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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  1. […] more info on Concept and Premise, check out these links that I’ve used: Helping Writers Become Authors or […]

  2. […] making sure you have a complete premise. (Not sure of the difference between a premise and concept? See this post.) Start by asking the following […]

  3. […] making sure you have a complete premise. (Not sure of the difference between a premise and concept? See this post.) Start by asking the following […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. […] what’s this concept and premise thing I’m talking about? KM Weiland wrote not one but two articles on what concept and premise […]

  6. […] from the war.  A premise begins to fill in the details.  You can read up on that in an excellent post by K.M. Weiland on the difference between a premise and a […]

  7. […] can run this against the  Helping Writers become Authors […]

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