What is a premise? – this is a question that frequently causes confusion among creative writing and script-writing students.
Often people think it is simply the idea behind the story, but it is a little bit more than that.
1. A man finds an empty boat full of money.
2. A star explodes above the earth.
In the first idea we have a character: the man, and the potential for a story.
In the second one we have an event, we have action and the potential for a story.
However, what we don’t have in either of these two ideas is a premise. A premise is the shortest way of conveying a story as a whole.
Neither of the above ideas convey a sense of what the actual story is going to be.
What they do is give you a germ of an idea, but since both ideas could be developed in numerous ways neither of them constitute a premise.
A premise is the story, simply stated, in one sentence.
There are those who say if you cannot state your story in one sentence you don’t have a story.
I don’t necessarily agree.
This can be true. A writer may have a viable story but if they haven’t taken the time to think about and write a premise they may be unable to communicate it.
Stating a story in one sentence sounds like a tough job. Well, it’s not that tough, but it does take thought.
Premise is where a lot of writers fall down, so it’s well worth taking the time to write out a clear premise.
HOW DO YOU WRITE YOUR PREMISE?
The easiest way is to break your story down into the following three components:
1. The initial event that begins the action of the story.
2. A an idea of the main character.
3. A glimpse of the outcome.
EXAMPLE OF PREMISE
Cast Away – William Broyles Jnr.
‘A FedEx executive must transform himself physically and emotionally to survive a crash landing on a deserted island.’
In this example we quickly understand that there is a crash – this initial event begins the action of the story.
We also understand that the main character is a FedEx executive, this gives us the idea that he is not a typical action hero and maybe doesn’t have great survival skill – therefore there is greater scope for character transformation.
The statement that he ‘must transform himself physically and emotionally’ to survive the crash gives us a glimpse of the outcome.
Carrie – by Stephen King
A girl must learn to cope with the shock of womanhood as well as the arrival of dangerous and supernatural powers.
The initial event is the onset of womanhood. In this case amplified by the arrival of supernatural power.
Here we get a sense that the main character is a girl who is not prepared for her own physical changes.
The glimpse of the outcome comes from the mention of supernatural power being dangerous.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT?
Writing a premise is the easiest way to nail your story. It is easier to do this at the start, but many writers do wait until the end.
If you do not have a clear grasp on what your story is actually about as you are writing it you may end up with a weak or confusing story.
I know this might annoy ‘pantsers,’ those writers who prefer to write by the seat of their pants, without having worked out the plot of their story and making it up as they go along.
I am not criticizing this method, if it works for you and results in a good story then that’s great, but not everybody can do this.
I am a planner. I have tried pantsing in the past but have found that my writing journey is more satisfying and the stories more successful if I plan my stories in advance.
Writing a premise is a big part of this planning, so do take the time – you’ll be glad you did.
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Writing exercises are a great way to trigger new ideas and build your writing skills. If you are beginning your writing journey then I recommend you kick-start your writing with these creative writing exercises.