A premise refers to the core structural elements of our story. In simpler terms: a summary of what our story is about.
In this article, we will discover how to craft and distil our story’s premise so that we have a strong sense of its purpose and direction, allowing us to relay this to our readers.
Constantly referring back to a good premise when we begin to pen our books is the key to creating the best story that we can, ensuring we stay true to the plot and our mission statement. It’s an important part of the writing process.
A focused and well-defined premise continues to deliver, opening many doors for us as writers once we have typed those magic words, THE END…
What Is A Premise?
The literary definition of a premise is the principle idea behind a work of fiction. It is the first impression statement that tells our potential audience – reader, blogger, agent, publisher, publicist, bookseller, librarian, influencer, or movie producer – what our story is trying to do.
Getting it right is crucial if we want our book to be noticed and shouted about, especially in today’s highly competitive publishing industry where we are up against the clock – quite literally – now that platforms such as TikTok are encouraging us to think of those precious first seconds of audience exposure.
As the saying goes, ‘you only get one chance to make a good first impression’.
Premise In Fiction
A solid premise should express the plot of your story in a one or two-sentence statement.
A story premise is often shorter than an elevator pitch (or logline), albeit quite similar. Its job is to succinctly highlight the major story elements, which is why it can be done effectively in just a single sentence.
Obviously being able to explain a story’s essence in as few words as possible is a skill that requires honing. Luckily for us, there is much to learn from those who have crafted their premise before us, so let us zoom in on the core structure elements in the stories we are already familiar with.
What Should A Premise Include?
When writing fiction, a solid premise should include a number of important elements pertaining to story structure.
To start with, we obviously need to divulge something majorly important about the main character so our readers have an immediate impression of them (and reaction to them – hopefully an empathetic one!).
Typically, this will highlight their desires or needs.
But we also need to let readers glean the protagonist’s objective. Then we need to tell our audience the primary obstacle or situation our characters are facing (the more extraordinary, the better) and finally, we need to impart the unique selling point of the story.
Sometimes you can express the foundational idea in just a short sentence, other times it takes a few more words.
All of which can sound a little overwhelming, so let’s read on to see how those who have trod the literary path before us have pulled their premises off:
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory By Roald Dahl
Charlie Bucket wins one of five golden tickets to tour a magical and mysterious chocolate factory run by eccentric candy maker, Willy Wonka. With the help of his diminutive co-workers, Wonka reveals the real reason for offering the lucky children the tour, after each of them shows their true colours.
Immediately we are invested in the plot. This example of a premise tells us so much in so few words, painting the picture of a Technicolour roller coaster of a story – whether we are going to read the book or watch the film version.
Yet those of us who are familiar with the story will also know its plot contains large bursts of action. If our own story is equally busy, it’s important that we pare down the bare essentials of its plot in a similar fashion so we can effectively communicate the premise.
This may take a number of attempts but practice makes perfect.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine By Gail Honeyman
Socially outcast Eleanor Oliphant is beguiled with a singer, and believes she is fated to be with them.
In this concise example of a story premise, once again, we are told so much and the unique selling point of the plot really shines through, making us want to dive into the book immediately.
Similarly, we can play about with our own premise to see if our story’s hook works best in a one or two-sentence statement.
Bridgerton, Season Two (Based On The Books By Julia Quinn)
Now let’s look at Netflix and the popular second series of Bridgerton.
The Duke (Anthony Bridgerton) finally comes of age and maturity, eager to find himself a suitable wife. During his courtship with Edwina, he finds himself at constant loggerheads with her older sister, Kate, whose interference threatens to make him lose his head and his heart.
Inevitably, if we are writing a romance featuring a love triangle, we will need to mention both love interests in our premise. The sequence of events which takes Anthony from Edwina’s arms to Kate’s is complex but we don’t need to flesh the premise out with those details, lest we turn it into a plot…
The Body By Bill Bryson
An exploration of the body, its functions, and its remarkable ability to heal itself.
Non-fiction books require a strong premise too. Diverging from his customary travel fiction, Bill Bryson’s The Body literally ‘does what it says on the tin’. This is the kind of precision you are aiming for; a snappy, punchy premise that relays everything. Of course this depends on the complexity of your story, and the genre you write in, but when it can be achieved, it should be.
The One By John Marrs
What if science could eradicate the need for dating by setting people up with their perfect DNA match?
Last but definitely not least, let’s look at the premise for John Marrs’ sci-fi psychological thriller, The One. Sometimes a premise can be a simple (and tantalising) question. Sometimes a premise doesn’t require you to mention the main character, particularly when if you write in certain futuristic genres, or if your book is bursting with personalities who all share an equal spot in the limelight.
The One’s premise is as intriguing as it gets, appealing to an impressively wide audience, and it very cleverly achieves that just by asking ‘what if’?
‘What if’ is a popular storytelling exercise technique to get the creative juices flowing and we can put it to good use when crafting our premise too. It’s definitely worth us posing the ‘what if’ question in relation to our premise when we first get that seed of an idea about our story. Writing is also about breaking the rules (once we have learnt them) so why not see if we can craft our book’s premise in the form of a question?
It’s a powerful way for our story to be remembered, and in Marrs’ case, it led to a highly successful adaptation of his book via Netflix.
How To Write A Perfect Premise
As with mastering any writing skill, penning a solid premise takes practice – and then some. In fact, as per the premise examples above, often the best way to polish your technique is to learn from those who have done so before you by deconstructing the premise of their stories and labelling those different parts of the equation, looking at how everything fits together.
Some basic rules will always apply, however:
All Premises Should Begin With A Theme
When we write about the things that interest us, we are already halfway there. Bringing your unique point of view to a story helps make your premise stand out from the crowd.
Writing To Market
On the other hand, there is much to be said about writing to market. It’s always good to consider the themes that are trending so you can figure out how you can take advantage of those popular tropes and weave them into your story’s premise.
Keep It Simple
You should also aim to explain your book’s premise in as few words as possible. Asking yourself questions about your story before you start to write your premise is also a really useful exercise. That way you can that you’ve included all of the main details in your one or two-sentence story statement.
Characters’ Motivations Should Be Plausible
Even if you have an unlikable protagonist, their flaws should elicit a degree of empathy from readers. Often you can only hint at this in a one or two-sentence premise but with practice, it can be pulled off.
Writing A Premise In One Sentence
Whether you are writing a query letter, or sending your agent a summary of your latest book, being able to write a premise line is key.
This sometimes means conveying the central idea in just one sentence – a little like an elevator pitch.
If you can sell a story idea to an agent in one breath, then that means they too can sell it to an editor, who can hook distributors and media, who in turn will convince readers to buy it.
Can Your Premise Sell Your Idea?
Explaining a clear premise in a condensed way is also a good test for a writer as to whether an idea is viable or not.
If you tell a friend what the book is about in one line and they want more…you already know you’re on to a possible bestselling novel. And if they don’t care…then why will anyone else?
So How Can You Tell A Whole Story In Just A Single Sentence Summary?
Let us look at the one-line summaries of some famous works of fiction and see if we can recognise them from just one sentence. These are all about children having a difficult time, yet each premise is completely different! (Answers at the end.)
- A Victorian orphan escapes the workhouse and joins a London street gang, learning how to steal from the rich; yet little does he know his long-lost family are one of those rich people.
- An Indian boy loses his family when their ship sinks, trapping him on a life raft with a medley of dangerous animals.
- A smart young girl, raised by uncaring parents, discovers she has magical powers which she uses to teach her tyrannical headmistress a lesson.
- An orphan, treated terribly by his aunt and uncle, discovers he’s a wizard and that a magical school awaits him; but he’s also the key to overcoming the wizarding world’s most evil lord.
- A group of school boys are marooned on a deserted island with no adults to look after them; left to their own devices they prove humanity always resorts to brutality and violence.
- A diary of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis during WW2, showing us all that even during the hardest of times love is all that matters.
- A Black American girl learns the importance of speaking up when her best friend is unlawfully killed by the police.
- A teenage girl and boy, from warring families, fall in love; but instead of bringing everyone together, their relationship leads to a huge feud and eventually their death.
(1. Oliver Twist, 2. Life of Pi, 3. Matilda, 4. Harry Potter, 5. Lord of the Flies, 6. Diary of Anne Frank, 7. The Hate U Give, 8. Romeo And Juliet.)
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Find The Premise Of A Story?
One of the best ways to build your premise is to start with the seed of an idea.
This might be a theme, plot, protagonist, setting or inciting incident. Once you have this you can begin to construct your story’s mission statement.
Getting feedback from fellow writers and/or avid readers is a great way to know if you are on track, or if tweaking is needed. If you can impart your book’s message in one or two sentences and leave your readers wanting to dive straight into the story, you are pretty much there.
But even at this point, you may like to experiment with a few different versions of your premise until you know you have drilled it down as succinctly as you possibly can.
Does Premise Mean Summary?
A premise can be described as a summary, but only insofar as it is a one or two sentence outline of the main narrative of the book.
It should be short, hooky, and to the point. It is longer than an elevator pitch (or logline) but it still needs to effectively inform your readers so they know what they can expect from your title and genre.
A successful premise will encourage a reader to guess at the plot almost immediately, lighting up their imagination before they have turned page one.
What Is The Difference Between Premise And Plot?
The premise deals exclusively with the concept of the book, whereas the plot tells us what happens in the book.
The plot is far more detailed as it covers all the main events that make up the story. Whereas the premise will typically feature the main character and their objective, the main hurdle to be overcome, and the story’s USP.
Knowing Your Story
No matter where you are in your writing journey, a well-written premise can be a game-changer career-wise, particularly in the traditional publishing world where time is money, and agents and digital publishers are typically inundated with submissions.
You can write an amazing story, and you can polish your manuscript until it gleams, but if you can’t capture the essence of your book in a short and powerful statement, the chances are your query will be missed. That’s how competitive the industry is.
Similarly, a great premise helps us immensely as indies too. If we are working with the question style premise mentioned in an earlier paragraph, we can weave this into our blurb, creating an enticing opening to our online sales pitch.
And you can better distil the essence of your story by using your premise when you talk about it in video or TikTok-style marketing, too, reeling viewers in within seconds – and hopefully keeping their attention long enough to buy your book.
Mastering a solid premise then, is time extremely well-spent. Whilst there are never any guarantees in the book world, it will only increase your story’s chance of being spotted… and snapped up. However that acquisition may happen.
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