Three Legs of the stool

At Pub Rants, this: Premise, Plot, Prose: What Happens When One Is Missing?

A few years ago, I presented at the monthly meeting of a writing organization that wanted to know more about what agents are (and aren’t) looking for when they read submissions. I ended up talking about how premise, plot, and prose make a three-legged stool, and how when one leg is missing, the stool falls over—and the submission is likely to get a rejection. I’ve always wanted to expand on that idea for a more general fiction-writing audience. So this month, that’s what I decided to do.

Plot and Prose seem sensible choices, but what does “Premise” mean here? I guess it means “concept,” as in “high concept” — for example: a Western, but set in space! With plenty of Chinese influence! — something like that. But I’m not sure why that seems as important to the author of this post as Plot and Prose. Maybe because the concept is important as a selling point when pitching the book to acquiring editors.

“P” words aside, I’d say the three legs ought to be Character, Plot, and Prose — Or there should be four legs and you should have a chair, not a stool: Character, Setting, Plot, and Prose. But sure, let’s take the Premise, Plot, Prose thing for now and see what this post says about each.

+Premise +Plot -Prose

A manuscript that falls into this category promises a cool, unique premise, hook, or concept, and it’s well structured, moving along at a good, genre-appropriate clip…or at least it appears to be at first. Agents aren’t going to make it very far into this manuscript because the prose itself is a problem.

When I say prose here, I’m talking about two things. I’m talking about craft: spelling, grammar, semantics, syntax, mechanics, punctuation, etc. I’m also talking about art: voice, style, rhythm, imagery, symbolism, use of poetic devices, and so on.

Not so much Premise, Plot, and Prose as Premise, Pace, and Prose. But sure.

Substitute “reader” for “agent” and this is probably less true, for some readers. We can all think of novels that are a bit, or more than a bit, lacking in the prose department, with plenty of clunky, awkward sentences. But they’re still successful novels. I can enjoy a novel like that myself, as long as the dialogue is good. (That surprised me a lot when I realized it.)

I’ll tolerate a (small) number of errors if the writing is otherwise good. It does annoy me when an otherwise skilled author makes lay/lie errors, or may/might errors, or whatever. But again, I’ll tolerate that. If the writing, especially the dialogue, is frankly boring, that’s a real turn-of for me, more so than a small handful of mistakes.


+Premise -Plot +Prose

This manuscript is built on a mind-blowing, never-been-seen-before idea, and the prose is gorgeous, but there’s no plot. No sequence of events leading one into the other in a logical, plausible way that builds suspense, raises stakes, and keeps readers turning pages. No cliffhangers, turning points, or reversals. No artfully planted clues that give the reader a fair shake. No satisfying sense of wholeness or completeness. No connections between the first half of the manuscript and the second.

I wouldn’t go quite that far. I mean, you could have some aspects of the plot be fine and still have the plot fundamentally fail because events don’t lead into one into the next. Having everything else be good, except the author gets her characters backed into a corner and then whips out egregious deus ex machina from nowhere to rescue them, and that alone will still ruin the book for a lot of readers.

Still, basically the above is a good list of ways the plot can fail.

-Premise +Plot +Prose

This manuscript is well written with an airtight plot, but it feels bland. Derivative. Predictable. A little too tropey. Like it rolled off the assembly line into a bin marked “Stories We’ve All Seen Before.”

Of all three types of manuscripts in this article, this one is most likely to get represented and published. It’s a “good” book, a “competent” book. That makes it a safe bet for a lot of agents and editors. …

Well, that does not really seem entirely fair as a criticism. To take one obvious reason why Premise cannot be as important as Plot or Prose, fresh, new, and exciting for a fourteen-year-old reader is not the same thing as fresh, new, and exciting for an agent or editor or any other person who’s read a zillion books in whatever genre. One reason that seemingly derivative and predictable books succeed is that readers naïve in the genre don’t find them either derivative or predictable. There are always more readers coming along.

Of course, a great concept is a fine thing. But high concept is more a selling point than an aspect of quality. No, I still say: Character, setting, plot, prose. This isn’t as alliterative, but it’s a more correct list of the qualities that need to line up in order to make a good novel.

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1 thought on “Three Legs of the stool”

  1. Yep, for me too a high-concept prem8se is relatively unimportant in whether I will buy and read a book with pleasure. It does figure in to how memorable a book will be, but that is a different matter. Character and setting are the most important ones for me, and they didn’t even get mentioned in the tripod!

    When I’m already stressed and tired and want to relax with a nice book, these last two years I find myself often enough going for (a reread of) a slice-of-life sort of book, in which there isn’t really a high-stakes plot with cliffhangers and rising tension. Yes, the story has to hang together logically, I hate the disconnected deus ex machina and it was all a dream endings, but that seems a very minimal sort of bar for the plot.

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