How to write a story premise

A story premise helps you know what kind of story you’re writing. This may seem like an odd step—after all, if you’re writing the story shouldn’t you know what kind of story you’re writing?

The funny thing about stories, especially long-form stories, is that they tend to go off and do their own thing when we’re not looking.

One of my all-time favorite quotes by Winston Churchill speaks to this very crisis:

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

Characterizations of a writer include the effort and nature of your writing process. Writers fall on a spectrum between Exploratory and Intentional. Read this post to learn what qualities determine the kind of writer you are!

A story premise (logline, focus statement, premise statement) will help us focus our thoughts about the book in general. At the macro-level, before you truly get going with your story, you should write one sentence that conveys characters, setting, conflict. It’s going to sound generalized and broad, and that’s okay. As you get to know more about your story, you should revisit your premise statement several times and hone it.

Some key elements to include (or at least be aware of) as you write your story premise.

Plausibility. Even if you’re writing in the sci-fi or fantasy genres, you still need to write a story where you’ve set things up so that the reader believes they could really happen. Asking yourself “Could that really happen?” helps you to think of events and character motivations that support your idea.

Conflict.  This is a major element in storytelling. Without conflict, there is no story. Going deeper, you want your conflict to be a part of the actual story idea. Think about how conflict already exists in the world (be it physical, emotional, or spiritual world) and how that affects the characters.

Do we care? Is there enough passion in your quest to write the story so that your readers want to read it? You want to step beyond your own love of your characters in their world and make sure what you’re writing will move your readers. In other words, if you’re just writing it to write it, unlikely readers are going to be engaged or drawn in.

Hook. This is what snags agents, publishers, and readers. It’s that one itch that needs to be scratched (placed early in your opening chapters), and it’s compelling enough to make us want to know more, to read on, to turn the pages. Some of this boils down to originality, but mainly it boils down to how you pull it off.

Strengthen your story premise

Once you have your first premise statement written, do some brainstorming (what I call Discovery) on your story idea. Be as free with this as you can, but hook in those key elements above: plausibility, conflict, reader appeal.

  • what aspects of your story are strong with plausibility? What aspects need more work to be more believable?
  • can you make the conflict worse with any events or character motivations? How do those changes affect your plot?
  • highlight the areas where you want readers to be moved on an emotional level. Have you gone deep enough? Can you raise the stakes in these places?
  • are you staying true to your hook? Have you gone off track with it? Is it appealing to your ideal reader?

Now go back and REWRITE your premise statement. Don’t delete any other versions of your premise statement. Just keep a running list.

Take as much of an objective look as you can at whether your readers are going to be invested in this story. It’s hard to guess what someone else might like or not like, but as a writer it is your job to know your readers. It is not enough for you to like your story (unless you’re the only one reading it, of course).

What is your story about? What is your vision? What is the story’s purpose? Crafting a story premise can help you distill these broad, overarching questions down to a specific statement that gives you, in a nutshell, your story. Read this post by Kate Johnston | Author & Story Coach to learn how to craft a story premise and use it to tighten your story.
Photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash

Think about reader interest in terms of:

Action. Is there enough happening in your story? Granted, you may still be in Discovery and you might not have written scenes, but examine your events. Are they interesting? Can they be made more interesting? What about making a character suffer more? Are you able to add in a twist? Consider killing someone off. Can you add in a betrayal or a secret? Where does your story go from Act I to Act II to Act III – are we taken on a journey of intrigue, suspense, tension, love, mystery?

 

Do you have a story premise for your book? Do you find them easy or difficult to write?

Have a writerly day!

6 thoughts on “How to write a story premise”

  1. Interesting clue into a writer’s process. I’ve never thought about the premise that underpins any writer’s story. I know that I’ve said a blogger needs a thesis statement for their blog if they want it to resonate with readers. Sort of the same thing, but less involved, I suppose.

    • I think that a thesis statement is exactly the same thing. It’s all about finding the elements of your writing piece that will attract your ideal reader. It also helps us focus our thoughts so that we don’t go too far off on our original vision.

  2. They are difficult to write! Usually, I don’t know where the story is going, which may explain why they take me so gal-darn long to write. Even when I’m done, a log line is difficult!

    • So true, Jacqui. They’re difficult, but dare I say, queries and synopses are worse? To my mind, they are. Anything that requires me to boil three hundred pages down to a page or less is equivalent to a torture device.

  3. I think the plausability aspect is what makes Deborah Harkness’s books so good. Even though it’s about vampires and witches, the reader still feels like it could absolutely be a real thing that happens.

    Also, that cat in the photo could be MY cat. LOL. Love my orange tabby.

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