Premise Kings and Queens

Elizabeth Bluemle - August 2, 2012

Some writers have an incredible gift for great premises — the kinds of storylines that make you say, “Oooh! Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?!” (Or, if you’re a writer, “Oooh! I wish I’d thought of that!”)
I suppose what I’m talking about here is what Hollywood refers to as “high concept,” a deceptive phrase that doesn’t mean “artistically lofty” (which I’d first thought a million years ago when I heard the term), but ‘having an immediately recognizable, fantastic hook.’ In bookselling terms, this translates into a one- or two-line summary that is so compelling it grabs readers immediately.
A recent ad for David Levithan’s upcoming novel, every day, drew me in with the log lines: Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl. What a great idea! Who would not want to read that?! (Or see it; this has got to be optioned already.)
Levithan is always, always terrific with premises — even with his realistic fiction, which isn’t nearly as easy to render high concept as fantasy. His books with Rachel Cohn are great examples. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist: “Told in alternating chapters, teeming with music references, humor, angst, and endearing side characters, this he said/she said romance is a sexy, funny roller coaster of a story about one date over one very long night.” And Naomi and Ely’s No-Kiss List: “Naomi is in love with her best friend, Ely, but Ely prefers boys. So they create a “No Kiss List” of people neither of them is allowed to kiss. It works fine — until Bruce enters the picture.” So simple, so strong, so utterly teen-appealing.
This got me thinking about other writers who have a particular gift for premises.
Margaret Peterson Haddix has always been a master. She asks “what if?” in some utterly compelling, page-turning ways. Her books are some of the easiest handsells a bookseller could ever ask for. All we have to do is sum up the premise and the book is out of our hands into the kids’ before we’ve finished speaking. [Note: the annotations below are edited versions of the publishers’ marketing materials. This is pretty close to how we chat up the books to customers.]
A few of Haddix’s goodies include:
Running Out of Time : When a diphtheria epidemic hits her 1840 village, 13-year-old Jessie discovers she has actually been living in a 1995 tourist site under unseen observation by heartless scientists….
Among the Hidden: Luke, a third child in a future where families are forbidden to have more than two offspring, has lived his life as a shadow child, in hiding — until one day when he spies a girl, a ‘third’ like himself, peering out an attic window in a house nearby. She has a dangerous plan to challenge the powerful government, and wants Luke to join her.
Turnabout: After secretly receiving injections at the age of 100 that are meant to reverse the aging process, Melly and Anny Beth grow younger and younger. It was great for a while. But now they’re 16; what’s going to happen as they become more and more helpless?
Other YA standouts who leap to mind, delivering great premises time and time again, include Scott Westerfeld, E. Lockhart, John Green, Susan Beth Pfeffer, Meg Rosoff, Terry Pratchett, Nancy Farmer, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Reeve, Shannon Hale, Suzanne Collins, Tamora Pierce, Philip Pullman, and M.T. Anderson. There are many more — the difficulty here lies in distinguishing between great storytelling, and coming up with a great premise, which is what this post is celebrating.
Readers, booksellers: Who are your kings and queens of the stellar premise? Bonus points if you provide your favorite one- or two-line pitch for their books! (To qualify as royalty, in my mind, the author must have more than one terrific premise to his or her credit.)


4 thoughts on “Premise Kings and Queens

  1. Kathy Quimby

    Corey Doctorow
    Little Brother: George Orwell’s meets Edward Abbey as Marcus and his hacker friends try to avoid being picked up by security forces following a terrorist attack that isolates San Francisco.
    For the Win: The boundaries between virtual reality and the “real world” blur as slave-wage teen video game workers around the world unionize to bargain for better living conditions and wages from the companies that exploit their game-playing talents.

  2. Kyle

    All three Haddix examples are very reminiscent of movies and books already done.
    Running Out of Time: The Village? Which one was done first.
    Among the Hidden: This seems taken directly from Ender’s Game. I believe “Thirds” was even the same term used.
    Turnabout: Benjamin Button?
    Obviously these aren’t carbon copies, except for maybe Among the Hidden, but they’re similar. I guess at this point, it’s tough to come up with a truly unique premise, and instead put twists on projects already done.

  3. Shoshana

    Patrick Ness: “The Chaos Walking troligy takes place in a world where people can hear each other’s thoughts, and they don’t handle it well.” Bill it as an “if you liked The Hunger Games…” item, and it’s gold.
    And if picture books count, Eric Litwin. “Pete is walking down the street, singing his jazzy little song about how he loves his white shoes, and then he steps in strawberries. So now he loves his red shoes… and when he steps in mud, he loves his brown shoes.”


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