Your Story’s Concept and Your Story’s Premise: Do You Know the Crucial Difference?

Story Concept and Story Premise: Do You Know the Crucial Difference?

What’s up with story concept and story premise? Are they interchangeable words for the same idea–or are they separate tools with their own important jobs to fulfill?

know you guys picked Door #2–’cause you’re wicked smart like that. But it’s a fact: “story concept” and “story premise” are often used interchangeably, which just goes to highlight the rampant confusion about them. So what’s the diff? And why does it matter? Storyfixer Larry Brooks said it as concisely as anybody in his free PDF Deadly Faux’s Inner Life:

A story about what it was like to be on the Titanic on the night of its sinking… that is NOT a premise. It is a concept only.

Let’s take a closer look at how to tell the difference.

What Is a Story Concept?

In the beginning, there weren’t any characters. There wasn’t any plot. There was just… the idea. That’s your story concept.

You may have heard the moviespeak term “high-concept premise” (note how it differentiates story concept from story premise).  A high concept is one that can be easily pitched because it’s both simple and unique. Consider these gems:

  • Romeo and Juliet as vampire and werewolf. (Underworld)
  • A soldier restarts time whenever he dies. (The Edge of Tomorrow–or Live Die Repeat or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days)

Underworld Live Die Repeat The Edge of Tomorrow Fault in Our Stars

Concept is just the bare bones of the story. But they’re super-important bones, since they’re the foundation of everything to follow. A weak concept may still eventually lead to a strong premise, but why start weak? Aim high! And by “high,” I mean high concept.  All of the above stories could conceiveably have started with concepts as blasé as these:

  • Two people fall in love.
  • A man fights aliens.
  • A teenager falls in love.

They’re not bad ideas. But they’re ideas we’ve all seen a gazillion times, so they’re not worthy of much more than a yawn–until the author digs down, finds something unique, and turns them into the concepts high enough, unique enough, and interesting enough to actually reach audiences.

What Is a Story Premise?

A story premise is the next step up from a story concept. If the story concept is the bones, then the story premise is the first of the flesh. The premise is where your awesome concept idea starts getting personal. You add characters with goals and fears and motives, and you add plot, via the obstacles that are going to arise between the characters and their desires.

A premise is about the specifics of people falling in love and fighting wars. The real story always happens between the lines of the concept. To return to Larry Brooks’s example, the Titanic is just a fascinating disaster until the author starts focusing on one or two specific people and the ways in which their lives will intertwine with the tragedy. Band of Brothers is just a docudrama of a historical war until it becomes the story of specific people with specific desires and goals. What’s The Hunger Games without Katniss sacrificing herself to save her sister? What’s Mistborn and its metal-based magic system without a scrappy orphan struggling to find a reason to fight for a family?

Band of Brothers Hunger Games Mistborn Final Empire

Consider Edge of Tomorrow. Its low concept “a man fights aliens” becomes the high concept “a soldier restarts time whenever he dies,” which then becomes a premise:

  • After gaining the alien power to restart time whenever he dies, a cowardly futuristic soldier must join forces with the only person who believes him, a skilled female warrior, and die over and over until they can locate and destroy the alien leader.

So what does this premise give us (other than a solid logline we can now use for pitching and promo)?

  • Protagonist? Check. (Soldier.)
  • Specifics about protagonist? Check. (Cowardly and futuristic.)
  • Set-up? Check. (Gains the alien power to restart time whenever he dies.)
  • Antagonist? Check. (Alien leader.)
  • Goal? Check. (Locate and destroy alien leader.)
  • Obstacles/conflict? Check. (Dies over and over again.)
  • Bonus: Supporting character(s)? Check. (Skilled female warrior.)

Edge of Tomorrow Live Die Repeat Tom Cruise Emily Blunt

In short, we’ve got a story. Literally. I just told you a 44-word story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. Now the fun is fleshing out that premise into a novel!

3 Reasons You Need to Know the Difference Between Story Concept and Story Premise

There are a couple reasons why all of this is important.

1. Terminology Matters

Knowing and using the correct terminology makes you look smart. Even better, a conscious understanding of the differences will help you identify and use your story’s concept and premise in their correct forms.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland2. Concept and Premise Work Better Together Once You Understand Them Apart

If we’re lumping concept and premise together, then we’re missing the opportunity to use their unique strengths separately. Concept builds into premise. When we start with a clear idea and transform it into as high a concept as possible, we can then use that concept to build a solid premise. And then we get to use that solid premise as a launch pad for the entire story. The premise sentence is the basis of your outline. In fact, if you so choose, the premise sentence, all by its lonesome, can be your outline.

3. A Concept Isn’t a Story; A Premise Is

This is possibly the most important reason. Too often, authors come up with a great concept and think they’ve got a story. They run off to write the entire novel–only to come up dry because, whoops, they didn’t have a story after all. You don’t have a story until you have a premise.

Whenever a fabulous concept flashes to life, take the time to flesh it out into a premise. The result will be a brilliant idea transformed into a solid foundation for an awesome story.

Tell me your opinion: What’s your story concept–and what’s your story premise?

Story Concept and Story Premise: Do You Know Crucial Difference?

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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. Very interesting and informative. I never viewed concept and premise in that way .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad it was helpful!

      • Now that you have me thinking about it, I was wondering if I got it right for the short story I’m beginning to write.
        Concept: An English soccer player, recently released from prison having served two years for rape goes is given a contract by his old team. During one game, an opponent viciously fouls the player, causing serious injury. The fouling player is banned from the sport.

        Premise: There is a lot of protest about the convict player’s early release and even more when his old team welcomes him back. The player who fouls him is a part time player who plays on a lower league team. That player is furious that this professional player is allowed to carry on as if nothing happened. He believes his intentional foul is a way of meeting justice and mistakenly believes he is going to be a national hero for inflicting injury on the convict player.
        Do I have concept and premise right here?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Essentially, yes, this is good stuff (good idea too, BTW). However, you are blurring the lines a little between the two, since your concept is fleshed out almost enough to be a premise and your premise still doesn’t *quite* have all the components it needs to give you a plot: namely, you need a goal from the lead character (which seems to be more the fouler?) and conflict that results from that goal being obstructed.

          • Blurring the lines between the two was my worry. The lead character is the fouler and his goal was to meet out some sort of justice on the player who he thinks “got off lightly” because he was a professional soccer player. The goal turns out to be a lie because after some accolades, he isn’t the hero he thought he’d be. The conflict turns out that justice goes against him when first he’s banned from playing soccer and then suffers more adverse effects.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            If I may, you might write the two something like this:

            Concept: A soccer player viciously fouls a professional player just returned from prison, in a misguided quest for justice.

            Premise: A bitter soccer player viciously fouls a professional just returned from prison after a rape conviction and must learn to change his views when his perception of the convicted player are proven wrong and he finds himself punished for his own actions.

            It could just be the way you’re phrasing it here, but I’m still not seeing a strong goal throughline for the entire story. Make sure you have a strong new goal to replace the old one once he’s already injured the other player.

          • To be honest, the short story will be a part of a series of short stories that make up my next novel. All of them will be like the fouler, people who have been or believe they have been let down by the justice system. In each case, the goal of justice has not been achieved. Each short story will end unhappily. The change is when the fouler joins the lead characters in the other short stories in forming a vigilante group that gets justice.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Ah, gotcha. So a vignette of sorts.

  2. Ah! this is a nice story tool.

    concept: a philosophers animated skeleton with leprosy searches for resurrection to lift the curse which cause these rotting bones to shamble.

    premise: ceca dabba Protagonist? Check. (Skeleton .)
    Specifics about protagonist? Check. ( philosopher, leprosy, cursed.)
    Set-up? Check. (animated by necromancer as a slave, but recalcitrant .)
    Antagonist? Check. (necromancer Piripi Peterra.)
    Goal? Check. (resurrection and revenge.)
    Obstacles/conflict? Check. (contrarian/leprosy/ can’t speak/ a walking horror/slave .)
    Bonus: Supporting character(s)? Check. (deaf musical prodigy, teaches sign language .)

  3. Fascinating post! I will definitely be using this new-found knowledge to strengthen my current story.

  4. Elizabeth Richards says:

    Concept: A mystery based on an Englishwoman recreating Isabella Bird’s memoir A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Which is probably a yawner for anyone who has never read the book (written in 1873 so not on most people’s reading list but should be!)

    Is a premise and your pitch basically the same?

    My Pitch: In 1893, an orphaned Englishwoman stranded in a Colorado gold camp has to clear her name, find a lost gold mine and earn her passage before she can return to Europe to find her guardian who has mysteriously disappeared.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In essence, yes, your premise is your pitch. But they differ slightly in that the premise sentence is meant to describe the story’s plot for the author’s benefit, and the pitch is meant to hook the curiosity and interest of someone else. So a pitch is usually a little more open-ended in phrasing.

      • Elizabeth Richards says:

        I’m suddenly seeing concept and premise everywhere. Like seeing red Subarus everywhere when you start car shopping.

        BTW, I was thinking yesterday that you are providing the type of craft training that I’ve been looking for. Perhaps I’m just in that teachable moment but I thought the same thing when I read Structuring Your Novel.

        You are a great teacher and very generous. Thank you.

  5. Good article, thanks for the clarification. I just noticed the Writer’s Digest Best Websites for Writers Badge. I think I missed the announcement so, Congratulations!

  6. This is the best explanation of concept vs premise I’ve seen. Seriously, I love Larry (and read his blog) but his explanation is a bit confusing.

    Quick question – would you consider a logline a premise?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A premise is *often* a logline (and vice versa), but not necessarily. A logline is a marketing technique, and therefore is primarily focused on creating a hook. However, if phrased just right, your premise can definitely be used as a logline, as in my example from Edge of Tomorrow in the post.

  7. Only having a concept and not a premise is exactly the mistake I made starting my first novel (which is my current WIP). Luckily, I caught it, but I didn’t have this specific terminology and framework to really understand what was happening–I was still thrashing around in a dark cave. I’ve beat it into shape, but it would’ve been so much easier and quicker had I known about concept vs. premise, earlier.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I know that for me personally knowing the right names for things (or even that there *are* names for things) goes ridiculously far in helping me understand and implement them, even when they were techniques I was using reasonably well on an instinctive level beforehand.

  8. thomas h cullen says:

    1) Concept: A Representative’s intent to help a disempowered Trokan.

    2) Premise: A presentation, laying out the full anatomy of a Representative’s plan to help the least empowered of three Trokans retain onto its resource.

    (This is and isn’t literature, and is and isn’t fiction: whatever the label, the absolute truth about The Representative is that it is for equally all humanity.)

  9. An immortal princess is captured by a vampire. I like to think that’s a pretty original concept, but it’s still not a premise, as the real story is about the people who save her.

    Premise: When an immortal princess is captured by a vampire, the idealist royal mage teams up with a snarky weapons expert. Together, they seek a powerful arsenal of relics so they can go kick his bod all up and return the princess home.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. That made me smile. And isn’t “snarky” just about the most evocative one-word character descriptor ever?

  10. It seems as if I have a lot to learn! Thank you for the post.

  11. You had me at Larry Brooks. His *Story Engineering* and *Story Physics* books are on the list of books we work with in my Writer’s Group. (You may be interested to know that your two about Outlining and Structure are as well. These books and a few others were picked out of DOZENS reviewed to form our own Novel Writing 101 system.)

    Anyway, I love the way your blogs distill writing concepts such as this one into something that not only allows you to get your arms (and brain) around them, but also encourages writers to dig a little deeper. Thanks for this one. It’s getting shared for certain!

  12. Loved the examples used and that step by step checklist, possibly the clearest I’ve seen this explained.

  13. Like usual, this post hits the issue strangling my writing. Gearing up for NaNoWriMo, I have an interesting concept: a YA novel about how teenagers react to social economic changes in their high school when their teachers go on strike. As a finance major, the idea of writing about money and the economy, especially viewed through teens eyes, fascinates me. But I’m having trouble starting the story and really getting a feel for my characters and the specifics that happen to them. Now I know it’s because I don’t have a premise! I need to flesh this out and get specific, so I know exactly who, what, when, where, why, and how is happening to my characters to help me move the story forward. Thanks so much for the sound advice!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cool beans! Sounds like a good concept. Have fun coming up with the premise!

    • thomas h cullen says:

      It possesses no literal relevance, to the situation at hand in The Representative – contextually however, the use of the word “strike” in it is of pivotal significance.

  14. I was reading this and thinking I’m pretty good at fleshing my concepts out into premises when I realized I didn’t know the goal for the main book I want to write.
    I’m writing something between fiction and a memoir, so I knew the events that would happen and how I want to approach them, and didn’t realize I was missing this key point.
    Luckily I just came across your post on finding your character’s breaking point, and read this:

    “Ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen to my protagonist? Death is always the obvious answer. But how can you make it more personal? What is the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist in his pursuit of his plot goal?”

    I realized then what my goal was. It’s just been so long since it’s passed and I’ve moved on that I kind of forgot I ever thought that. Unfortunately, I know I failed my goal, and really the main part of the story is trying to cope with and accept that and going off the deep end a bit, so I can’t really change that fact and it would be a disservice to the actual events and people to do so, but now I’m left trying to figure out a suitable way to wrap it up, since in reality, life has just gone on and it’s too early to say if I or my main character quite get our happy ending.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like perhaps the post-goal goal (so to speak) would be trying to come to grips with the failure?

  15. Love this! I just used your little checklist to strengthen my idea. Thanks!

  16. I struggle with this every time I am asked to do it. I am not sure if it’s because I am so far off with my ideas or if its because of my writing style. I don’t use character arc and struggle with a defined plot.
    I do use the ‘what if’ question. But that question never covers everything that is going to happen in the story and I am never sure how much of the concept/premise I am suppose to cram into 1 sentence.
    Do I included every obstacle they will encounter or just the big ones. This is why I can never tell people what my stories are about…..
    The check listed helped but still I come up with a jumbled sentence that makes little sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just the big ones. The concept will be the core kernel of your story, the answer to the “What is it about?” question. E.g., it’s about space pirates, it’s about an archaeologist searching for the Ark of the Covenant, it’s about a man-child learning to be responsible in his relationships. The premise then fleshes that out into specific pirates, archaeologists, and men-children – and their specific conflicts.

  17. Allyn Lesley says:

    As always, you offer valuable information in a digestible format. Thank you.

  18. Hello! Another great article. Very helpful and informative. Pinning and tweeting it! 😀

  19. Good article, I loved your examples (great movie, “The edge of tomorrow”).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post – and the movie!

      • I’ve been a good oral story teller, but this is my first attempt at a long form written story, which draws heavily from personal experiences.

        CONCEPT:
        I was a 19 year old virgin when I met my true love. She was my 13 year old cousin.

        PREMISE:
        I was painfully shy and awkward around girls, so at age 19 I was still a virgin without any long term relationships. When my cousin and her family moved back after years out-of-state, at first my reaction was physical, but as I was not trying to hit on her I was able to open up and we fell in love. How long could we keep the relationship a secret from our families? How could she handle being a 13 year old hanging out with 18 to 21 year olds, and engaging in adult activities?

  20. I’ve read many blog about writing and have found few with such a debt of information. Thanks for sharing this.

  21. Wow K.M. this post was heaven sent. I honestly believe I came across it at the perfect time, even though it’s been months since you wrote it. Your explanations were perfect, as usual (I’ve come across your articles in the write practice.) Thank you! Here’s what I’m working on.

    Concept: A cursed shapeshifter sets to destroy the source of his power.

    Premise: To locate and destroy the source of his power, a cursed shapeshifter from a magic realm must team up with the girl that jinxed him before the armies of Wangdu, the evil force in their realm, can find him and use him to control their world.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice job! I especially like how your premise is able to offer the hint of some really interesting and complicated relationships.

  22. I have to say, this post on concept vs premise just answered SO many questions for me! Cannot wait to give a plug to your AWESOME site on my own soon-to-be-launced author/writer website. Also, thanks to your lesson here, I think I’m now feeling that much more confident about how to frame my concept/premise (as I’ve shared below). THANK YOU!

    Concept:
    Technology reconnects a young man with his sibling after the estranged brother’s sudden death.

    Premise:
    After learning of the sudden death of his estranged brother, an introverted, goal-oriented 18-year-old has only his sibling’s cell phone to keep alive the dream of reviving their relationship. The secrets it reveals lead him on a cross-country trek to rediscover a now-grown sibling through the eyes of coworkers and a whole other family the protagonist never knew his older brother had.

  23. Greetings, I want to thank you first for sharing and spending so much of your time teaching others like myself.
    I just didn’t think I could do a synopsis until I found your site.
    Did I get this right?

    Protagonist: Suzan
    Specific: Daring FBI agent who doesn’t know her origin as half-alien is assigned to detain a serial a mutant serial killer.
    Set-up : (this is the core of the novel isn’t it? ) Not sure here

    Antagonist: One of the Directors of the FBI Space Program, Conrad
    Goal: Suzan wants to become the Directorate of the FBI Terrorist Unit (but as a secondary goal she wants to capture the assassin that is causing havoc at NASA Observatory, but that is just part of her job until someone kills her colleague and then it becomes personal, but I don’t know if this should show up as a goal in the synopsis).
    Obstacle: the antagonist Conrad
    Supporting Character: Donald Thompson another FBI director

    The broad concept is that mankind is developing a gene that will transform all human beings into monsters.

    The ‘set up’ still eludes me a bit.

    Thank you for your input.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “specifics” should be those that particularly pertain to your protagonist. In this instance, it sounds like they would be that she’s half-alien.

      Your set-up is basically what you’ve outlined in your specifics section: She’s assigned to detail a mutant serial killer.

  24. Karen Yetman says:

    After working on a short logline, this passage seems too wordy. Would this be a good premise/pitch?

    Disguised, and on the run after her mother’s suicide, an introverted, pubescent girl struggles to find a reason to live in her dystopian world. One day, when she finds evidence that her conspiracist guardian may be keeping secrets, she decides to follow her own path. The 15-year-old journeys to a futuristic research facility owned by the World Power with rich amenities, unlike the squalor she had been living and discovers that science seems to have all the answers. She will learn about love, friendship, and trust, while she tries to shed her fears and old beliefs to discover the truth about her past and reveal the secrets inside the dome before more people die.

  25. I’m having a really hard time with concept. This is a rough one for a book I’m working on now:

    “A senior in high school who has spent her entire life building a framework for her future learns the hard way that something so small as a failing gym grade can completely unravel her plans.”

    I feel like that’s not good enough, so what can I do to make it better?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What you’ve written here is the setup. Now, where will the story go from here? What is the character’s goal moving forward? What antagonist/obstacle is getting in her way?

      • The character’s goal becomes to move back to Alaska for college, where she lived until she was twelve. This is difficult because she’s always structured her life meticulously, so changing her plans is a big deal (she was planning on going to a college two hours from where she lives in Indiana). It’s hard enough to convince herself that change can be a good thing, but once she does, she has to convince her parents to let her go to college four thousand miles away, and they’re even harder to convince. There’s also a romance with a guy in her gym class who is being her running buddy to help her get the gym grade back up, and that’s a huge part of the story. How would I incorporate all of that into the concept to make it an actual concept instead of a setup? Thank you so much for your help!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Strip out everything but the main conflict and stakes, as presented in the First Act. The rest isn’t crucial for the premise sentence.

          • So how’s this?

            “A senior in high school who has spent her entire life building a framework for her future learns the hard way that something so small as a failing gym grade can completely unravel her plans. As she works with her running buddy to bring her grade back up, she realizes she wants to go back to her childhood home, Alaska, for college, and she has to find a way to convince her family, and herself, that it’s the right choice for her future, even though it isn’t the future they planned for her.”

            I still feel like this sounds more like a premise than a concept! What do I do?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            You’re right, this *is* a premise sentence–and a good one. I apologize for misreading your previous comment. As for concept, just simplify it down to its lowest common denominator: A high school senior must rethink her future.

          • Thank you so much for your help! One last thing on this story (probably)–Larry Brooks talks about how the concept should be interesting and unique. So how do I infuse “A high school senior must rethink her future” with something “conceptual,” as Larry puts it?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Ah, that’s the whole trick of the game. 😉 You’ll have to come up with that on your own. I hoard my high-concept ideas! :p But, seriously, not *every* story *has* to have a high concept. Yours may be one of them.

          • Thanks so much for your help! You’re the best!

  26. Edward Miller says:

    Hi K.M! I have four of your books/workbooks on my kindle – love them! Long story short – I’m trying to settle in and get one of the many novels I’ve started finished. That’s the goal, anyway. Mostly YA.

    How’s this for a premise?

    After moving back to his mother’s hometown in central PA, a towering, but awkward high school basketball superstar, Benji Root, pursues his dreams of winning the unattainable girl and a state championship. But will he survive a hostile teammate who wants to end not only his playing career but his life?

  27. I definitely have been calling my concepts premises. Maybe outlining will be easier now that I know I need a true premise first. “A girl living among dragons and thinks she is one” isn’t much of a premise. Yet.

  28. Asisha Joseph says:

    My concept (which I’ve been working on for about four months, ever since I read this post) is this: a young soldier’s love for his dead sister helps him overcome his racial bias.
    Note:-Races doesn’t refer to whites and blacks, but rather to humans and elves.

    My premise is: A fanatically loyal soldier has to turn to the very people he hates most to save his kidnapped father. The discoveries he makes rock the very foundations of his life and pit him against everything he once held dear, including his king.

    Is there any way I can make this better? And is there a rule against making a premise—or a concept—too long?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two sentences is my max for premises, so you’re fine on that score. Your premise looks great. My only recommendation is to possibly look for a way to be more specific in a couple instances–e.g., who are the people he hates most? what are the discoveries he makes? what does he hold dear? You don’t want to get too long-winded, obviously, but if you can hammer home the specifics, you’ll get a clearer sense of your story–and end up with a more powerful elevator pitch.

  29. Rebecca R says:

    concept: a college student drops out of college on a whim.

    premise: After an anxiety attack, an overwhelmed female second-semester college senior drops-out and joins her type B, graduated male neighbor on a road trip to a festival, where she grapples to figure out what she wants out of life, how to deal with life’s uncertainty and how to deviate from her parents’ expectations.

    • protagonist? second-semester college senior.

    • specifics about protagonist? overwhelmed.

    • set up? anxiety attack incites her to drop out last semester.

    • antagonist? parents, society, peers.

    • obstacle/conflict? no idea what she wants to do

    • supporting character? type B graduated neighbor.

  30. Hannah Killian says:

    Concept – A kingdom is overrun by rebels, forcing the royal family to go into hiding. One of the daughters is left behind. She grows up as a maidservant.

    Premise: Nearly fifteen years after a rebellion which separated her from her parents, a disguised princess joins forces with a masked vigilante who has been helping the people from the rebels’ rule – and is also the son of a former rebel – in order to reclaim her home and reunite with her family.

    That premise just popped up outta nowhere just now.

Trackbacks

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