We were talking about the premise last week and how having a premise will help you stay on track with your outline, and help keep your story structure and character arcs in line. The bare bones purpose of the premise is to show your character, the stakes, and define the character’s goal, and imply the story’s resolution. You can use your premise later to pitch your book, write the cover copy, and create a media kit. Note that there is also an emotional / moral premise, aka theme, which is what you, the author, set out to prove. Think love conquers all, the end justifies the means, or ruthless ambition leads to destruction. We will discuss theme at a later date.
How do you come up with a great premise?
Remember that the premise is a statement, usually one or two sentences, which defines what your book is about.
The easiest way to create a premise is to break it down into parts.
Part 1: When
Part 2: Action
Part 3: But
Part 4: Point
The parts put together look like this:
When this particular thing happens, your character is moved to action, but the action is opposed by this other thing, creating problems which point to some conclusion.
Part 1: When. When equates to the event in your story which provokes your protagonist to act. It most likely is the inciting incident of your story. The When is your story problem that your character needs to solve. The When gives the reader a sense of what your character is up against.
Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season…
Part 2: ACTION. The Action clause defines the character’s goals, motivations, and relationships, and tells the reader who the character is.
Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives…
Part 3: But. The But section is all about the conflict. The But section shows the opposing force and all the peril that the character must overcome.
Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives…But fearing the loss of tourist revenue, the town’s mayor forbids the closure and endangers all…
Part 4: Point. The point clause is the chaos component, or those events in which all potentially could be lost. The reader can see how the potential loss will lead to (point to) the resolution of the story.
Jaws: When a great white shark attacks beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, Police Chief Marti Brody and an Ichthyologist want to close the beaches to save lives, but fearing the loss of tourist revenue, the town’s mayor forbids the closure and endangers all, so Brody, the Ichthyologist, and a grizzled ship’s captain must go to sea to capture the killer shark, where they engage in an epic battle of man vs. nature.
Once you have your draft of your premise, it is a good idea to test it out. Ask a few trusted readers to give you objective feedback. Note that the best objective readers are those familiar with the craft of storytelling. Your mom is probably not a good option unless she is a novelist. Ask your readers if they can see the whole story and can see a general idea of the story structure. Ask your readers if they can see a beginning, middle, and end. Take your readers’ critiques with gratitude and make adjustments if necessary.
You may need to repeat the process several times before you have the perfect premise, but now that you do, you know exactly who your characters are, your plot, and how to outline your novel. You have saved months and years of writing to discover these things.