Essentially, the premise of your novel is the answer to the question ‘What is it about?’.
In his provocative book Save the Cat, Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder compares the premise of a story to DNA, meaning that it’s the fundamental template of the work. While DNA is expressed as a letter-based code, a novel’s premise is expressed as a one-line statement called the logline.
Not everybody begins by developing a premise: some writers prefer an organic approach and wait until they’ve finished their first draft before they start considering it. Some are concerned that identifying a premise will restrict them.
Nothing has to be written in stone, though, and many writers update their premise at regular intervals during the drafting process. But a premise is a must-have for any novelist who wants to succeed.
Why is it important to develop your premise?
- Your premise keeps you focused on a clear objective, making the difficult job of writing that much easier.
- It also helps you when you start to edit, so you can make sure each scene is focused and important.
Like an anecdote without a punchline, the novel without a premise has a tendency to meander all over the place. Take it from me, this kind of manuscript is much harder to prepare for publication than one which has been on-point from the very beginning.
Does your premise have to be high concept?
In any online search for story advice you’ll come across pundits urging you to make sure your premise is high concept. While it’s probably true that a high concept premise makes for a broader readership, it’s no guarantee of quality or literary merit.
However, I’d argue that a tightly-constructed premise can help your work perform better in both of these domains. So no, your premise doesn’t have to be high concept – it just has to exist!
Now, on to the really good stuff:
How can you cook up a strong premise?
1. Find the big idea
Here, you’re working with what is often referred to as your novel’s central ‘What if?’ question. I’m biased, but I feel this area is a particular strength of speculative fiction. Writers in our genre often pose truly fascinating, mind-blowing questions like ‘What if a modern-day, middle-class black woman were repeatedly transported back to the era of slavery?’ (Kindred by Octavia Butler).
Find a big idea which truly excites and intrigues you, and not only will you delight your readers, you’ll have a motivational edge when the writing gets tough.
2. Describe your main characters
This part is best approached by describing your characters in simple terms. Sketch out their job or social role, and choose a couple of surprising, thought-provoking adjectives. Isaac Asimov does this brilliantly in his novella Bicentennial Man, which features Andrew Martin, a reflective, artistic character … who just happens to be a robot.
3. Create a conflict
Best summed up as ‘What does your hero want most and what’s stopping them from getting it?’, the central conflict of your story is what really drives the plot. As a general rule of thumb, the more primitive your hero’s desire, the more universal it is, and the more closely it conforms to high concept values.
It’s entirely legitimate to develop your central conflict throughout the story. For example, the robot Andrew Martin first wants to be legally emancipated, then to become human. The barriers to his second desire are far greater than those separating him from his first, but the story really slips into gear with his early desire to be free.
4. Down it in one!
In her workbook The Story Template, novelist and writing mentor Amy Deardon offers a useful formula for turning the ideas above into your preliminary logline. You take the following sentence and fill in the blanks:
‘An (adjective) character, in X situation, acts to do Y.’
So, the logline for Bicentennial Man could be:
‘Artistic, reflective robot Andrew Martin seeks to free himself from human ownership by applying for legal emancipation.’
Until you’ve expressed it as a logline, your premise isn’t really complete.
Summarise it to sell it
I’ve met many writers who feel that the process of working a premise into a logline is not for them. But I urge you to give it a try. Apart from making your book easier to write and edit, your logline is the tool you’ll use to market your finished product. Deciding to read a book is often an instinctual, ‘blink’ choice. Getting people to buy yours becomes much easier if you can offer a pithy, compelling answer when they ask ‘What is it about?’.