The Main Reason Your Story’s Premise Is Important

Your story’s premise is the foundation of your work. This is true for the shaping of the story itself, and it is also true from a marketing perspective. For both writers and readers, the premise is the reason we become interested in a story.

Even when you don’t know your premise until late in the discovery process (whether that’s outlining or drafting), the premise is still the heart of it all, beating in the background, waiting for you to follow the sound and discover what it’s all about.

Writers often put a lot of pressure on themselves to identify and polish their premises. This is both because stripping a story down to the bare bones of a one- or two-sentence premise is valuable for crafting a cohesive and resonant structure—and also because the premise sentence is often considered one of the key ways of advertising a story and getting people to buy it and read it.

As a result it can be rather easy to put too much emphasis on the premise itself. After all, it’s just one (or two) sentences. A brilliant premise is no guarantee of a good story. As Matt Bird points out in The Secrets of Story:

Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.

As a matter of fact, I’ve personally found myself increasingly jaded about “good” premises—and by this I particularly mean flashy and high-concept premises. When browsing for new reading or viewing material, I often find myself thinking, Yeah, yeah, that sounds awesome, but is there any substance? (Spoiler: as often as not, the answer is “no.”)

And yet it remains that the premise is a crucial tool in any storyteller’s kit—as long as you understand its purpose and don’t overemphasize its importance in the larger experience you’re trying to craft for readers.

What Is Premise?

A story’s premise is simply a brief description of what the story is about. There are different formulae for crafting a premise sentence and different criteria for what should be mentioned (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, plot goal, setting, etc.). I’ve talked elsewhere about how to advance your initial concept idea to a full-blown premise, as well as how to create a one- or two-sentence premise that includes all the necessary information (for both yourself and for potential readers).

Wayfarer 165 Weiland

Wayfarer (Amazon affiliate link)

Just an example for the post, here is a premise sentence I wrote for my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer:

In Georgian London, a superpowered blacksmith’s apprentice must rescue his master from debtor’s prison before his former mentor, a vengeful politician with a dark secret, can enact his plan to destroy the city’s poor.

Now, aside from the nitty-gritty of what a premise might look like, today I want to answer the question of “what is premise?” by zooming back a bit and looking at why premise is important and how it can function to offer both you and your readers important information about your story.

1. Your Story’s Premise Is a Plot Tool

The premise is first and foremost a tool that can be used either in brainstorming or revising your story. By distilling a story into just one or two sentences, you are forced to identify the bits that actually matter. Any writer who attempts this brain-twister of an exercise will quickly realize most of the story doesn’t strictly matter. Most of the characters won’t be mentioned in the premise; most of the cool flashy bits won’t be mentioned; most of the writer’s favorite scenes won’t even be hinted at.

This doesn’t automatically mean that these bits aren’t important to the story, but it does offer a sobering opportunity to examine what the story is really about underneath all its fuss and bother.

  • What main conflict provides the structural throughline?
  • Who are the two or three characters who create the main story developments?
  • What is the protagonist really pursuing throughout the story?

Whether you’re in the process of outlining, writing, or editing, this exercise can help you gain clarity on a runaway story. It can help you identify and strengthen your main structural and thematic throughline. And it can help you excise empty filler scenes.

2. Your Story’s Premise Is a Marketing Tool

If you’ve done the work of crafting a solid premise sentence during outlining or revising, then you probably already have a handy-dandy log line ready to present to agents and editors, or to include in your marketing blurbs on Amazon and your book’s back cover.

The importance of a solid premise becomes ever more clear when it’s time to use it to convince readers to buy. Especially these days, readers aren’t always going to read lengthy book descriptions before deciding to buy. They may look at your cover, scan a few reviews, and read over the first few lines of description on Amazon (which should be your premise sentence in some guise). Only if they like what they read in the premise will they click “Read More” to get the rest of the blurb.

I see so many blurbs, even on Big-Five books, that fail to present a solidly constructed premise sentence. Although this is no indication that the book itself isn’t solidly constructed, it is unfortunate because so many buyers will blur out during the long and boring sales description and move on to the next flashy cover.

3. Your Story’s Premise Signals to Readers Their Favored Scenes and Characters

Largely, this is why “premise” is such a hot topic among writers. The idea is that you simply must have a unique premise (even though, actually, the emphasis is usually on the concept: It’s Jaws meets Forrest Gump!). But however important a solid premise is to the actual story, the premise itself as a marketing tool is there primarily to indicate to readers that, “Hey, I’m a book full of the stuff you like!”

Most of the time when readers are browsing for new stories, they’re looking for what fits their particular tastes, or even their specific mood at the time. Although a flashy high-concept premise may catch their eye, what they’re really wanting is a premise that indicates it will give them the kind of story they’re looking for.

This is also why genre is such a powerful marketing tool. If readers are wanting romance or for action, they can shortcut the search by looking within a specific genre. But even then, most people are hoping to scratch their own particular itches. Your premise will (or at least should) indicate whether your book is going to do that.

Indeed, a good premise, even in the abstract, provides exactly the same service to the writer—what kind of story do you most like to write?

4 Questions to Discover What Your Premise Says About Your Story

So once you’ve mastered the (not inconsiderable) skill of distilling your story into one or two tight little sentences, how can you tell what your newly-crafted premise is saying about your story? Is it suggesting the right things to the right readers—i.e., is it promising them not just a cool concept but the kind of characters that will make the whole trip worth the time, money, and effort?

Here are four questions you can ask about your story’s premise (or the premise of a book you’re deciding whether or not to read yourself!) to determine whether it’s likely to deliver the goods.

1. What types of characters and interactions are offered by this premise?

Remember Matt Bird’s quote at the beginning of the post? Readers don’t care as much about concept as they think they do. In the end, it’s the characters and more specifically their interactions that keep them coming back. Game of Thrones may have gotten optioned because of its premise, but people (mostly) loved it because of its characters.

This is one of the first things I look at when considering a new read. Does the blurb indicate there will be interesting characters? And more importantly will those characters be put into situations where they spark against each other? If the blurb tells me the main character is off on a lonely quest for most of the book, that’s not what I’m looking for. (Although, of course, that may be exactly what some readers are looking for.)

Some readers want power struggles, others want romantic tension, still others want loving family relationships. If your book features any of these, be sure to craft a premise that says so. And if you intended to write a story about such a dynamic only to discover it isn’t showing in your premise sentence, that may be a sign your story got off track somewhere along the line.

2. What themes are implicit in your premise?

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Your premise sentence may or may not explicitly mention the theme. But even if it does not, the themes will still be present implicitly simply through your description of your protagonist’s desires and struggles. Indeed, genre itself is, again, its own shortcut indicator of certain types of themes.

Most readers don’t explicitly pre-judge a book based on what they think the theme is. But they do decide whether or not to read based on their presumptions about a book’s tone—and this is closely tied to theme. If readers want a life-affirming happy ending, or a bittersweet moral victory, or a scathing and tragic social comedy—they’ll instinctively look for that in your premise.

Perhaps even more importantly, they will instinctively reject tones/themes they don’t want to read about. This is a tremendously important factor in hooking up with a satisfied readership. Writers sometimes try to hide the “pointy” bits that some readers may wish to avoid. But, in fact, blatantly indicating those bits in your premise will not only more strongly magnetize readers who are attracted to your subject matter, it will also signal to others that this is a book they’ll probably hate (and that you probably don’t want them buying, reading, and reviewing anyway). In marketing, expectation is everything.

3. What actions and scenes are implicit in your premise?

In my experience, high-concept plots are less important than high-concept scenes. I’m far less interested in a hero fighting off giant mutant sharks (although that might get me into the theater… or not) than I am in the entertainment value found in the story’s specific scenes.

We’ve all watched or read stories that sounded as if they should be incredibly entertaining and rewarding—only to have them fall flat from a lack of that substance I mentioned earlier. In fact, high-concept stories can so easily bank all their bets on the concept itself that they fail to properly flesh out a story worthy of it.

When readers read your story’s premise, they’re not just looking for a cool idea, they’re also (at least subconsciously) considering whether this story might offer them the kind of scenes they’re hoping for.

Read your premise sentence as objectively as you can. What kind of scenes and action (whether shoot-em-ups or Regency dancing) does this premise seem to indicate? Do you actually take advantage of those scenes in the story? If your premise promises an awesome hero with unique abilities, does your story not only show those abilities but also use those abilities in the absolutely most entertaining way possible?

4. Are you taking full advantage of all your story’s premise’s implicit promises?

Like all of your story’s marketing, including its cover, your story’s premise is, in fact, foreshadowing. It offers promises to your readers. Some of those promises are explicit. Some are implicit. But like any good foreshadowing, whatever you plant must be paid off.

One of the chief reasons for negative reviews is the disconnect between what readers were led to believe in the marketing and the story experience they actually had. Now, granted, some of that disconnect may merely be that the reader felt promised quality storycrafting and was not given it. But often the most disappointing story experiences are those in which the writing was great, but the story itself didn’t fulfill its premise.

Sometimes this is because the premise sentence was poorly crafted and did not properly represent the true story. But sometimes it is because the writer thought the premise was being fulfilled within the book itself—but it was not.

***

The importance of your story’s premise should not be overestimated. But neither should it be underestimated. You can use  your story’s premise to help you outline, draft, and revise a better story—and then to guide the right readers into fully enjoying everything you have created for them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is the first thing you look for in a story’s premise—whether your own or someone else’s? Tell me in the comments!

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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.

Comments

  1. Eric Troyer says

    Great article, Katie. I like how you point out a story must follow its premise and the premise must follow its story. That should be a given, but it can get lost in the process of writing. I like to regularly check in with my story’s premise to make sure I know what my story is really about.

    Also, you wrote a great post back in 2015 on how to craft a two-sentence story premise. Here’s a link for your readers: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/find-overlooked-ingredient-successfully-marketing-book/

  2. I’m a weird reader. I do read the entire blurb as well as a couple of pages. For movies, I check out reviews. I guess 3 is most important to me as a reader.

    As a writer 2 seriously tripped me up. Romance readers have beloved tropes. I like to mess with tropes, and that has led to some upset readers. (Upset is putting it mildly; they wanted my head on a pike.) I like what you said here about promoting the thorny bits to attract readers who might like your book and let others know to look elsewhere. Last week, a writer on a panel at When Worlds Collide said that some readers read for Ritual while others read for Revelation. Ritual readers want the sameness; Revelation readers want surprises. Attracting the right one is key to a good reader experience. I think that kind of goes with 2.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ritual vs Revelation. I like that a lot. I will remember that.

    • Ulrike Nölle says

      Thank you for sharing!
      I was always confused from “readers want new stuff” and “readers want the same in new wrapping paper”.
      It makes so much sense that some want change and some want Rituals, but I never thought of that before.

  3. Grace Dvorachek says

    I’d say #1 and #2 would be important to me both as a reader and a writer… I absolutely adore theme and conflict. I love inventing characters with annoying flaws and clashing Lies and Truths–then inventing scenes in which to place them. Especially in my current WIP, in which pretty much every single character has a different agenda.

    Of course, #3 and #4 are important too, but I don’t like to foreshadow scenes, actions, and plot twists quite as much as the actual heart of the story. I guess I prefer introducing conflict concepts (what would happen if this character met *this* character?) rather than world-building or plot concepts (what would happen if toys came alive? -Toy Story).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, character personality conflicts are always an evergreen source of interesting develops. It’s the heart organic storytelling.

  4. My first check when looking at cover blurbs is to decide whether the author is trying to cash in on a trend. Unless I see something in blurb that tells me that the story has a completely different take on the trope, I’m going to pass on anything that resembles a currently popular book or movie. The next check is to see if the premise makes me curious. I want to see premise that makes me say, “I never thought about that. Yeah, that could be a problem. I wonder how the author is going to handle it.”

  5. Another great article! I have struggled far too long over a crime novel in progress, even to the point that I kept changing titles for the darn thing. But a few weeks ago, it was forcefully pointed out to me that the strand involving a victim of the crime (an abduction) was hugely problematic. I tossed her out and created a new, tougher and wilier character. For whatever reason, after that change, the premise of the novel came through to me with sudden clarity. So much so that my new title reflects it: JUSTICE DEFERRED.. In my (working) pitch, these two sentence appear: “As secrets emerge, the tangled motive the detective finally unearths is so toxic he fears that simple justice would injure the innocent more than the guilty. But who says justice has to be simple?”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Titles have always been crucial for me early in the process as well. If I don’t have the title right, the whole thing just won’t work for me.

    • Lew Kaye-Skinner says

      David, I don’t usually read novels such as you describe. HOWEVER, the bit in your blurb about justice injuring the innocent just might lead me to pick up your book.

  6. Very Interesting article. May I assume that the premise sentence is NOT part of the story text, but is either a blurb on the book cover, or a marketing tool for publishers and self-publishers?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Correct. The premise sentence is something used for either marketing or pitching purposes.

  7. Steve Rush says

    I rate this article as one of the most informative ones I have read in a long time. The inventive wheels turned in my head while I consumed the content, which prompted a draft premise ffor my WIP. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Excellent as usual, Katie. For me, I start off with a Premise on Day 1 (after the Concept) and then refine it as I get into my scene building/writing.

  9. Excellent post! I hope you enjoyed your time off last week.

    The premise-problem is what keeps me from buying many of the books advertised on BookBub or eBookSoda, especially the latter. That’s because the premise lends itself to the loglines a writer creates to sell these books.

    Loglines, for those of you not familiar with screenwriting, is a 1-3 sentence summary of the story. They contain the Setting, Protagonist, Central Conflict, Complication, and Stakes. Implicit in the logline is the theme of the story (usually).

    The reason I never buy many stories that seemingly have a cool premise in their loglines is because they’re often missing the Stakes or the Complication. Without the stakes I end up asking “so what?” to the concept. Or their loglines contain an obvious solution with no hint of why the character doesn’t simply do the obvious solution, which is where the Complication would come in.

    Bad: A little girl encounters a wolf while on her trip to Grandma’s house.

    And? So? Where I’m from the girl would shoot the beast and be on her way, so it’s not even clear that the wolf is actually a problem. Not interested, not buying.

    Good: Alone in the woods (Setting) where no one will hear her scream (Complication), a little girl (Protagonist) must engage in a battle of wits (Central Conflict) with the wolf who ate her grandma (Stakes).

    This one has a much better chance of convincing me to click over to Amazon. The girl in the second logline has an *unusual* problem that obliges her to up her game. And the stakes are personal, she can’t just walk away from the wolf that ate Grandma. You eat my grandma and it’s ON 🙂

    As a reader I would imagine the girl loved her grandmother as well. I’d imagine some of her actions will be informed by what her grandmother taught her, and what she loved about her grandmother, and so on. I would click over to Amazon to see if the longer summary or reader reviews mention if the story vindicates my assumptions, or does something cool and unexpected, or just turns out to be crap.

    As a writer, I create the logline early on. I wouldn’t consider myself as having a real story to work on if I couldn’t fill out the relevant parts (Central Conflict, Stakes, etc). This is why in the old pre-indie days agents and editors wanted to see the synopsis, because the absence of the relevant factors reveals story weaknesses, among other things.

  10. Thanks. This is right where I am in my plotting. These questions are right at the heart of what I’m considering as I look at my metadata in Scrivener. What interactions are offered by this premise? What are the implicit promises? Good questions I am ready to ask.

    Also that idea that my premise helps me find the “right readers” who will love my story, that’s mind altering. And totally right on. I’ve been thinking about how so many of my friends and family, who really want to read my first novel, will HATE the story I’m writing because it’s not a genre they read. In some ways, my premise will let us both off the hook.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Spot on. Having family and friends read your stories can be tricky. Sometimes they’re simply not readers. And, as you’ve recognized, sometimes they’re just not into the *type* of story you’re writing. It’s so important to realize that, as it can be easy to over-value input from people who are close to us, even if they aren’t primed to offer the same response as a targeted audience member would be able to.

  11. “One of the chief reasons for negative reviews is the disconnect between what readers were led to believe in the marketing and the story experience they actually had.”

    THIS! This is so consistent with what I find in my review binge-reads. Most reviews fall into at least one of three catetories a) I didn’t know what to expect but my friends recommended this book or b) I read this because one of my favorite authors wrote it or c) the premise is intriguing. Almost nobody reads a book without at least one of those factors going for it. Obviously, authors have the most control over premise. So many negative reviews say that the book did not live up to the premise (as the reader interpreted it).

    I’m planning to do a comparison of the reviews of Peony in Love written in English and Chinese, because the English and Chinese editions of those novels offer very different premises in how they are packaged. For example, the Chinese title is literally ‘Peony Returning-Soul Chronicle’ (in Chinese, that strongly hints at a ghost/supernatural story). I want to read more English-language reviews before I make a deeper analysis, but it’s already clear that the Chinese language readers had much more accurate expectations of what the novel was going to be about.

    • Ulrike Nölle says

      Wow.What a cool possibility to find out more about how a premise correlates to reviws. Wish I could read chinese. I am so interested in your findings! Will you share them here? Please!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point about the different nuances provided in editions that were translations of the original language.

  12. Thought provoking as always. I think the advice you give that your premise should drive some readers away is very wise, inarguable, and almost impossible for a new author to follow. I hope you enjoyed your much deserved week off, and it’s good to see you back!

  13. I enjoyed your week off as it allowed me to think if even for only a week, that I had this writing thing all figured out. Then you return and remind me once again of something I either hadn’t thought about, or hadn’t thought about from your perspective. You never fail to deliver – dammit.

  14. Is a premise and an elevator pitch the same thing? I read that an elevator pitch is how you would describe your story to someone if you got into an elevator and had just one floor to describe your story and could be boiled down to just one or two sentences?

    Great article thanks. Your blogs always match expectation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      An elevator pitch will present the premise, but a premise sentence may not always be crafted with the same “snappiness” as an elevator pitch. But, yes, for intents and purposes, they’re basically the same thing–as is a “log line” as well.

  15. Shannon Moorw says

    Agree with all above re your thought provoking content. I used to be a police officer so writing in brevity is a skill I have mastered. My premise, when putting into 1-2 sentences, may be too brief. How much character knowledge is important? …. Spreading my words out like butter is my new challenge 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When writing a premise sentence, I generally include only one or two descriptive adjectives for any mentioned characters.

  16. David Smith says

    The timing of this post couldn’t have been more fortuitous. It came just as I was reviewing my progress, realizing things hadn’t gelled, and that I didn’t know where to find the fix. I also chased many of the links embedded in this piece. After several drafts I have a premise that names better what I want from the story and shows me where I’ve left gaps. I think I’m on my way to richer scenes and more articulate characters. Great exercise. Thank you.

  17. My story has mystery and revelation. I don’t want to give too much of the reveal away in the premise. This seems to be a bit tricky. Readers want to know what the story is about. You want to pull them in, but still offer them surprises.

    As an example, could Interview with the Vampire (imagine a different title if you will and perhaps a different author) have a premise that describes Louis’ struggle without mentioning he becomes the Vampire?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is tricky. But I think this is a good example, since the fact that the character is a vampire is the main thrust of the premise and therefore the main hook for readers’ interest. My own rule of thumb in writing a premise that will be used for marketing purposes is to mention whatever happens at the Inciting Event and perhaps First Plot Point (e.g., the character becoming a vampire), but not any plot twists that happen later in the story.

  18. Hearing that premise is vital, the one key to writing, “it’s everything” bogged my writing down in some instances. It’s good to hear your thoughts on overemphasis as well. Jeff Lyons – “Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success” is a fantastic book to “identify a seven-step development process that can be repeated and applied to any story idea.” I can highly recommend his online course on premise development too. A deep dive into premise development.

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