Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Hi, everyone, and welcome to my blog post series…
Plotting Your Story: How to Craft a Complex, Compelling Story Plot!
For more about this blog series as a whole, please read the Intro Post.
Today’s post is the first in the series:
Plotting Your Story, Step #1: Premise!
Every story starts with a premise, a basic concept of what that story is about.
A premise is more specific than an idea. An idea might be just a snippet, like “Oh, what if cats were silently judging every action humans take and reporting to a cosmic authority?” (it’s possible, right?). This is an interesting idea, but it’s not yet a premise. There’s no story yet. In order to make a story, there must be a main character, conflict, and some kind of forward movement. Without these things, an idea cannot become a story — no matter how amazing the idea actually is.
So what do you do when you have an idea that you desperately want to convert into a story?
You develop that idea into a premise. The premise gives you all the vital story parts, right up front, which is important for several things:
It keeps your story idea clear in your own mind.
It gives you a succinct way to explain or pitch your story to others (though you won’t pitch your whole premise, only the first part — no spoilers!)
It forms the basis for your planning, outlining, and writing of that story.
A solid premise sets you on the right track for building a strong, compelling story. If you have a sloppy, shoddy, or fell-down-and-knocked-out-some-teeth-and-now-has-lots-of-gaps sort of premise, your whole story will suffer.
Slow down, start with the premise, and get it right — the best it can be — before moving forward.
You’ll thank yourself later.
So, now that we’re clear on what a premise is, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty.
Again, a premise is for YOUR EYES ONLY. It maps out, in an extremely succinct form, the entire trajectory of your story. You wouldn’t want to use the premise as a blurb or as a teaser, because you’d be inevitably spoiling part of your story. But as a tool for YOU, the writer, it is paramount. It is vital. It is absolutely nece– okay, you get the point.
Can you write a story without a premise? Sure! Plenty of people do. But that’s not because the premise doesn’t exist, it’s because those writers are essentially taking the long road to figuring out what it is by actually writing out the story first.
I recommend against this. Why? Well, for one, my sanity. My brain gets about midpoint-deep into an unplanned, unplotted story before it spazzes out and runs off to join the circus, smashing into a bunch of things on its way out. And then I have a very unfinished story, a headache, and probably some holes in my wall, so let’s just not do that, okay?
But second, even if you’re not a planner by nature, a premise gives you a centering point, something to come back to if you get lost or stuck. Even if you don’t plot in detail or you skip some of the later steps in this blog series, a premise can still be a strong tool to help you organize and focus your story.
And if you’re REALLY not into planning, try this: write your story all free-spirited like you want to (go you!), THEN come back and do the steps I’m talking about in this series in your REVISION PHASE. By then, you’ll know enough about your story to be able to figure out what all the pieces are, and actually doing the work to write out a premise will help you steer your editing with renewed clarity.
Ready to learn more? Great, because here we go.
A strong premise has 7 main parts.
Don’t freak out yet! These are small, easy-to-work-with parts. Let me give you an example:
i.e., Harry Potter (character) is an orphaned boy living with an aunt and uncle who mistreat him (normal life) ; he discovers he is a wizard when he receives an invitation to Hogwarts (life-changing event); he studies & grows stronger (journey); but it turns out the evil wizard who killed his parents is still alive and after him (risk); in the end he defeats the dark wizard, having grown physically, mentally, and emotionally in the process (result) – he is now a true hero with a band of loyal friends, and is no longer lonely and isolated (resolution).
See how easy that is?
The premise walks you through all the elements of the story from beginning to end, laying out exactly how the tension will build, and how the story will resolve.
And as a bonus, it’s just specific enough to keep you focused while also still being loose enough to allow freedom and creativity as you do the rest of your planning and writing.
Pretty cool, huh?
Put all these pieces together, and you've got a solid premise.
(because I’m not actually your teacher and I can’t make you, but seriously, do it because it will help!)