why good premises dont make good stories

Why Good Concepts Don’t Make Good Stories

If this isn’t a proverb, it should be: “A good concept doth not a good story make.”

Hang on there. Am I nuts? Haven’t I seen any of these high-concept gems gushing out of Hollywood these days? Didn’t I like Inception, The Avengers, and The Hunger Games?

Well, yeah. Of course I did.

But I didn’t love them for their concepts. Their concepts may have gotten me to turn on my Kindle or purchase a ticket and some popcorn. And I may have (and did) love their premises. But the concepts are not why I love the stories.

A great concept isn’t enough. A great setting isn’t enough. An awesome plot? Nope, not enough. At the end of the day, good stories must always be about the people.

I recently read Kristiana Kahakauwila’s short story collection This Is Paradise. A friend presented it to me for Christmas as a teaser for my recent trip to Hawaii. The book’s main selling point is that the stories are all set in and about Hawaii. That’s why my friend bought it for me. That’s why I read it. But that’s most definitely not why I ended up enjoying most of the stories.

Had Kahakauwila confined her stories to snippets of Hawaiian life, acted out by cardboard characters, her stories may have been intellectually interesting to anyone wanting to know about the islands. But they wouldn’t have been good fiction. In the end, her stories work, not because they’re about the generalities of place or concept, but because they’re about unique people with unique problems, dealing with their conflicts in unique ways.

Even books, such as James Michener’s and Edward Rutherford’s sprawling historical sagas, which are decidedly about the premise of specific times and places, must have people to carry the story. Otherwise, they’re just information.

Whenever you get an idea for an awesome concept, hang onto it for all you’re worth. But don’t stop there. This great concept is just the tippy-top of the iceberg. To make this baby float, you’ve got to discover a brilliant cast of unforgettable characters. Then you’ll have not just a good story—but an incredible one.

Tell me your opinion: How important are good concepts to good stories? How important are good characters?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Isn’t that like asking which is more important, air or water? Clearly, you can’t have a good story without both a good premise and good characters. If Katniss had just moped through HG, the story would have stunk. In fact, she pretty much did mope through Mocking Jay, and the story did stink.

    • Can’t argue that! It comes down to the old plot vs. character argument. But I see a lot of high-concept stories, in which the authors got carried away with their brilliant premises and forgot to fill in the other important blanks.

      • I see it this way — a great premise gets you in the door, but great characters keep you in the house. You most certainly need both! However, and this may be my own personal bias, but I tend to be more forgiving when a premise isn’t well executed, yet has amazing characters to carry the story, than I do with a well executed premise with the most boring characters on the planet.

  2. It’s weird how both you and Ron are right. Although I think Mockingjay has some saving graces, it definitely is the most flawed in the trilogy, partly because of Katniss being more centered than the war plot. However, there are a lot of writers that get too excited about the concept of a story and don’t bother with characters. Funny how a fair amount of “timelessly brilliant” authors have that problem.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I totally agree with what you’re saying about Katniss’s passivity in Mockingjay, but, at the same time, I feel that’s part of the book’s brilliance. It does a great job, not in presenting a traditional hero figure, but in taking a look at how a teenage girl would likely *really* respond to everything she’d been put through. It doesn’t make for the best fictional adventure perhaps, but it is great social commentary.

  3. This is actually something I am struggling with right now in my own story. I have an excellent premise (or so I think! :)), but am still working on making my characters well-rounded people instead of just cardboard cutouts.

    Thanks for this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One simple little trick that often helps me in rounding out characters is “casting” them. If I can find an actor or actress who embodies the character, I can often identify where my character isn’t as fully rounded as the real-life person.

  4. I really don’t think you can have one without the other. Especially when the premise is really good and the characters are flat or predictable. I see this in movies sometimes. It makes me want to re-write the characters script or pick better actors:)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The problem is that you *can* have one without the other, and it’s always a crying shame because it takes away from an otherwise great element that is missing an equally great partner.

  5. For me, good characters can carry a not-so-great premise. But even the world’s best premise can’t be carried without good characters.

    I’m all about the characters. If I love the character, I’ll follow him anywhere. But if I don’t like the characters the author has lost a reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree with that wholeheartedly – which in no way mitigates the value of a great premise, but it does put the emphasis where it belongs.

  6. Katie–
    Of those you mention, the only film I’ve seen is Inception. I don’t care how many untold hours the director and star are supposed to have spent knuckling their foreheads over this one to get it just right: it collapsed under the weight of its own pretense.
    But that’s not what you’re talking about, which is whether a great premise = a great work of fiction or a great film. For me, Inception proves it doesn’t. How about asking the following: setting aside commercial success, can a book or film succeed as a work of imagination without a good concept? (I take it as a given that solid, individualized characters are always necessary.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Arguably, I would say “yes,” an other well-realized and original story *can* succeed without an enormously fantastic premise. Many wonderful stories don’t boast particularly high-concept premises. But the premise will always be *good* in the sense that it will always set up the character’s journey and present the necessary background for the conflict.

  7. Kay Anderson says

    Great post! 🙂 I tend to focus more on the characters than the setting because they are who what carries the plot along. However, I do think setting is important too. We not only have to bring the characters to life, but also the world in which they live. Otherwise, it would be like our characters are walking and talking in blank white four-walled rooms or just completely nowhere.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Premise, of course, encompasses more than just setting, but setting is often the foundation for a good premise. Both are extremely important to a story. Characters may be the peanut butter and jelly, but premise and setting are the bread that the hold the sandwich together.

  8. Although I did agree with Ron that Mockingjay was flawed, I also said that I thought there were saving graces, and I think what you were saying is ironically one of them despite also being the mentioned flaw. The way I see it, Katniss’s arc makes the third book worth the read (as it did with the first two) it’s just the third one promised all sorts of big battles and world building but fell short, therefor lowering the enjoyment in some regards when you think of what could have been. I think the quality parts make it a satisfying enough conclusion though, and who knows, maybe the two part film adaptation will improve upon the book and add more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I felt letdown by Mockinjay right up until the end when I closed the book and was astounded to find myself feeling absolutely shattered. The trilogy is a brilliant commentary on the mental and emotional effects of war – and, in that respect, it would never have worked so well had Katniss been more heroic and take charge in the final installment.

      • Agreed! What makes it really work though, is that she really is a hero in a more personal way at the end because she gains independence, raises a family, and pays tribute to all who died despite the trauma. Although the epilogue was short, it captured that really well and that ‘s part of what I’m looking forward to most in the last film (even if it fails to have interesting new content). This just reminds me more of more how much characters work when plot fails. I’ll be looking forward to the next stage of your Character Arcs series!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I agree. I got a chance to see Catching Fire on the plane ride to Hawaii last week, and I was impressed again with how Katniss is not a hero. What she is is a survivor. Everything she does is motivated by that. She never sets out to save the people; it just happens that it’s a byproduct of her own determination for herself and her family to survive.

  9. Particularly good point you make Katie. Couldn’t agree more.
    It’s why harry Potter was so successful for example.

    It’s always about the people, ALWAYS!


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Harry Potter is a great example, because it takes that high-concept premise and makes it all about the characters. Thanks for commenting!

  10. Hear! Hear! Good stories are about relationships, troubled relationships. Why else do we live?

  11. So true. Without characters, stories fall flat.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Robert McKee has a great quote that ties in well with this conversation: “We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.”

  12. Recently I came across a novel in the bookstore, being promoted for having a similar style to hunger games and divergent. The premise seemed somewhat interesting, so I picked it up and started reading it.

    The characters were two dimensional, and the story focused more on describing events than the characters. The world building was interesting, the characters were not. I put it down after fifteen pages or so, having read far more than I would have, but I was waiting, hoping for it to be more interesting.

    I felt bad for the author, because it had the potential to be a good story, but had been published too soon, most likely to hopefully have it ride on the coat tails of hunger games and divergent. It made me realize that just like the “vampire” era, or the “magic” era, authors try to ride on the coat tales of a few favorites, and end up flooding the genre with many subpar copycats that eventually disgust the reader and make the genre unpopular.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much here, but that does seem to be what happens. In any case, I think your absolutely right. A story with interesting characters can be forgiven a lot but a story without cannot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m actually reading a story that has similar problems: aces on worldbuilding, not so hot on the character development. And it’s a shame, because it would be brilliant if it’s characters lived up to its premise.

    • Annie, what you are saying about rip-offs is too true. I haven’t read Divergent, but from what I’ve read/heard about it, it seems to be after Hunger Games success even if the premise is different enough. Either way, copy cat authors are the worst kinds of writer in my opinion. Once it’s about money and not soul, fiction is dreadful.

  13. well; I think the whole story is like a good salad. The ingredients must be delicious and in the right amount. If you put a lot of mayonnaise or much avocado dish does not know well. Sometimes the balance is not perfect, but it works, if it tastes good.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good metaphor! And absolutely true. Although we separate story “parts” in order to study them more closely, we can never separate them in the actual writing. They all have to integrate into a seamless whole for the story to work.

  14. I look at it this way: I come for the premise, stay for the characters, and the two interacting with each other generally make for good story. The characters could be awesome enough to create loads of story no matter where they are, but an exceedingly inventive or dramatic premise can really emphasize the traits that make the characters interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great way to put it. I saw a high-concept movie the other night that perfectly illustrated this. The premise was great, but the characters were as flat as cardboard. Needless to say, I didn’t finish it.

  15. I have a bit of a dilemma.

    I wrote my first draft of my story. I loved it (or perhaps I loved the work put into it) but it made no sense. Plot threads appeared and disappeared, new ideas and locations appeared out of nowhere (at one point the characters went to Antarctica), and there were tonnes of inconsistencies. It was not plotted beforehand, so it was kind of haphazard. It also had no one unifying premise. It was partially about time travel, but then there was also other stuff. None of it was particularly high concept.

    After I finished the book slightly more than a year ago, I knew it needed a major revamp, but I got editors’ block and it’s been lying on my computer since. So I thought, rather than edit, I would start all over again, with a better, more high concept plot and characters. But any new ideas don’t seem as *me*. I keep trying to think of new plots, but they lack something; I just want to go back to my first draft, but the thought of editing it scares me slightly.

    I’m trapped between a better, more high concept story that seems almost soulless, and a completely nonsensical yet more *me* first draft that I would hate to edit. What should I do? D:

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Always be you (unless you can be Batman – but that’s another discussion altogether 😉 ). Always, always go with what interests you and feels right, rather than trying to cram your creativity into a box.

  16. For the love of everything good and holy, why Inception??? Ya realize it fell flat, as our friend Barry correctly pointed out, precisely because the characters existed merely to serve the plot. There’s a reason it lost Best Original Screenplay to the marvelous The King’s Speech.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      But it did get nommed. 😉 (Although, honestly, I take the Oscars as a wobbly stamp of approval when it comes to good storytelling.) Is Inception the best movie ever made? Nah. But it’s a very high concept executed well. Granted, the characterization could have been handled better. I–and many others–still enjoyed it, but that is, as always, a subjective opinion.

  17. I agree with this. In the long run, a great cast will more than make up for a poor premise, but a great premise with poor characters is actually detrimental, imo.

    For example, I watch a lot of anime – Japanese animation. The most popular ones are always high concept ones with incredible settings and ideas that capture your imagination. One of them is Sword Art Online – about people trapped in a virtual reality MMO game.

    The concept was awesome, but the characters were so unlikable and inconsistent that it actually INFURIATED me at one point. I felt the concept was wasted and all the potential squandered. It didn’t help that it had such high production value and everyone seemed to like it, but it’s execution of its concept was also lackluster.

    Normally I don’t watch stuff with more conventional concepts, but if the characters are good I know I can go in it enjoying it regardless. But if the premise is great and the characters are not, it becomes disappointing, to say the least.

  18. hello i am trying to understand concept and premise…would it be correct to understand it like this….. premise = your idea +concept + plot ?
    i am often getting theme mixed up with the premise…i think…there seems to be many different thoughts. will this work for me??


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