Know Your Novel’s Premise


Super_cat_400Many novel writers become confused by terms such as concept, theme or premise.  It’s all about storytelling, but which story parts match those terms? For this post, let’s demystify the word “premise.”

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips for creating your novel’s premise:

Premise Definition

It sounds complicated, but in essence your premise is a condensed version of your novel’s plot.  Think of well-known fairy tales, such as Cinderella or Red Riding Hood. The plot can be stated in general terms—a beautiful girl is held captive by jealous stepsisters in order to prevent a handsome prince from meeting her at the annual ball; a girl visiting her sick grandmother gets more than she bargained for when a hungry wolf impersonates Granny.  According to Larry Brooks, premise is “. . .the plot itself, driven by the character’s or hero’s decisions and action, described in one or two sentences.” Another way to frame premise is that it describes a lead character’s quest or mission in the story. Remember, it’s been said that only a few stories exist (some say twelve, others seven—let’s just agree there aren’t many). Every novel that comes out is some variation of those basic stories.

Size Matters

One way to know if your premise is workable is to put it through that one or two sentence test. If you can’t describe the main premise in brief, your story might be too complicated for its own good. Remember, a premise you might describe to an editor or agent is not the same as a synopsis. The synopsis goes into much more detail and should briefly describe the main scenes or action (also known as plot points) to show that same interested person how you intend for the premise to unfold in your novel. In my writing classes I’ve used a query letter formula from blogger and former agent Nathan Bransford to help student writers zero in on the premise of their work. You can see that formula HERE. If you drop into the formula the particulars of your story, you’ll be able to see how strong your premise is and make adjustments.

Vital Ingredients

Finally, a strong premise features a few vital ingredients.

  • Every story at its core needs a hero or heroine, with hints at how and why readers will find this person fascinating.
  • Your premise contains a snapshot or quick summary of the problem or opportunity which the hero/heroine must overcome in the face of opposition—also known as high stakes.
  • Conflict is quickly evident and ongoing. Dramatic tension that builds as the hero tries to resolve his problem is the key to keeping readers turning pages.
  • Keep the focus on what the character does to solve the problem and overcome obstacles. This means action in scenes.
  • Stick to the conventions of your novel’s genre—readers of romance expect a love story and murder mystery lovers want a murder to solve.
  • Make your premise as fresh and original as you can. This one’s a tall order, I know. But try taking familiar story lines (such as fairy tales or other novels) and turning some element on its head. Hey, that’s how we got Jane Eyre with zombies! By understanding what premise is and how to apply it to your work, you’ll have a better chance of engaging readers.


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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