How to identify The Most Important Part of Your Premise

How to Identify Your Story’s Premise–and Its Most Important Part

How to identify The Most Important Part of Your PremiseA high-concept premise can make or break your book—but not in the way you might think. It’s not enough just to come up with a cool idea for your book. You also have to make it work on every single page. Otherwise, no matter how cool it is, it quickly becomes the wrong premise. The key to solving this problem before it even gets started is learning how to identify your story’s premise—and more specifically the most important aspect of that premise—right out of the gates.

Take a look at your premise. Do you know what it is? Is it present right from the first page?

Good. That’s half the battle.

But what about the rest of the book? Is your premise driving your plot on every page? Does it matter on every page? Or did it introduce itself in a flash of look-at-me coolness, only to realize a few chapters in, it really had nothing to do, and now it stands around twiddling while the characters pursue their adventures elsewhere?

If so, the story is not only missing out on the better half of its possibilities, it also risks betraying readers’ trust. If they picked up the book because the premise sounded cool—only to discover the premise was never suitably developed—they’re likely to be disappointed.

What Happens When You Choose the Wrong Premise?

Your story’s premise is its central idea. This is the concept that created the unique situation upon which your conflict is founded. Consider the following:

  • A genius child is tricked into massacring an alien army, thinking he’s playing only a game. (Ender’s Game)

Asa Butterfield Ender Wiggin Ender's Game Orson Scott Card

  • A naval officer and a surgeon-cum-spy pursue friendship and adventure during the Napoleonic wars. (Master and Commander)

the three must-have story elements action humor and relationships

  • Two teenage cancer patients fall in love and seek the meaning of life by pursuing their favorite author. (The Fault in Our Stars)

Fault in Our Stars

For the sake of example, let’s say we just read a book with the following premise:

  • An outcast girl in post-apocalyptic Siberia discovers local wolves manifesting strange abilities—sometimes grotesque, sometimes miraculous.

Now, I just made that up off the top of my head, but I actually think it sounds pretty cool. If I read the blurb on Amazon, I’d take a second look. But if in reading that book, I discovered the mysterious mutant wolves only made random appearances throughout the plot and didn’t actually matter to the outcome of the climax, I’d be pretty disappointed.

The problem might not be that the book is a bad read. The problem is that the author chose the wrong premise.

Best case scenario is that the “accidental” premise that surfaced in the main conflict isn’t a bad read in its own right even though it has a scattered focus since it started out trying to be something it’s not.

Worst case scenario is that the “accidental” premise is watered-down and boring because it took so much attention away from what could have and should have been the best part of the book.

Not exactly what you’re hoping for in your story? Me neither.

How to Identify Your Story’s Premise—the Right One

Ask yourself the following two questions to make sure your story has a cohesive premise—and that it’s the right premise.

1. What Idea Inspired This Story?

Usually, although certainly not always, the idea that first sparked your imagination’s curiosity is going to be your primary premise. For example, all my stories have started with the same simple concepts that carried them through to completion:

  • A disgraced knight falls in love with a fellow captive during the Third Crusade. (Behold the Dawn)
  • A man learns he has the ability to cross into a parallel fantasy world known to most people only through dreams. (Dreamlander)
  • A woman who lives in the sky falls onto a barnstorming pilot’s biplane. (Storming)
  • A poor boy in Georgian England is endowed with superpowers. (Wayfarer)

K.M. Weiland Novels Behold the Dawn Dreamlander Behold the Dawn

Consider your own first spark of inspiration. Is that original idea still present in your existing story? Is it still prominent in your story? Is it still powering your story?

If so, cool beans.

If not, you might want to consider what is the controlling idea.

2. What Idea Is Powering the Conflict?

Doesn’t matter what cool idea you initially came up with. Your story’s true premise will always be at the heart of the main conflict—the plot. What does your character want? What’s getting in his way? How is he overcoming the conflict to eventually reach his story goal? What’s at stake if he does or doesn’t reach it?

Usually, you won’t be able to sum up these ideas in the same words as you would your initial idea (above), but even if they’re not exactly the same, the one must grow out of the other.

To return to our original example of the outcast girl and the mutant wolves, if her main conflict ended up being about learning how to be a nun in a convent, with only a few glimpses of the wolves out her window, then the original premise and the actual plot do not align—and the story doesn’t work.

What’s powering your main conflict? Is it your original premise idea?

If so, cool beans!

If not, how has your story evolved away from the original idea? Can you reincorporate it into the main conflict? Or do you need to scrap the original premise altogether so you can strengthen the emergent one?

A solid narrative begins and ends with a cohesive focus on your story’s premise. To find that focus, you first have to learn how to identify your story’s premise. Use these two questions to refine your understanding of your story and come up with a high-concept premise that wows readers all the way through to the end.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How did you figure out how to identify your story’s premise? What is it? 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. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    The mera clan book will have a collection of four short stories -Pearl Regina, Jewel Pearl, Pearlyn and Leilani in the book. This will be a novella.

    Have you ever published a novella and do you put it into chapters?

  2. Perhaps this is what my current WIP is missing. I just returned to the first draft (after setting it aside for a while) which I wrote without outlining (and then got Outlining Your Novel and had the easiest NaNo ever), and so it’s a bit all over the place … and now I’m trying to rewrite/revise it to fit some sort of a pattern. I think if I were to stick closer to the premise, it would really help.

    What would my premise be? Maybe “A mentally delayed girl travels to a boarding school in Scotland to receive special teaching away from her loving but misunderstanding family only to meet the school’s secret, a young lady who, though sometimes normal, occasionally bursts into almost demonic fits.”

    (I think Jane Eyre snuck in there …)

    I honestly love this idea and the novel and the characters and the setting. It’s the sequel to a book I published almost a year ago, and I wanted to publish it this summer, but as things are going … I don’t know if I’m going to be ready. There’s so much I’d like to change, and I know I can’t rush myself.

  3. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    Leilani does not destroy Ruben but Ruben’s powers get taken away in book 3. Ruben gets banished somewhere else. Do you use suddenly or scanned or gently or passionately in your writing? Do you have any letters in your books also-dreamlander one? Do any of your characters have powers?

    I used to not like writing when I was in high school and now I do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m sure I’ve used all those words at one point or another. There is a later in Dreamlander, and the main characters have powers of sorts.

  4. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    When Leilani has her visions her spirit self sees the vision when she is asleep. What do you think of this?

  5. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    Do you also write seventeen, three hundred, two hundred or a thousand years ago when you write the first sentence?

    For one of my stories examples_
    Chapter 1
    Once a upon a time seventeen years ago, Mother Pearlyn gave her elder daughter, mermaid princess named Leilani the gift of a hand-maiden. Her name was Cara. She was a pretty dark-haired and mocha skinned mermaid. Ad time went on Cara was trained to became a priestess since she had great abilities only needed to be toned.

    Do you think I need to change anything?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The most important aspect of your opening line needs to be hooking the reader by piquing their curiosity, usually with a seeming discrepancy.

  6. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    Why do some people or most write novellas in first person? Mine is not.

    example-Chapter 1
    A long time ago before Leilani was born, a mer-queen named Pearl Regina and her husband the mer-king Ponto Jaden had twin daughters Jewel and Marissa (Rissa). Their grandparents Marina and Jordan lived with their family in a beautiful palace in the turquoise waters. Jewel was given a priestess named Merlyn to watch keep Jewel out of trouble and mischief.

    Merlyn, raven-haired four years older than Jewel and Marissa was also a mermaid-priestess.

    Jewel, the mermaid princess and her sister had Marissa raven-haired and Marissa had freckles and Jewel did not.

    Today was Jewel and Marissa’s seventeenth birthday. They each received a beautiful pearl necklace as gifts.
    Later that day Jewel and Marissa wished to go swimming.

    Did I need to add more like the scene to the story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Writing in first-person is entirely a stylistic choice. It isn’t necessary. You can create almost as much closeness with the reader in a deep 3rd-person POV as in 1st-person.

  7. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    Thank you. Do you like to write in active or passive voice when you write? I am some passive voice in my writing. I think active is better.

  8. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    Thank you. Are there any active verbs? Since Leilani does not like to be told what to do show it or if she gets mad which as if stem came out of her ears.

    Yay or Nay?

  9. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    In the novella that I am writing the main character Jewel, Leilani’s grandmother gets married to Kai, a mer-prince from a neighboring clan who also lives on planet Avanaria.

    Have you read any fantasy books?

  10. One thing I notice is that the wolves example doesn’t contain a character motivation/goal and all the movie premise summaries do.

    I wonder if that’s one factor that helps authors stay on track with their premise?

    For example what if it were:
    “An outcast girl in post-apocalyptic Syberia struggles to prove her worth by investigating when local wolves begin manifesting strange abilities – sometimes grotesque, sometimes miraculous.”

    or

    “When local wolves in post-apocalyptic Syberia begin manifesting strange abilities—sometimes grotesque, sometimes miraculous – an outcast girl struggles to make a home among them.”

    or even

    “When local wolves in post-apocalyptic Syberia begin manifesting strange abilities—sometimes grotesque, sometimes miraculous – an outcast girl wants nothing to do with them but finds her fate is inextricably bound to theirs”?

    Would that be a good idea? Or is that beyond the proper scope of a premise?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely! Good eye for spotting that. The character’s goal *is* the plot. As long as that goal ties in with the premise, everything will hang together beautifully.

      • “The character’s goal *is* the plot.” or, in basic form, the premise. Am I on the right track in that line of thinking? I always have SO much trouble trying to figure out my premise from the spark of an idea. I think my stories suffer for it.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, you’re exactly right. The character’s external goal drives the external plot.

          • Thank you! The comment you made previously in the thread above helped the premise make more sense for me!! I think I forget to keep sight of the external goal and then my premise gets lost.

  11. I love your posts. Every single one speaks to me. Your site is the best resource I have found online.

    I am writing a historical fiction novel. As far as I can find no one has done this particular story from this character’s point of view. She is always a minor character because she dies young. Her husband and children are the ones who go down in history.

    I had a lot of trouble with the premise until reading your posts. You really helped me by going back to why her story interested me. The beginning of the premise is the little blurb everyone always writes about her and the rest is her internal conflict and the conflict with the antagonist.

    Thank you for your help.

    Wondering also if you are available for book blurbs? I am self publishing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:
      • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

        Are you referring to the back-cover story-descriptive blurb or those annoying promotional blurbs extolling the story’s quality?

        If it’s the back-cover copy, I agree that it’s a tough one to write. But it’s a job I want to do, because somebody else who may offer this service isn’t going to have the feel for the story the way the author does. I’ve met authors who had someone else write the back-cover blurb, and they were most disappointed. Some of them found that the blurb was completely in the wrong genre from the book.

        If it’s those promotional blurbs, I have no problem with two or three, posted on the back cover or somewhere in the leading pages (not the first one!) of the book. My peeve is when I have to wade through three or four or five pages with dozens of promotional blurbs before I unearth the title page. That’s when I dismiss the book and find something else. An excess of blurbs tells me, “Methinks ye protest too loudly.” I don’t need a convention of who-know-whos telling me this is the greatest story ever written. I’d rather read it and form my own opinion. I may agree with them, after reading the book, but their opinions are no better than my own. For my own book, I don’t need that extra baggage cluttering up my book, thank you very much!

        • Thank you K.M. and Sally. I will take both of your advice. I’m actually just self publishing on Kindle anyway. A blurb is not really needed. I was just curious.

          Keep up the good work, K.M.

          • Sally M. Chetwynd says:

            I wouldn’t agree with you that you don’t need a book-summary blurb – that’s probably the first thing viewers look for when checking out a book, whether in print or as an e-book. Otherwise, the reader is spending money blindly, without a clue as to what the story is about.

            Again, they aren’t always easy to write, but all the more reason to put something together and hone it until it is a good enticement to a reader. I look at back-cover copy from other books I’ve enjoyed that are in my genre as examples and guides to craft my own.

            (It needs to provide enough information to set the stage, so to speak, but it needs to be a teaser, too, not giving everything away, so that the reader is drawn in and wants more.)

            You can send that out, too, to your beta readers to get feedback. My readers let me know that the blurb for my current WIP was too long, so I trimmed, polished, and tightened it down to 200 words, which is an acceptable word-count.

  12. Rebekah D. says:

    It took me a while to finally identify my story’s premise, but I was able to pin down the main points of it into a sentence. Here it is.
    “Liesel Richter, a Jewish girl in the thick of WWII, finds herself all alone when her parents and brother are captured by the Gestapo, until an unlikely ally, Vivian Albrecht, finds her and hides her from the Nazis, who know more than they realize, and are determined to find them.”

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  1. […] How To Identify Your Story’s Premise (K.M. Weiland) – “It’s not enough just to come up with a cool idea for your book. You also have to make it work on every single page. Otherwise, no matter how cool it is, it quickly becomes the wrong premise. The key to solving this problem before it even gets started is learning how to identify your story’s premise—and more specifically the most important aspect of that premise—right out of the gates.” […]

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