What's the "Killer" Idea? Developing a Great Premise for your Book
It's 1974, and I am just thirteen. My parents have decided to take me to see Murder on the Orient Express starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot. After about two hours, as Poirot wraps it all up in the dining car, I am stunned and startled to learn that the twelve wounds inflicted on the victim have not been performed by one murderer, as I had supposed, but by twelve passengers. My mother is completely unaware of this. She is exhausted at the time and has fallen asleep about an hour into the movie. She wakes up five minutes before the end.
“Who did it?” she asks, leaning over to me.
“All of them,” I whisper back.
“Don’t be stupid,” she replies.
You can see from her reaction that my mother was a pragmatic, no-nonsense sort of person. For her, a murder story followed certain conventions or rules. One person is typically murdered by another person. The whole idea of one person being killed by twelve people, all raining down their blows one-by-one, was completely off her radar.
But isn’t this the point? Agatha Christie had come at a familiar event from an unfamiliar angle. Instead of twelve stabs from one murderer, she had one stab each from twelve murderers. That’s why one reviewer of the original 1934 novel called it “the best of the railway stories.”
Agatha Christie had a killer idea!
None of us is Agatha Christie, let’s be honest, but all who feel compelled to be authors need to have a commitment to a “great premise,” a killer idea.
But what does this look like?
First off, the killer idea can be your own story. Some peoples’ experiences are unusual, unfamiliar, exceptional. They are worthy of being recorded in a book. The Diary of a Young Girl (aka The Diary of Ann Frank) is a notable example, about a teenage Dutch girl’s experiences of life under Nazi occupation in Holland in WW2. Maya Angelou’s memoir of her experiences aged 3-17, being brought up mostly in Arkinsas in a deeply and oppressive racist atmosphere, is another very notable example (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,1969).
Readers who are used to a more mundane world want to be led into an extraordinary world, whether that’s through an imaginary tale, or a story based on actual events. Whether the story is nonfiction or fiction, readers want to experience something that is more intense and extreme than what they are used to in their day-to-day lives. They want to be lured by the narrator into unfamiliar territory – or into territory that they thought was familiar but turns out to be unfamiliar.
So, if you have an extraordinary story, tell it! If your story is unique, then that’s your unique selling point (USP). It’s your great premise. Your killer idea.
Sometimes, secondly, the killer idea is not so much the story itself, not so much the content of the story, but the perspective from which the story is told, or the voice which the narrator uses to tell the story. Let me give you a few of my go-to examples.
Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse (1992) portrays the life of a horse called Joey in WW1. Stories about WW1 are common. What is not common is a WW1 story told from the perspective of a horse, in the horse’s imaginary voice. The novel revels in this unusual, first person POV (point of view) and the reader is hooked from the first paragraph:
“My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head. But I remember well enough the day of the horse sale. The terror of it stayed with me all my life.”
See how Morpurgo turns what could have been quite an ordinary story into something extraordinary by simply changing the POV? See how he treats a familiar subject in an unfamiliar way?
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a WW2 novel about a young orphaned girl called Leisel who learns to read, and indeed love reading, at a time when the Nazis are burning books. She starts stealing books to read from the Mayor’s house (hence her name, “the Book Thief”) and eventually comes to write a book of her own.
So how is this different? The answer is that the entire story is told from the POV of Death, a character within the drama of the story. Death is the narrator, and he’s keen for us to understand that he’s not what we usually imagine when we think of the Grim Reaper.
''I do not carry a sickle or a scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it's cold. And I don't have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance.''
And here’s the great surprise in the story. Humans may be haunted by Death; I don’t know anyone who, deep down, isn’t. But in Zusak’s story, Death reveals that he has a weakness, a vulnerability, too. The last words of the novel are, “I’m haunted by humans.”
What a killer idea!
You get the point? Most of us don’t want to read formulaic and familiar books. We want to see the world through different eyes. We want our imaginative horizons stretched, our experience of the world enriched, our understanding of humanity deepened. We want the familiar to become unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar to become familiar.
I constantly ask my many clients at BookLab, “Is there anything unfamiliar about your story?” “What’s in your book that will hook the reader because it’s unusual?” “What is your USP – your Unique selling Point – with the emphasis on unique?” If a budding writer can’t answer that clearly and concisely, then it’s back to the drawing board, I’m afraid.
The key, then, to the killer idea is what I call the writer’s act of “defamiliarization.” Even when we know something of the subject of a book, there must be defamiliarization, a subversive process of making the familiar unfamiliar, as in Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, subtitled The Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor. We may feel that we are familiar with the world of health and hospitals, but nothing will prepare for us for this hilarious and heart-breaking memoir of a young man’s real-life experiences working in the NHS. The familiar, in short, becomes unfamiliar. We, the readers, are shown a world we know at a distance from a unique, inside perspective.
When Mark Haddon wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his story reveled in unfamiliarity. He wrote his fictional novel from the POV of a 15-year-old autistic boy who likes cardinal numbers. As you read the story, you find it therefore does not have “normal” chapter numbers, beginning with 1. Here’s the boy’s rationale:
“Chapters in books are usually given the cardinal numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on. But I have decided to give my chapters prime numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on because I like prime numbers.”
All this could be regarded as gimmicky, but it isn’t. It works because this is exactly how many autistic kids think. Haddon has made a familiar world, and indeed a familiar genre, seem thoroughly unfamiliar. This is what you and I must do if we want to become successful authors, not just mediocre writers.
I am currently coaching a client at BookLab who is writing a memoir about her six years at boarding school in the 1980s. This is a book that has enormous potential. The author is a Northerner, born and brought up in Bury, whose parents were given a bursary to send her to a posh, southern boarding school. As soon as she arrived, her strong Northern accent exposed her to appalling bullying by her peers and public ridicule by her teachers. This caused a bubbly girl to become invisible and inaudible. For six years, she became the girl who lost her voice. Her memoir is an attempt to get her voice back. And she succeeds, brilliantly, humorously, poignantly and memorably.
There’s a book with a killer idea, a great premise, a unique selling point. There’s an author who models defamiliarization.
There are some books that come to my desk at BookLab that I immediately know I am going to represent to a literary agent or recommend to publishers. They always have one thing in common. They either describe something brand new, something that has not been covered before in books, or they look at something old and familiar in an entirely new and memorable way. To be honest, I am very sorry to say that these are rare; most of the many hundreds of manuscripts that I’ve worked on over the years have been familiar and formulaic, either in content or form. Few have moved me with their strangeness, their unfamiliarity.
But this is what publishers are looking for today. They are looking for stories told by people whose voices haven’t been heard enough, if at all. They are hunting for books that engage in excellent “world-building”; books that create and evoke brave new worlds, just as Gene Roddenberry did with the original Star Trek series in 1966.
If you don’t celebrate the unfamiliar, it’s unlikely your book will be celebrated.
I don’t want to overdo this point, so I’ll finish by returning to where I began. My childhood. And my love of detective stories.
I remember the story that caused me to fall in love with reading when I was about seven. It was one of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and it is called “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”
Holmes is visited by a woman called Helen whose twin sister died aged 30 in horrible circumstances in her father’s house. On entering her sister’s bedroom on the fateful night, Helen found her face as white as a sheet and her body writhing on the floor.
“At first I thought that she had not recognised me, but as I bent over her she suddenly shrieked out in a voice which I shall never forget, ‘Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’”
No forced entry was discovered. No cause of death could be discerned by the coroner. The whole matter was a mystery. And now the same things that happened before her sister’s death are happening to Helen.
Holmes investigates and discovers, in a moment of pure horror and surprise, that the speckled band is in fact a lethally venomous snake - a swamp adder from India - forced down the bell rope by the woman’s father, an eccentric and dangerous man called Dr Roylott.
What a story! This is a tale that not only taught me a love of reading. It also taught me something about the art of writing; it encouraged me to look at the familiar in unfamiliar ways. As Sherlock Holmes once famously remarked, “You see, but you do not observe.”
Successful writers not only see what everyone else sees, they observe what few people observe. They observe subjects that haven’t been properly observed before, or they observe things that have already been observed, but do so from an entirely new perspective and with a fresh voice.
If you can learn to practice the art and the act of defamiliarization, then it won’t be long before you find your killer idea.
And with your great premise secured, you’ve already made the first step towards success as a great author.