The Problem with Premise

*I apologize in advance for all the mixed metaphors
I always get a thrill when I hear of a slew of new books with genius premises…and then a sigh of discouragement swiftly follows. You see, I have been burned by premise before.
I hear of a book that has a simply BLAZING, brilliant premise. I admire the author for simply coming up with that idea all by itself. I can’t wait to read it. I think about how awesome it must be, how clever they were, what fun there is to be had, what drama, what joy!
And then I read the book and the brilliant premise is wasted on a generic plot, lackluster characters, half-hearted themes, and everything feels forced, forced, forced. The best part of the book turned out to be the pitch.
Now this could happen to a book touted for other reasons, aside from the dashing premise or the cool concept. Someone could say “the plot is brilliant,” and other facets would disappoint you. Someone could say, “I love the characters,” but you don’t connect to them at all. One might insist the writing is “gorgeous” but you find it too purple. Someone could tell you, “this book was profound!” and you find it pretentious. People have different tastes, obviously, and different ways of measuring quality. Some things are objectively good or bad, but many, many others are subjectively so.
But here’s why it galls me when a book is pushed on premise alone, more so than any other potential selling point: it’s the tactic of the used car salesman. It’s a gorgeous sleek car that has every chance of having a crap engine–not just the engine I don’t like, or an imperfect one, but one that doesn’t even have all the working parts. The thing looks fantastic on the lot, and is full of bells and whistles, but no one bothered to make sure it could drive.
It’s a dish that is presented as a rare and intriguing combination of flavors, and could have been good…but it tastes terrible. So gorgeous on the plate, such an enticing list of ingredients, but all thrown together in a thoughtless rush as if the constituent elements were good enough all on their own without being put together properly.
It’s the “could have been” that bothers me so much. I fully understand that there is a lot of room for subjectivity here, but peruse some goodreads reviews for books with those juicy premises and you will see that one of the commonest critiques is that “it had so much potential” that it “sounded just like something I would love” and had “all the elements I adore in a story.”
It’s steak cooked well-done. The raw material–the premise–was as good as could be found. It was perfect. Everyone is jealous they didn’t think of it first! And now it’s bone-dry, tough, and chewy in all the wrong ways. Hard to get down.
Now if the raw material wasn’t all that impressive to begin with–a simple premise, nothing new, or a cheap, normal car–then if the author fails to work wonders, we are not so disappointed. On the other hand, if the author takes what looks like “nothing” or even “something we’ve all seen before” and works magic out of that? If they whip up something delectable out of the commonest of ingredients, or get that old, boring car’s engine to rev and purr?
We love that. We try to get everyone to read it, even though it’s hard because it doesn’t pitch as clean or easy as the one with the super-shiny premise.
I’m not going to give an example of works that disappointed me in such a fashion, because I’m not here to rag on stuff to no purpose. But I will say that it has happened enough–either by direct experience or word of mouth–that I would be hard-pressed to ever buy a book based on a cool premise ever again.
Of course that is why we use reviews, personal recommendations, and time itself as sifters…but this premise thing frustrates me quite apart from any time or money I myself may have invested in a book that didn’t live up to its potential. What I mean to say is that it frustrates me because I feel that I must instantly cut myself off from any hope or excitement that a premise-promoted book will fulfill the desire it strikes up in me, and I will usually assume at the outset that it will fail on its enticing promises. So why even bother? And, on the whole, isn’t that a very sad outlook? To assume that, the shinier the cover (so to speak) the duller the content? Judging the book by its cover in reverse, as it were?
I mean, it hardly seems fair. I’m bound to be missing out on things, right?
And yet, I think this is where people are coming from when they swear off all new works. (Not a thing I have done or intend to do, but not a wholly irrational thing either). Something new and clever-sounding piques their interest, but it turns out to be all talk, no walk. Let this happen a few more times and they may give up on the whole endeavor, which is a pity.
The reason this is not as much of a problem with less high concept works is because, as I mentioned above, they do not promise the same thrills. We approach common premise books with common expectations. We do not soar so high before we thud to the ground, as Anne of Green Gables would have it. And the reason it is not as much of a problem with older or classical works is because, even if we read them and don’t like them (which often happens) we can usually still see why they have the longevity that they do, and take something from them.
I do not have a solution to this conundrum of mine. It came to mind only because I recently came across several different books with such exciting premises that are coming out this year or the next, but immediately slapped my own wrist and told myself “No, don’t bother! Remember what happened last time? You’ll only be disappointed. It’ll be all garnish and no meat.”
I don’t want that to be true. And, I know, I know..nothing ventured, nothing gained. But let’s just say, these days, I flinch a little at the awesome premise because, far from throwing a mean punch, I’m worried it will just walk away without ever saying anything at all.




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