Writing the Premise of a Story Before Writing the Story

Ever thought about writing the premise of a story before writing the actual story? No? Well, put on your open-mindedness hats, guys, because it’s about to get real. (Agents hate her! Learn the one writing secret to save yourself years of frustration!) No, but seriously…

It’s a pitch. Get it? The premise of a story is also known as the pitch, but I’m not calling it that because pitching makes writers nervous.

What is the Premise of a Story?

The premise of a story is what your story is about. Simple.

Oh, you want more? Okay…

I give this talk on self-editing for fiction writers (which you can play on-demand on Udemy or wait for the free webinar) and I always start the talk very, very, very zoomed out. I ask writers about their “Mission Statement,” which is another way of talking about the premise or the “what is your story about”.

Basically, it’s a combination of your character’s main transformational experience (do characters have to change?), the story that takes them to that experience, and a sense of your theme.

For example:

A girl who is accidentally infused with moon magic must fight for the ones she loves, in a society bent on seeing her and the witch who saved her life as the enemy.

That’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. You’ll notice it’s not the whole story, but we have a sense of the character, what the character has to do (or how the character has to change), what the character is up against, and any other key characters or story elements. In this case, the witch (Xan) gets a mention, as does the society that “sacrificed” Luna to the witch when she was a baby.

What is your story about? Who is at the center? What do they have to do, or how do they have to change? What is the main conflict? (Or, if not the main conflict, a big conflict?) What is your theme?

Now, imagine that you’re not just doing this for your book after the fact…

Starting With the Premise of a Story

Let’s say that you’re actually creating the premise before you create the book. This is a smarter, more efficient way of writing. Remember, the first thing I ask of my revision students is: What’s your premise?

You’re going to have to know it eventually. But most writers don’t even start putting their premise together until long after they’ve written their story. Maybe even long after they’ve revised it.

Most writers don’t think about their premise until it’s time to pitch.

Why is this an issue? Well, you don’t want to spend five years on a novel only to realize that you may not have enough story to attract agents, publishers, or readers. (Even if you publish independently, you still have to attract readers. You still need to be able to tell them what your story’s about so that they click that all-important “Buy” button!)

What if you don’t have enough story to truly turn out a compelling, saleable project? This is why I highly recommend writing a premise (or the bones of one) for the project you’re about to start working on first.

Is there enough meat? Does it sound exciting? Or is your premise loose and vague, like, “A coming of age story about a boy who has to learn the true meaning of friendship.” I’d contest that there’s not enough meat on that bone yet. The story needs some additional layers, some specificity, some action, so that it doesn’t sound so much like a lot of other stories I’ve read.

Try It Backwards

Before you sit down to work on your next project, as you work on your current project, or before you revise a draft manuscript, stop what you’re doing immediately—do not pass GO, do not collect $200—and write out a premise.

You’re only doing it for yourself. You’re not pitching. There’s no agent hovering over your shoulder, watching you. Write out what your story is about. Is there enough? Do you have a solid premise of a story? Are you focused? Or do you need to add more layers, action, tension, and/or meaning to your work?

Catching potential issues and course correcting at this highest, most zoomed out level could literally save you years of work, and keep you from following a misguided path all the way to a disappointing conclusion.

If you haven’t tried this yet, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

What do you think of this bass-ackwards approach?

If you’re struggling to pressure test your story and see if there’s enough substance, or if you want to catch pitfalls and opportunities at the outline level, hire me as your developmental editor. Let’s get at it together!

 

7 Replies to “Writing the Premise of a Story Before Writing the Story”

  1. I seriously think this is GREAT advice. I’ve written a couple of novels that, after the fact, I discovered had flabby premises. So with my current novel, I started with the hook/pitch, and made sure it sounded grabby and unique. We’ll see if it works once I start querying, but at the very least it has helped me stick to the bones of the story as I’m writing it. :o)

  2. I have started doing this after a lecture on synopsis writing. It’s SO much easier (and fun) to do before starting the draft.

  3. The question then is, how do you arrive at a Premise? Most writers see the Premise as a story question first. But, there is a Premise trigger that, when pulled, releases the story Premise. It does not come from the story but from reader. The ‘story premise’ comes from this insight into the reader by asking, “What is the state of mind and being I want my reader to experience at the end of this story? What is the emotion I (me the author) want to be certain of creating in the reader?” If you have the answer to these questions then that is the way your novel will end.
    Write that last emotional beat. Write the zinger beat – the last emotion and state of mind sentence. Then write the ending paragraph (yes, of course it will change). Now you have a real target to aim your story Premise at.
    Now write the exact opposite emotion (this is to tease your mind as ‘author’ – the reader may never see this. It’s just a compass for you. If you can still see the target emotion at the end then try a few short versions of catchy genre-true hooks that map are both opposite and coherent with your story and see if that inspires you to write the first sentence of the story. If you can write a working ending and a working beginning all you have to do now is make sure the story stays on target. Now you job is to create as many pitfalls as possible to stop your main character from reaching the end emotional state but knowing as ‘author’ that you will craft the strength of will in your main character sufficient that the character will somehow see it through to the end state you wrote before you wrote the beginning by figuring out the emotion, the state of mind and being, that you want the reader to experience. And that is your story and your Premise beats should map that journey.

  4. Great stuff here. I’ve struggled for ages trying to write longline/premise, with all the attendant advice and this worked for me. Thanks!

  5. Wish we could edit the text of these replies post posting!
    I have a small Macbook and I’m usually competing with a loud TV in another room. So the draft in my browser is very hard to read and then when I see it posted on the screen unedited I think, duh! The loud noise you just heard was me whacking my head on the desk in despair.

  6. Very helpful–the blog post and the comments.

    Erik Bork’s book, THE IDEA, is about this, with an emphasis on screenwriting, but inclusive of novel-izing at every step.

    I highly recommend it.

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