one, and wow. It was quite a ride.
Here are some other uniquely premised novels I’ve enjoyed in recent years:
· Four children find their lives altered after they learn the dates of their death. (The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin )
· Women become the dominant gender after developing the ability to shoot electricity from their fingertips. (The Power, by Naomi Alderman)
· A strange virus sweeps across a town, putting random residents into a perpetual sleep. (The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker)
And some older favorites of mine:
· After birthrates decline drastically, the few remaining fertile women are enslaved by powerful men and forced to bear their children. (The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood)
· A man secretly rages against a totalitarian regime that keeps its citizens under near-constant surveillance. (1984, by George Orwell)
· A group of shipwrecked children form a new society on a desert island. (Lord of the Flies, by William Golding)
· A man and his daughter are pursued by evil agents who want to harness the girl’s ability to start fires with her mind. (Firestarter, by Stephen King)
What am I reading now? Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin. And, yeah, the premise is what grabbed me. Furby with a webcam—that’s all I’m going to say.
As for my future reading list, here are three novels I’m looking forward to:
· Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld – What would Hilary’s life be like if she hadn’t married Bill?
· Lost and Wanted, by Nell Freudenberger – An MIT professor who disdains notions of the supernatural gets a phone call from a friend who has just died.
· Recursion, by Blake Crouch – A cop and a neurologist investigate a surreal syndrome in which victims are literally driven crazy by false memories.
One last point: Premise alone isn’t enough to keep me engaged. The story has to be well-executed, with skillful writing, a well-paced plot, believable characters, and natural-sounding dialogue. No matter how brilliant a story’s premise, I will abandon it if I find it lacking in some other area.
Now if you’ll excuse me, Little Eyes is calling, and I cannot ignore its siren song.