What’s at stake? What’s the story question?
by Rachel Hauck
Every story needs a basic start: a premise. It’s the foundation for your idea. The premise defines what’s at stake? What the story is about?
“What will the protagonist overcome to achieve her goal?”
A great premise is the “hook” that grabs the attention of an editor, agent or reader.
Creating a Story Premise?
A story premise defines what the story is about. It doesn’t have to be fancy or artful, but a solid one or two line definition.
Without a solid premise, your novel will falter. Why? Because after the opening scenes, you’ll flounder on where to go next. You’ll begin to widen the idea of your story, add on obstacles or disasters that have nothing to do with the original character journey. You’ll shift your weak premise to an even weaker one.
Road trips are fun, right? There are days we like to get in the car and just drive. But it’s rare we go farther than a few hours down the road before we start asking, “Where are we going? What are we doing? Should we turn back or go on?”
A road trip is always more fun and more relaxing if we know where were going and why. Even if it’s just a “because” road trip.
Writing a novel is the same way. A blast of an idea is great until you sit down to write it. Then what? Where to next?
Even if you blaze out 50 or 100 pages, without a solid premise, you’re looking at a massive rewrite.
The Great Gatsby is about a man watching the destruction of a frivolous, rich man in the ’20s, and how it destroys the people around him.
My Fair Lady is about a street vendor taken in by a rich, cultured man to be groomed to charm kings.
Die Hard is about a rouge New York City cop arriving in Los Angeles to woo his wife but ends up saving hostages from terrorists.
Romeo and Juliet is about young lovers triumphing over their warring families by choosing love even unto death in order to be together.
A good premise highlights the main character, the story problem and hints at the goal or resolution.
It shows what’s at stake, what the protagonist wants. It’s specific. It’s focused.
A premise isn’t about a thing or a place. It’s about a character and a problem.
Think of your story. What’s it about? What’s at stake. What’s the story question? Now, write it down.
When I wanted to write about a hundred year old wedding dress worn by four women over the hundred years span, I focused on the women and the dress.
Premise: The Wedding Dress is about a beautiful wedding gown that links the lives of four women over a hundred years. The dress never wears out, never has to be altered and is always in style. And fits the heart of every bride.
As I wrote the story, I kept in mind the importance of the dress to each character and how the gown played a roll in each woman’s life. Every obstacle and goal had to fit the premise of four women discovering and wearing the same gown.
Conflict and Tension
The premise can hint at the conflict and tension of the story. In the movie, The Proposal, Margaret needs to be an American citizen to keep her job. Drew, her assistant, is her only hope.
Premise: High powered, aggressive NY editor is going to be deported to Canada and lose her job unless she finds a way to stay in America. Her overworked assistant editor is her only hope. But he has dreams and aspirations of his own. As they strike a deal love takes over and changes their lives.
We see right away that Margaret and Drew each want something. We get they are at odds. We see the only way they can succeed is if they work together.
Pitfalls to Avoid
It’s easy to overload a story. Once a premise is defined, it’s tempting to add more conflict or more obstacles. Let’s look at The Proposal again. What if we thought the idea needed more conflict to sell. What if the writer really wanted the Hollywood studio to see all the possible conflict these two protagonists would face.
What if the premise went like this?
Premise: High powered, aggressive NY editor is going to be deported to Canada and lose her job unless she finds a way to stay in America. Her overworked assistant editor is her only hope. But he has dreams and aspirations of his own. As they strike a deal love takes over and changes their lives. But then Margaret’s number one author lets her down, and Drew’s ex girlfriend comes on the scene. Margaret and Drew aren’t sure they can pull off the fraud, so she leaves to try to woo her author while Drew resigns his job to chase his ex fiancés.
Okay, that last bit just took the story in a completely different direction. Now we have Margaret starting off on a new goal that will have it’s own obstacles. Drew also has a new story goal and the premise of helping his boss to stay in the country to get what he wants – a promotion and a manuscript he discovered published – has changed completely.
It will take too long to bring them back together and have a happily ever ending between the two of them.
Rules For Creating a Premise
Focus your premise on the main story goal.
Don’t overload your premise. Keep it tight.
Define your character, what’s a stake, goal and the resolution.
As You Write
Keep the premise in front of you. It’s the “spine” of your story. Every obstacle and goal must fit on the spine. If your story is about a waitress falling in love with the cop who shot her father, then every scene and chapter is about discovering each other, love, and the truth of her father. It can’t be about her desire to leave the job for a high powered job in Miami. It can’t be about his desire to join the FBI. It’s about love and truth. Make sense?
Develop a premise.
Keep it tight.
Rachel Hauck is a writing, learning, teaching author. She’s won an award or two, hit the best seller list but still feels like a novice. Her latest release, The Wedding Dress, debuted on the CBA best seller list. She lives, writes and worships in central Florida. Find her at www.rachelhauck.com and www.mybooktherapy.com.
I found your article very helpful. I’ve written several books before but they belong to the various company’s I was working for at the time; they’re also books that put most people to sleep as they’re technical books.
I became permanently disabled about four years ago and decided I would write my first novel. I must admit it has not been an easy road. I’ve spent several years researching to ensure accuracy for although my novel is science fiction; its premise is it could indeed happen. This was my reason for such long intense research. The more real and accurate the story the more intensely captivating it would be to my audience. I?ve spoken to my publisher several times and she agrees with me. She loves my idea and feels if I write it correctly it could in fact make for a great movie. I think my issue now is doing just that, trying to write the darn thing correctly. I?ve spent my whole life writing facts and ensuring that my information was indeed exact that now I?m stuck trying to make up the surrounding storyline for the premise, which is the fiction and is the part I seem to be stuck on.
I just thought I would share my issue with you because as I said I did like your article very much.
Dennis R. Martineau
Thank you for this timely post! I just finished a major edit/revision in which I cut 27,000 words off a 117,000 word MS. Looking back, the things I cut were the things that did not support – or were not necessary for – my premise. As I tackle my next WIP (already in process), your words are resounding in my head:
“Focus your premise on the main story goal.”
“Don’t overload your premise. Keep it tight.”
“Define your character, what’s a stake, goal and the resolution.”
“Keep the premise in front of you. It’s the “spine” of your story. Every obstacle and goal must fit on the spine.”
Excellent. Thank you!