Day 4: Premise
Your premise is a brief encapsulation of your book. There are two key uses for a premise: it will help you to tell the story and it will help you explain the story to others. As you wade through the advice dispensed below, use those two factors as your ultimate litmus test for what ultimately will work for you.
There are a lot of prescriptions that cover what your premise should look like and do. We’ll review several of those.
An effective premise will inspire and ground you. It can reveal the possibilities of the book and motivate you to sit down and write. It encompasses the essence of your story. At the same time, it pulls you into this specific story. It communicates that you are telling this particular story and not another. Premise gives your novel its north star, helping you discover what lies along its orienting path, including story ideas, the nuances of character, the nature of conflict, and the organization of your plot.
The key role of the premise is that it will help you sell your story. That is true whether you are actively pitching it within the industry or just casually telling friends what you are writing. A well-crafted premise will elicit more reaction, more “Oh, I’d like to read that” responses. And, of course, you want to give your novel the best chances of being read.
Key Characteristics of Premises
- is written in third person, present tense, regardless of the voice and perspective of the book.
- is stated within one to three sentences.
- imparts the underlying idea.
According to Writer’s Digest, “A story premise can usually be stated in one sentence, and—because of the universal truths premises tend to express-a premise statement is often a familiar expression or cliche. ‘Honesty is the best policy,’ ‘be careful what you wish for,” ‘what goes around, comes around,’ even ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’ are all valid premise statements.” A strong premise drives your characters toward action.
Elements to include in your premise:
Agent and writer Paula Munier adds a couple of other elements to the list: emotional impact (via theme and promise to the reader) and the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) or what will differentiate your story in the marketplace.
In laying out the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson councils to tie the big picture to the personal. Which character has the most to lose in this story? What is that she wants to win?
Examples of Premises
“Eat Pray Love is a memoir about an unhappy divorced woman who sets out on a journey of self-discovery—and learns to feed her body in Italy (Eat), her soul in India (Pray), and her heart in Bali (Love). [plot and theme] Its perfect three-act structure—revealed right there in the title—gives this endearing story of self-actualization a solid foundation that resonates with readers. [USP]” (Plot Perfect, Paula Munier)
“Restless farm boy [situation] Luke Skywalker [protagonist] wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father [objective]. But when his aunt and uncle are murdered [disaster] after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop [conflict] the evil Empire [opponent] and its apocalyptic Death Star. (Star Wars: A New Hope directed by George Lucas.)” (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Writer’s Digest)
An artist [protagonist] with a mysterious past [situation] and a disregard for the status quo [objective] upends [conflict] a quiet town [opponent] outside Cleveland. (Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng.)
Kathy Wang’s People of Means, a comedy of manners that follows a family [protagonist/opponent] and the bequest of its complicated patriarch [conflict] in the class-conscious world of Silicon Valley [situation].
Improving Your Craft: Writing Better Premises
Study them. Read the one line descriptions available on the New York Bestseller’s list. Check out the descriptions on Amazon. These are typically longer than a premise, but see if you can pick out the key elements.
Write up the premise for your story. Crystalizing your entire story into a couple of dozen words is hard work! But trust me, it only gets harder the further into the writing that you get.
Ingermanson, Randy. The Snowflake Method.
Munier, Paula. Plot Perfect.
Weiland, K.M. Outlining Your Novel Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises for Planning Your Best Book.
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