What’s The Subtitle Of This Story?

2021 shall forever be known in my history as the Year of the Premise.

This year, more than any other in my career, there has been a relentless focus on the premise of each book I’m working on: the North Star, the strategic intent, the point.

I’ve been drilling on this with clients for years, but the longer I write, the more important it seems to be.

It might seem impossible to write a book without being clear on this, but believe me, most authors just hurl themselves in when their idea is still more like a premonition than a clearly defined plan.

You can have great material without a clear premise. You can have interesting stories. You can have a cohesive narrative. But without a razor-sharp premise the piece feels inexplicably… lifeless.

It’s not quite there, you exclaim in exasperation, fiddling with yet another introduction or chapter transition, trying to wake it up. There’s a slack thread somewhere, and until you find it and pull it taut, the whole thing just falls flat.

Honing in on your premise sometimes takes as long as the entire project — sometimes it’s the last thing holding you up before getting the damn thing out the door, bar some minor tweaks to work it in — but it’s so important that it’s worth giving yourself as much time as it needs.

Getting your premise right makes your writing sing. It elevates the piece and makes it vigorous and alive.

It makes the material active, compelling, and it makes all the effort mean something.

One of my favourite ways to noodle on the premise is to spend a half hour or so brainstorming subtitles for the book or piece.

The title is where you get to be clever or poetic, but the subtitle is where you distill all the ideas and intentions of the book into a snappy one-liner.

I do this sometimes when I’m stuck with my private writing too, usually because I’m tangled in some situation I don’t know how to wrangle. If this situation was a story, I ask myself, what would the subtitle be?

I find it a really useful writing prompt.

It forces you to think like a knife, paring away at all the extraneous stuff until you are left only with a hard core of truth.

Here’s what you do. Get a blank piece of paper. Write the title at the top — whatever title comes to mind for the ‘story’ of your current situation. It could be the most melodramatic, poetic, bellicose or ragey combination of words you’ve ever written. Doesn’t matter.

Then start brainstorming subtitles that explain that title so that a total stranger could pick up that page and understand what’s going on in this story.

Fill the page with ideas. Fill another page. Keep going until you’ve found that loose thread and pulled it hard.

And when you finally get to the truth of the matter, you can write in the other direction — adding material back in, putting down context and perspective, explaining the story to yourself. You might be surprised just how vivid and meaningful that story suddenly becomes.