6 Reasons a Premise Sentence Strengthens Your Story

6 Reasons a Premise Sentence Strengthens Your Story

6 Reasons a Premise Sentence Strengthens Your StoryAll stories begin with a premise (a battle in space, two people falling in love, a dog getting lost). But, often, the original conceptions are hazy and unformed. Sometimes, they’re not even a premise sentence, so much as the what-if question that will lead to a premise.

  • What if a little boy’s brain grew too quickly for his body to keep up? (Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card.)
  • What if an orphan boy was given a fortune by an unknown benefactor? (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.)

Enders Game Great Expectations

What-if questions are hugely powerful. But if you don’t refine them into full-blown premise sentences, you’re not taking full advantage of them. The late YA author Norma Fox Mazer explained in an article in the March 2010 issue of The Writer:

When I pick up a book in the library or the bookstore, I always want to know what it’s about. Yet when I’m asked the same question about a story on which I’m working, I stumble anxiously over my words. I don’t want to answer! I dislike taking the fascination of creating a world and characters and reducing it to a few phrases. All the same, answering this question is what I force myself to do for every book I write. Ideally, I know what the book is about (and can state it in a single sentence) before I start writing.

6 Reasons You Should Create a Premise Sentence for Your Book

Crafting a good premise sentence is valuable for a number of reasons:

1. A Premise Sentence Identifies Viable Ideas

dreamlanderCondensing and solidifying an idea into a premise sentence gives you an immediate assessment of whether this idea will stand up for the length of an entire story.

Let’s take the what-if question that inspired my fantasy Dreamlander:

What if what we dreamed about was actually happening?

It’s a good idea. But we don’t know it can carry the weight of a plot until we nail down the details in a premise sentence:

Renegade journalist Chris Redston discovers his dreams are really memories of a world he lives in while he sleeps and which he will, reluctantly, have to fight to save from destruction.

2. A Premise Sentence Solidifies Characters, Conflict, and Plot

A premise sentence forces you to identify a main character (as explicitly as possible: you’ll note my premise sentence indicates his name, his occupation, and a personality trait), a central conflict, and, as a result, a general plot.

Your what-if question gives you an idea, but your premise sentence gives you a story.

3. A Premise Sentence Distills the Book’s Essence

In the madcap frenzy of creation, particularly in the early days of inspiration, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the colorful possibilities. A story offers so many potential directions that it can be difficult to select the best one. Sometimes you’ll be chapters into the story before realizing you should have taken another path.

A premise sentence is like a mini outline, one that’s useful to even those who dislike outlining. Writing down your idea (and it is important to actually write it down) gives you a lodestone by which to direct the frigate of your story.

4. A Premise Sentence Guides You to the Next Question

Once the premise sentence has given you the central crux of your story, the next step usually becomes obvious. Once I knew my premise for Dreamlander, I knew some of the questions that still needed to be answered.

  • What was this dream world like?
  • Why was the protagonist the only one who discovered it?
  • Why was it in danger of destruction?

5. A Premise Sentence Gives You an Easy Answer to Questions About Your Story

Well-meaning friends, family, and fans ask, “So what’s your new story about?” and you hem and haw, flustered by the difficulties of explaining a 300-page novel in a few words. The easy solution is to offer them your premise sentence. It’s an answer that both satisfies their curiosity and allows you to appear confident and prepared.

6. A Premise Sentence Prepares You for Selling Your Work

Finally, creating a premise sentence early in your writing process prepares you for pitching your work to agents, who inevitably require a concise, gripping description of your story. If you start now, you can polish it to perfection by the time you’re ready to start shopping your book. Have fun!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the premise sentence for your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. K.M., another terrific post. These are wonderful reasons to ensure your premise is firm early on. I think an unforeseen advantage in distilling your premise down to a strong sentence is that it also helps us down the line with querying and pitching, too. Thanks for the excellent post!

    Marissa

  2. No one says you can’t change your premise sentence as you go if you need to, but even a flexible sentence is helpful in the beginning.

  3. excellent points! I would say “it makes writing your book easier” just because you actually *know* where you’re going. I’ve tried writing before w/o a clear premise, and it was so hard–where does the story end? what’s the most important conflict/climax? etc.

    good stuff~ :o)

  4. As an outliner, I’m lost if I don’t have a detailed road map. But something as easy as a premise sentence can be helpful even if outlining isn’t your thing.

  5. Great advice even for us non-outline people.

  6. That’s very interesting. I’ve never thought to do a topic sentence before but the reasons you give are very compelling. I think I’ll do that with my stories.

    CD

  7. @Lorna: We’re all the same at heart; we just do things in a different order sometimes!

    @Clarissa: It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s super useful. Definitely worth the time.

  8. I’ve been trying to figure one of those out for my WIP since it started last November. The problem is, it doesn’t exacly condense nicely into a sentence. Abigail needs to learn that she can do all things through Christ, and Joel needs to repent, but that’s not easy to summerize……sigh!

  9. Usually, stories can be summarized in one of several ways: in regards to plot and regards to theme. What you’ve described here is a good condensation of theme, but doesn’t tell anything of plot, which is really where premise is centered.

  10. This put some things into perspective for me.
    Thanks for the guidance.

    Giggles and Guns

  11. You’re very welcome. Thanks for reading!

  12. A lot of people wait until they’ve finished their book before they write that premise sentence. But it’s important to have one ready in case someone asks (finished or not). And, like you said, it helps to clarify your story while you are still writing it.

    Sometimes they are difficult to write, but it’s worth it.

  13. Nothing wrong with revising the premise as needed as your story evolves either.

  14. Great post, K.M. It was rather entertaining and good to know that I am not the only one who suffers from trying to condense a novel into a few words when asked by some of my friends, “So, what are you writing now?”

    Great ideas and I cannot wait to read your books as soon as they hit the shelves, especially the Dream World one, which sounds really fascinating.

    Write on!

  15. Funny how we can call ourselves story tellers – and yet struggle to explain our stories in a few words.

  16. Excellent post, as always! This made me chuckle a little, because I’ve always been a “what-if” person. As a little kid, I’d be told what to do and why it would be the right thing, and I inevitably asked “But what if?” Drove everyone crazy. Now I do the same thing, only to my characters. It drives them crazy too, though. 🙂

  17. Great post and wonderful advice!

    I’ve tried several times today to vote “Yes” on your poll, but the widget ignores me. I’ve posted a note in the Google Forum asking for a fix.

  18. @Nina: Driving characters crazy is almost always a good thing!

    @Deb: Yes, I see that the poll seems to be having an attitude problem right now. I’ll redo it, and see if that makes a difference. Thanks for letting me know!

  19. Your post inspired me to work on mine today. Thanks!

  20. Happy writing!

  21. KM, what a great post! This is something I’ve read in some writing books (even in a class I took), but I’ve never heard it so thoroughly explained. I am going to work on mine!! Thanks!

  22. Maybe part of the problem I’m having with the plot part is that the plot is divided into two parts which are connected, but describing the first part…back to the drawing board.

  23. @kathanink: So glad you found it helpful!

    @Galadriel: I dealt with a similar plot split in Dreamers, the book I mention in the post. Just focus on the *main* plot section in your premise sentence. You may even discover you don’t need both sections.

  24. Hey, this was pretty helpful! Thanks for the link!

  25. So glad it proved useful. Thanks for stopping by!

  26. Excellent article. I’ve used What-if premises in several of my short stories already and plan to do more in the future. Thanks for sharing this concept with us.

    Steve

  27. What-if questions are a blast. So many opportunities!

  28. Distilling the book’s essence is exactly why I resist doing this. It’s necessary for explaining the book and promoting it, but if it can be distilled then the reason for writing something so long about it feels undermined. I write longer works because they couldn’t thrive any shorter than they are. The trick is to make it feel complimentary to the work rather than reductive, or at least that’s what I’m trying to convince myself about.

  29. Everyone works differently. Some authors (such as myself) work best when they have a detailed outline; other work best if they have no idea what’s going to happen next. The importance of distilling a story isn’t so much about knowing where you’re going as it is nailing down the essence of the story so that you can keep everything in focus. However, it definitely isn’t something that *has* to be done. If even a premise sentence endangers your sense of spontaneity, then definitely skip it.

  30. Excellent thoughts on reasons to develop a premise sentence early on. It renews my motivation to regularly do that.

  31. This was a great post. On a related note: one day I was reading another blog and they were asking for film ideas in the form of a log line. I thought to myself, what’s a log line?

    A quick Google search and I found out what it was. Sitting down thinking of an idea and then trying to break it down to one sentence seemed daunting but it really helped center my thoughts.

    After reading your post, I feel it’s more important than ever that I create a premise sentence (or log line) before I start writing a story. It really helps.

  32. @Aurey: Hope it proves helpful!

    @Noelani: A log line and a premise sentence are essentially the same thing. It’s fun googling for examples of famous log lines!

  33. How long ’til we get to read Dreamlander? 🙂

  34. It scheduled for a December 1st release!

  35. Its a wonderful way to organize your thoughts, way in the beginning. Of course, the premise and central what-if question will keep polishing (and possibility is, changing) until the end. But it is really powerful tool to have from the start.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My premise sentences almost always get tweaked as I go. But identifying them in the beginning gives me a lodestar to follow.

  36. Great! Now time to figure out mine :/

  37. M.L. Bull says:

    Great post! I always write down my story ideas before I get into fully knowing my characters and settings for a new story that I have in mind to write. It’s truly helpful!

  38. Peter Martin says:

    It took me six months to condense my premise to ‘What if one of your descendants was your original ancestor?

    After two years ad a lot of plot twists, I have almost pinned down the ‘Blurb’ (or summary to 150 words, but still fine-tuning it.

    Your articles really help crystallise things. Great stuff!

  39. Jana Stout says:

    My what if I think would be:
    What if a person held the reincarnated soul of a vampire?

    My premise at the moment:
    Vampire hunter turned vampire tries to save the life of a dying young girl who may be the key to saving his soul.

    I have difficulties with naming my MC because his name changes throughout the book with three solid variations the readers will know him as, each one having to conclude a character arch that have an over arching character arch that encompasses his whole life. So I opted to just leave the name out for clarity? Or should I include his original name? Of the three it’s used throughout, but also the least.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Names aren’t important in premise sentences. Readers won’t care until they start reading the book. So you’re fine leaving it out.

  40. James Hargreaves says:

    K.M.,
    I’ve been trying to distill my WIP down into that one premise sentence you talked about and am having trouble.
    There is a lot going on in my story and I’m wondering if this trouble I’m having is a sign that I am trying to do too much in this one story.

    This is YA Epic Fantasy / Sci-Fi

    It will eventually be a trilogy, but this premise is just for book 1.

    The one-sentence (Run-On) version I’ve gotten down to is:

    “When his middle school science classroom is suddenly stuck on another planet light years from Earth, a reclusive and awkward teenager must learn to trust and rely on his fellow classmates if they have any hope to survive, for soon after arriving, the teenagers are captured by the locals and thrust into the middle of a brewing civil war and an epic quest for a lost treasure, a treasure which might hold the secrets to finally sending the students home, preferably before their summer vacation was over.”

    The LONG version (and the one I am more comfortable with) is:

    “With the nightmare of his 8th-grade year finally coming to a close, Nick Erolance, a reclusive and awkward teenager, suddenly finds himself and his middle school science class stuck on another planet, light-years from Earth, with no idea how they came to be there or how to get home.

    When they are captured by a hostile local tribe of m’Brigo (a wolf-like alien race native to the planet), the teenagers are thrust into the middle of a brewing civil war and an epic quest for a lost treasure, a treasure that might hold the secrets to finally sending the humans home.

    But first, Nick and his fellow classmates (including Mitch, the school bully, and Hannah, Nick’s longtime crush) must learn to trust and rely on one another, for it is only as a team that they will manage to stop the war, survive the quest, and find a way home; preferably before their summer vacation was over.”

    Any advise you can spare would be appreciated!

    Thanks for this site and your books! I’m loving Dreamlander (about 50% of the way through it) and can’t wait for Dreambreaker!

    Peace,

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would suggest distilling the first one like this:

      “When his middle school science classroom is suddenly stuck on another planet, a reclusive and awkward teenager must rely on his fellow classmates to survive a brewing civil war and an epic quest for the lost treasure that might send them home.”

      • James Hargreaves says:

        That’s really helpful, thanks!

        Less is more and all that . . .

        While I have several antagonists in this story, the real antagonist of the trilogy is not revealed until the Climax of book 1 (although they are hinted at throughout.)
        With my original premise sentences, I was trying to mention the various conflicting characters (the hostile locals, the classroom bully, etc. ), but I guess you don’t have to mention so many specifics in the premise sentence.

        Also, I really like the way you distilled it, as it helps me realize that the planet itself (and the situation of being stuck there) is the main antagonist in book 1 (like Mars was for Mark Watney).

        Thanks again!

Trackbacks

  1. […] 6 Reasons a Premise Sentence Strengthens Your Story […]

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  3. […] If you’re confused about why you need a premise sentence, or even what makes a story premise different from a story concept, here are some excellent articles from K.M. Weiland’s site: Story Concept and Story Premise, and 6 Reasons A Premise Sentence Strengthens Your Story […]

  4. […] Not to mention the fact that it should help with can almost be your premise sentence. […]

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