Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, is Managing Editor for Novellas & Serials at LVP Publishers. She publishes fiction & poetry
What Is a Story Premise?
A story premise is the basis of a good book. It is the first summary of a beginning idea. When you can create a solid premise before writing you will have all the necessary components needed to generate your story defined. It will also give you a road map to follow making your writing process much easier.
There are six major plot elements that, if you define them well enough, will make your writing process far easier and simpler. What are these elements? We'll get to that in just a moment. First, let's talk about the different types of writers that exist.
Different Types of Writers
When it comes to a preference for coming up with a plan before writing vs. writing by the seat of your pants, every writer is different. Some writers need a general outline to have an idea of where they are going. Some fill in the major plot points with a well-developed beginning and ending. Then there are those who obsessively outline everything that will be in their novel before they begin.
I had a friend who used to tack up paper that covered an entire wall of his house from ceiling to floor on which he had every character accounted for, every plot point, major obstacle and goal, with everything placed on a giant timeline that went from start to finish. It took him a month or so to develop it but once it was done, he could sit and write as if by formula.
I envied him. I am a pantzer and my passion is not knowing where the story is going until it unfolds. My plots are generated by my characters, and I often have no idea what they are going to do next. It makes for an exciting process but also one that leads to the first draft having the basic gist of what goes, on but desperately in need of at least one major overhaul and several complete edits to make it readable at all.
Whether you are a planner or a pantzer or perhaps fall in the middle (now known as a plantzer), it will still greatly benefit you to learn how to create a quality premise for your story that includes all the main ingredients you will need. To do this, you first need to determine the six main elements of your story. The degree to which they are developed prior to writing is individual. However, having at least some idea of these fundamental components will make your writing process easier and much smoother without as many false starts and stops.
Six Plot Elements You Need to Define
As promised, here are the six major elements you need to nail down in order to have a developed premise.
1. The Protagonist
The protagonist is the principal character who drives the plot forward. They are considered the hero of your story and they have the most at stake.
When creating your protagonist, you want to focus on audience connection. Your protagonist should be interesting and want something badly which they are having difficulty getting. They should be a character that your readers will care about, someone they are rooting for to succeed at accomplishing the main objective though they worry that the protagonist’s goal will be thwarted, perhaps by the hero themselves.
Your protagonist is the one whose emotional and physical journey you will be following. Character development is at the center of any good story. Whether the protagonist changes or whether they change other characters or both, character arcs are the point of fiction plots. This is one of the hardest things to get down. First, you need to figure out how people change and develop in real life. Then you need to determine how to present them in your stories with enough realism that your readers can relate to what they are reading.
2. The Situation
The situation is the status quo for the protagonist. This is the point when you decide how your story will start. What is the protagonist’s condition or state at the beginning of the plot? Notice I say plot, not story. You don’t have to start your plot at the very beginning of the story. It is often more captivating to the reader not to do so, but instead to drop them into the middle of the action.
Whatever is the norm for the protagonist, how will their condition change for the better or the worse either by the protagonist or by the antagonist?
3. The Objective
What is the protagonist’s objective? They need to have an objective they will do practically anything to achieve. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for them to keep moving the story forward. To make this happen, you need to determine what motivates the protagonist. What makes them want what they want?
This should be something from deep inside them, not just because it’s what everyone wants. They may not even be aware of why they want to achieve their objective so badly. If it isn’t conscious you have to find a way to reveal it to the readers and decide when you will reveal it.
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Do the readers gain insight into the motivation before the character slowly over time? Do they find out from a different character? Does the protagonist themselves reveal it somehow? These are all possible options, you just need to determine what is right for your story and your character.
What moral or immoral choice will the protagonist need to make in their attempt to gain their objective? You can weave this choice together with the changes that occur to the character if you choose.
4. The Antagonist
The antagonist is the main opposing force to the protagonist. They work against the protagonist’s objective trying to prevent them from achieving their objective. Without an antagonist, there is nothing consistent that the protagonist works against which makes for a boring story.
The classic type of antagonist is the villain. But there are other types as well such as the environment or even something about the protagonist that stands in their way.
At the end of the story, the protagonist usually defeats the antagonist if not completely then at least partially. They achieve at least some of their objective even if the part was an unconscious goal until then which allows them to get the better of the antagonist.
Both the protagonist and antagonist should have positive and negative qualities to make them multidimensional and realistic. No real person is all good or all bad and protagonists and antagonists shouldn’t be either if they are to remain interesting and believable to the reader.
5. The Major Obstacle or Disaster
The first part of your book allows you to set up the characters and their world. At the first major plot point, however, something needs to shake things up. This is some kind of disaster or unanticipated obstacle that makes it impossible for your protagonist to go back to the way things were. There will be other plot points that happen before this but this one causes a major reaction in the protagonist leading to action.
Generally, it is the antagonist which creates this obstacle, though they may do it through other characters. If it is something internal to character something causes it to change in a way that devastates them.
This first major plot point when disaster strikes is one of the most exciting points in the plot. Pick something cataclysmic so that your character has no choice but to react from the gut. When you hit your readers with a fantastic first plot point, they’ll never put down the book.
6. The Main Conflict
Defining the conflict in your story is critical as it is the force that drives the plot forward. Conflict can be internal such as a character who faces a moral decision which they must struggle with or external such as the protagonist luring them into situations in which they need to call up all their inner resources to beat or get out of. The conflict challenges your character’s belief system and either strengthen it or changes it.
When characters face and beat enough obstacles that challenge their beliefs, they are usually changed in some way. The conflict should relate to what your protagonist wants the most. The stronger the antagonist the better developed your protagonist will be since they (or it) will force them to confront who they are and drive them to change. The force of your antagonist and subsequent conflict should increase over time to build tension and maintain your reader’s interest.
There are six main types of conflict:
- Person vs. Self – This is an internal conflict. It may be the struggle to decide what is right or the struggle to choose to do the right thing versus the easy thing or the thing that gives the character more of what he wants.
Remember that what your character wants and needs are two different things. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. What Scrooge wants is more money no matter who he has to hurt to get it. What he needs is to remember how to be human, how to be kind, helpful and gracious to others, and how to allow others to act in the same ways toward him. In essence, he needs to remember that to be human is to connect with others in a way that benefits both, not just physically but emotionally as well.
So, so the struggle between gaining more of what the character wants although they’d have to do things against their belief system to gain it would be an internal conflict.
- Person vs. Person – Classically, this is the fight between protagonist and antagonist though it can involve other characters as well. It can also include the side of good vs. evil or two opposing forces such as nations struggling for power through war.
- Person vs. Nature – This can mean the weather, a natural disaster, wild animals, or the wilderness. For example, perhaps your character is climbing Mt. Everest and gets caught by a storm or avalanche and has to fight the elements to survive.
- Person vs. Supernatural – Maybe your protagonist is a ghost, monster, god or some other supernatural entity such as the hotel in The Shining. This makes for a great story since it raises the stakes by making the playing ground uneven. People have roughly similar types of characteristics. Supernatural entities can have any characteristic you dream up.
- Person vs. Technology – This can be some sort of rogue AI or futuristic technology that no one has seen before. It can also be historical such as during the industrial revolution when people had to adapt in the workplace or risk losing their job. Or perhaps the character adapts, learns everything there is to know about the new technology but loses their job anyway.
- Person vs. Society – This may be the government, cultural traditions or societal norms, or other aspects of society. A classic example of this type of conflict is found in the Hunger Games where the characters are placed in a kill-or-be-killed situation by a totalitarian government.
One good way to determine what your conflict will be is to think of the worst thing that can happen to your character. Who or what can bring this about? What conditions are necessary to make this happen?
Creating Your Premise
Once you have the main components of your story defined, you can create your premise. This is usually a two-sentence summary that uses the six elements to provide a general picture of who are the important characters and how your story will progress.
Here are two examples of premises using the six elements:
- Orphaned gypsy Heathcliff (protagonist) grows up to love (objective) his adopted sister Cathy (situation), but when Cathy (opponent) marries her wealthy neighbor (disaster), Heathcliff sets in motion a terrible vengeance that will pit him against everyone he knows (conflict). (Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë)
- A restless farm boy (situation) Luke Skywalker (protagonist) wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father (objective). But when his aunt and uncle are murdered (disaster) after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop (conflict) the evil Empire (antagonist) and its apocalyptic Death Star. (Star Wars: A New Hope directed by George Lucas)
A good story premise is worth spending time on to get it right. Once you have this completed, you can use it to create a more detailed outline if you are a planner or as the foundation for you to start writing if you are a pantzer.
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Sources and Further Reading
- Prevent Writers Block by Using Writing Style and Character Motivation
This article discusses how to use your personal writing style to develop and work with the motivations of your characters to continue writing smoothly and avoid a major cause of writer's block.
- Do You Know the 6 Must-Have Elements of a "Wow" Story Premise? | Helping Writers Become Authors
Discover how a good story premise can help you eliminate structural weaknesses and create a valuable tool for outlining and pitching your novel.
- 7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story | Writer's Digest
Many writers who swear they dislike outlines are thinking of them in the wrong ways. K.M. Weiland's seven-step process to creating a flexible outline for any story can help you let loose and have fun in your first draft.
- How to Outline a Novel: The Master Guide (With Template!) | reedsy
Are you sick of crashing and burning every time you try and start a novel? We have the answer for you right here: a story outline. In this post, we show you (step-by-step) how to outline a book and give you a book outline template.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Natalie Frank