Story Premise: What it is and how to develop it

In last week’s “To Plot a Story,” guest Deborah Lyn Stanley stated, “A one-sentence premise is essential to a strong story.”

Many writers may not understand what a premise is or how to arrive at that one-sentence, so let’s take a look at it today.

Premise. Little boy meets alien.In almost all of my books on the craft, discussion of premise is missing, or perhaps they use different terminology. So is it any wonder when I ask writers what is the premise of their book, they answer with a blank stare.

Simply put it is your story idea—not your story synopsis.

Donald Maass, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, states that premise is the “bedrock” of the plot. In other words, it becomes the foundational element of your plot.

But do all ideas have what it takes to make a great story?

No.

So it’s important to understand the elements of story in order to develop a strong premise.

The Elements of a Great Premise

Whether consciously or unconsciously, when a reader picks up a novel, the author is asking that reader to suspend disbelief—to be willing to believe the events of the story could really happen.

  • Your premise needs to be credible.

A story isn’t a story unless it has characters in conflict.

  • It needs conflict.

Boy meets girl is an idea, but lacks conflict. What if…

the girl is a small bookshop owner struggling to keep her store alive and boy is owner of giant bookstore chain just around the corner driving her out of business? Now you have conflict that is immediately apparent. (Do you recognize that story?)

Editors often ask writers what makes their story unique? They’re looking for originality of your idea or a new angle on an old idea.

  • It needs to be fresh.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us “there is nothing new under the sun,” so this may be the hardest part of development.

We all read books for different reasons, but one important element to fiction is for the reader to bond with your characters. To see themselves, in some way, in your story. That means connecting emotionally with your reader.

  • It needs emotional appeal.

Development of your premise is going to happen differently depending on whether you are a plotter or a pantser (write by the seat of your pants). Surely the pantser has at least a basic idea of her story when she sits down to write those beginning pages.

Even for the plotter, a fully developed, strong premise may not emerge until after the first draft. Both pantsers and plotters must be willing to toss out an idea that doesn’t have what it takes to create a strong story, even if that means starting over after 100 pages. (Don’t delete that work. Save it for later possibilities.)

Development involves asking yourself a lot of questions and the essential “what if…” as you work.

Step-by-Step Example

Basic idea: An alien ship comes to Earth.

Credible? Yes, and the popularity of stories like Star Wars and Star Trek are proof, but it lacks conflict.

An alien ship comes to Earth and leaves one of their species behind.

Credible? Yes. Conflict, though not immediately apparent, could be developed.

At this point let’s ask a what if in seek of a unique angle. What if the alien meets a little boy and a bond is formed?

I’d say that’s original. In our culture, fear of the unknown usually creates immediate hostility rather than fostering a bond.

But now we’ve lost the element of conflict. So another what if.

What if the little boy brings the alien home?

Now we have conflict again. To begin with, what parent is going to allow an alien in the home as readily as if adopting a pet?

I’m sure by now you recognize the beginning development of the premise of E.T.

For further reading, Jeff Lyons offers more detail and a premise development template in his article “How to Structure a Premise for Stronger Stories” in The Writer magazine (available to read online).

Donald Maass devotes an entire chapter on developing your premise in his book Writing the Breakout Novel. Maybe you can find it in the library. I highly recommend this book for more than this one chapter.

How do you develop your story premise? Leave your comments below.

Want to get published but don’t know where to start?

Maybe you have a finished manuscript or just an idea stuck in your head. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com, and let's discuss how I can help you reach your dream of publication.

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