How to Write a Story Premise

A story idea is clawing at the inside of your skull, howling for freedom. It’s desperate to run across reams of paper, and you’re desperate to yield to its demands. Whatever you do, don’t let it loose. I repeat, do not let it loose. Take notes, sketch characters, play with ideas, do research on content and comps, READ… But hold off from starting your first draft.

I intend to make writing your first draft easier. I’m confident I can save you time—not only by avoiding sandpits along plot’s course, but also by marking the course and helping you to create the specifics of your story’s plot course. I’m confident, too, that, if you’ll indulge me, the draft you get on paper will be light years ahead of the draft you’d write if you began today.

What Story Premise Can Do for You

  • Solidify your story idea
  • Reveal the architecture of your story’s plot
  • Test the workability of your story idea (versus discovering faulty construction ten chapters into the writing)
  • Reveal story elements that require your adjustment, as well as present options for necessary adjustments
  • Weed and feed your story’s development, as in: feeding your plot lines while also weeding out irrelevancies throughout the writing process

…all of which we’ll get into, and you’ll understand if you don’t understand now.

What Is Story Premise?

Simply put, story premise is a story idea with the details filled in. It’s a single sentence statement that conveys your story’s central characters, story goal, primary conflict or obstacle, and-or stakes involved.

Perhaps that sounds easy to hammer out, and I hope for you it is. For one sentence, though, it’s asking a lot. It’s also asking a lot from writers of long form, as our bag of tricks doesn’t boast of brevity. The real issue, though, is that most of us have difficulty communicating what our stories are about—their essence, a.k.a., their premise. We’re talking about reducing 350 hypothetical pages into so many words. In one sense, our heads are packed with too much to sort. In another sense, it’s all pretty vague at this point.

But knowing what you want to convey is the first order of business in any form of writing. How much more necessary in writing a novel, which, on one of multiple levels, involves creating and peopling a world? Only once the writer has clarified his vision can he conceive how best to convey that vision to others. Premise, as a representation plot, will direct the construction of your vision. In the meantime, as a bonus of paradox, the exercise of writing your story premise will force you to pull in the blurred lines of your vision until it becomes vivid and distinct.

Story Premise

John Gardner—

…the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.

Read the above quote again. Notice that Gardner’s observation of plot aligns with the components of story premise. That’s because story premise is a micro-statement of plot.

Definition of Story

I suspect you’ll find some degree of challenge puzzling the components of story premise into a decent sentence. To distinguish decent from indecent, allow me back up and elaborate.

Expect this sentence—your premise statement—to have structural complexity. For our purpose—to craft a story premise—we’re going to stuff into one sentence what we’d normally write in two. This limitation will:

  1. Require us to throw overboard what otherwise would slip into two sentences
  2. Demand an economy of words (specific details and deletion of fillers)
  3. Force an ordering of content within the one sentence.

The line between decent and indecent, in this exercise, is a thin one. Use your best judgment to stay on the decent side of the line, away from a litany of tortured clauses. Keep the statement clear. The premise sentence should flow with forward movement, emphasize a hero with a problem, and provide a sense of the story’s beginning, middle, and end.

Premise Mirrors Plot
Because premise mirrors plot, premise structure mirrors plot structure. As you’re working this puzzle and the sentence starts to come together, you’ll find that one arrangement of parts works better than others. The finished premise sentence with this particular arrangement will prove invaluable to the telling of your story. This sentence is more than a sentence—it’s your key to the code. In crafting the premise, you expose the plot’s architecture, laying bare the mystery of how to convey your vision.

You can see the basic story premise form by writing its components in a sentence.

[Hero] pursues [goal] despite [opposition] because [stakes] are high.

You might also think of it as:

[Who] must do [what] in spite of [what] to make or prevent [what] from happening?

A basic form, though, doesn’t address the infinite dimensions a story could assume, which might, for example, be better expressed as:

[Hero] faces a [dilemma]: should he choose [Action A for Goal A] or [Action B for Goal B] to rescue the [stakes]?

Each form I’ve noted contains the same elements—a hero with a goal at stake and an obstacle or conflict that stands in his path. The important thing about writing the story premise isn’t to adhere to a form, but to include the vital pieces of information that convey your story. The form, whichever form seems to fit your story (if any of the forms I’ve distilled fit your story), is a launching point. It’s intended to serve as a guide to help you grasp the task. Again, the important thing is to collect the vital pieces of information—to collect them with as much detail as is relevant to the story—and to arrange them in one sentence.

Some story premises will benefit from incorporating other story elements besides the primary four (hero, goal, conflict, stakes). Perhaps the hero’s emotional liability is pivotal to understanding his plight (as in Good Will Hunting). Maybe the story draws heavily on theme as a driving force or deficiency in the hero (Kramer Vs. Kramer). When necessary to understanding context, the story premise might include setting (The English Patient). These add-on factors depend on the story the premise represents, on the influence they exert on the story.

Where irony is present, it can provide a means to highlight conflict in the premise, as in P.D. James’ Children of Men.

In a cut-throat, overcrowded world where women no longer give birth, Theo Faron must escort the pregnant Kee to the ship Tomorrow, Human Project’s hope for the future of humankind.

While this example doesn’t name Theo’s resistance to the action he must take or the militant groups with interests that oppose his, the contrasts inherent to the goal of saving a pregnant woman in a world that has eradicated the capacity for pregnancy conveys impressions of conflict that supersedes the detail a premise could carry.

In a cut-throat, overcrowded world where women no longer give birth, Theo Faron must escort the pregnant Kee to the ship Tomorrow, Human Project’s hope for the future of humankind.

Irony in Story Premise

Another shape story premise might take is to begin with the event responsible for setting the hero in motion (inciting incident)—as in, When a great white begins feeding on beach-goers… If it plays a major role in the story, it has a place in the story premise. For stories with inciting incidents that create the story’s goal and-or stakes, you might approach premise as:

[When an event] compels [a character] to [act], the action is opposed by [conflict] with the potential [goal and stakes] at risk.

Hence:

When a great white begins feeding on beach-goers and the coastal town’s mayor determines to protect tourism over human lives, newcomer and water-phobic Sheriff Brody resorts to an unlikely alliance with a gnarled one-legged sea captain and a book-learned biologist to rid the waters of menace. (Jaws, Peter Benchly)

Story Premise of Jaws

It’s a weighty sentence, as expected, but it flows with a sense of the story’s beginning, middle, and end. It also defines the hero—in addition to characters involved in the action he takes—with details that are relevant to the action. It doesn’t begin with the girl by the buoy flailing in the jaws of the shark, it doesn’t give the death toll—it doesn’t tell the story. It tells the story’s premise.

However you formulate your story’s premise, you’ll want it to identify the vital pieces:

  • Who the protagonist is
  • What the protagonist wants to accomplish
  • Who or what opposes the protagonist
  • What stakes are at risk if he doesn’t take action
  • Which course of action he chooses (sometimes applicable)

So let’s return to the premise of Jaws.

  • Who is Sheriff Brody? He’s a newcomer, which is relevant because it indicates an obstacle—no clout with the mayor. He’s water-phobic, which is relevant because his only means to confront the problem is via the water. Brody is many other things—a husband, a father… but such details aren’t relevant to the big picture, which is what Brody wants to achieve.
  • Brody wants to keep the locals and tourists safe. Procedure would have him close down the beaches…
  • … but someone overrules Brody—the mayor. For this reason, the mayor is included in the premise statement.
  • If Brody doesn’t take action, countless lives will be lost.
  • Subject to the mayor’s constraints, Brody is forced to take to the water and to rely on questionable resources, which is why the other two characters belong in the premise, and why each is described with traits that give Brody reason to fear, as the traits spotlight liabilities that torque the odds of success against his actions.

The protagonist. The premise is a guilt-free zone that welcomes a thick layer of modifiers. (The option of telling us who your hero is expires when you begin writing the novel.) Consider background information and traits that explain motive or hinder his ability to attain the goal. Be precise, be discerning, depict only what is relevant.

The hero’s goal. He might desire many things—to save the world, to get the girl, to prove his father wrong. He might have a string of short-term goals en route to the big goal. The big goal, though, is the subject of premise—the hero’s long-term, end-of-the-novel goal (also called story goal). Every story begins with an urgency to acquire a goal and ends when the goal is resolved. The goal is the carrot prompting his actions throughout the novel, up until the last act when he engages the final battle to arrive at a win, lose, or draw in the contest. If the contest is resolved halfway through the story, then it isn’t the story goal. Possible issues:

Perhaps you have to take your story idea back to the drafting table (no story goal, no story). It’s possible, though, that you’ve simply misidentified the goal. In other words, perhaps the goal is something deeper than what he achieves or fails to achieve earlier in the story. In that case, you need only to extend your story idea with a more sophisticated understanding of the story goal. In either case, note in your premise a tangible, external goal, and preferably one that appears beyond the hero’s ability to attain.

Conflict. Identify the hero’s chief source(s) of conflict, which might include aspects of his personality and aspects of the goal, in addition to other people and external circumstances.

The rewards of success, the punishment of failure. Stakes, as they pertain to story premise, address the consequences of whether or not the hero attains the goal. So what stands to be lost if he doesn’t? The stakes must be high. If the goal is to get the girl and he fails, then the web of story must be woven so as to preclude the possibility of his future happiness. Now is the time, in the story premise, to set up these parameters. We must see in the premise that, in the case of our love-struck hero, the stakes transcend losing this one love interest to losing his only hope at finding love.

Stakes tend to become apparent in defining other story elements. When they’re not implied by the goal and if you’re struggling, try investigating the hero’s motives. Why does he want to achieve this goal? To protect himself, to protect others? To regain something he lost? To right a wrong? His motives, as they pertain to stakes, must be concrete and recognizable to readers. You’ll need to create an object or circumstance that embodies an internal motive for it to serve as your stakes. As with all things in the sphere of writing, convey it with particular detail.

Actions speak louder than words. How your hero responds to a situation presenting him with an unfamiliar challenge that seems beyond his means to win speaks of his character. His actions, then, should agree with who he is. He’ll act and react throughout the novel, of course. At this point, the idea is to depict the gist of his strategy to attaining the goal. You might focus on his initial actions, you might focus on his predominate actions, you might focus on actions relevant to your story’s theme… Select whatever part of his forward thrust that ties the story elements together in the best representation of your story.

If the hero’s forward thrust is misdirected, so much the better. Let him look for true love in the wrong place, if finding true love is his goal. His actions, then, turn up the heat, adding another source of conflict that strikes from another angle.

Enough said. Time to dissect some premises. We’ll start with a few from film, as the constraints of the medium lend simplicity to their structure and, by extension, to the structure of their premises.

West Side Story
Tony and Maria, young lovers associated with rival gangs in the slums of New York, try to escape the bigotry and violence that surrounds them to find a better life.

The premise is as simple as it gets. Character—opposition—goal.

The Pianist
Polish musician Wladsyhaw Szpilman must survive World War II Nazi occupation and the horror of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Same as above. Straightforward, character—opposition—goal. It’s a bit vague, though. Unlike West Side Story with implied actions, we can’t visualize Wladsyhaw’s actions and therefore can’t visualize how he inhabited the span of time (three years!). Let me give it another try.

When Polish pianist Wladsyhaw Szpilman and his family are herded onto trains headed for Treblinka, Wladsyhaw is smuggled from the crowd and fights to outlive Nazi occupation in the Warsaw Ghetto where he holds back death, ultimately, through the art that had given him life as a free man.

It’s long by film standards. I’m tempted, as well, to throw in more details, to at least clear up what is meant by “holds back death, ultimately, through the art that had given him life.” The thing is, I could only afford to use the terms I did, as it refers to two episodes and an explanation would turn the premise into a synopsis. I chose to start with his family to show his loss and isolation, as well as his first brush with death, all of which point to conflict. Another writer might stick with the first approach and keep it short, as in:

Polish pianist Wladsyhaw Szpilman fights to outlive Nazi occupation in the Warsaw Ghetto where he holds back death, ultimately, through the art that had given him life as a free man.

It reads better, but a good premise is about function, not poetry. I’d use this version to pitch the story once it was written.

Star Wars
In a galaxy far away, a farmhand, recognized as the son of a powerful Jedi, is recruited to train as a Jedi warrior with the goal of battling and defeating an evil empire.

What do you think? Reads easy, sounds about right. I wrote it in an honest attempt, believing I had it. To be fair, from a viewer’s perspective, it’s not bad. From a writer’s perspective, though, it’s a worthless premise, which is an oxymoron—as a premise is many things, anything but worthless. The above sentence doesn’t work.

First off, the introductory phrase is a waste of breath and can be deleted. Setting is unnecessary with terms like Jedi warrior and evil empire—we get the picture. The main issue is the voids spanning recognized to trained, and trained to defeating an empire.

The story premise, at least in this form, needs to establish what being the son of a powerful Jedi has to do with Luke’s recruitability. As far as the second gap—and it’s a big one—how does a trainee go from farmhand to savior of the galaxy?

The culprit here is ambiguity. It’s true that Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi recruits Luke with the goal of battling and defeating the evil empire written in his destiny. He won’t tackle it, though, for two more films. Ah! That explains it. So… uh… what’s the goal in this film? I neglected to mention one. I should say: I didn’t hone in to on the detail and instead grabbed the nearest generality, hence the oversight. Worse, if you remove the destined battle, there’s no conflict either. It’s a shoddy premise. Back to the drawing board.

When the Galactic Empire begins a kill search for the missing droids with stolen architectural plans for the Death Star, farmhand Luke Skywalker, who found the droids and has longed to escape his dreary world for grander affairs, agrees to accompany Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi on a mission to deliver the plans to the Rebel Alliance and save the galaxy from tyranny.

As illustrated in the drafts to define and refine this premise, it’s not uncommon or unwise to take a new approach. So different are my two sentences that you’d swear they represented two films. My final statement is long, but it covers the bases. As I didn’t get into Luke’s recruitment, I didn’t need to address the heredity of Jedi powers. Inciting incident—character—defined by motive—action—goal—stakes.

Aces N’Eights
When a railroad magnate hires a team of marauders to force locals to relocate, an elderly rancher and a retired gunslinger take up the fight to take back their land.

The premise works. Inciting incident—heroes—conflict—action—goal. Notice, though, what the premise reveals about the story. There’s nothing that hasn’t been done countless times. In premise form, we recognize the genre cliché. Crafting a story premise  should have sent its writers back to the drawing board.

Men at Work
Two brothers who work for the sanitation department get in over their heads when they find the body of a politician in the trash and decide to play detective.

Conflict is implied and doesn’t need further definition. The premise gives us an indication of genre, which defines conflict as a vehicle for humor. Characters—limiting trait—conflict—inciting incident—action.

The Little Traitor
In Palestine 1947, an eleven-year-old Jewish boy who hates the British occupying forces becomes friends with a British sergeant who catches him out after curfew.

Setting—character—traits as opposition—inciting incident—action. Check on all counts, save one. Where’s the goal?

Apprehended after curfew by British Sergeant Dunlap, eleven-year-old Proffi, a Jewish boy who hates the British forces occupying 1947 Palestine, forms a bond that challenges his distrust and presumptions about national and religious identities and, so doing, challenges his identity.

In the second version, the goal is implied. Proffi is drawn to this British sergeant—he wants his friendship—but is conflicted. The relationship involves conflict among Proffi’s peers, which I didn’t mention. The young hero’s conflict is primarily internal and forces him to reexamine his beliefs. Inciting incident—character—traits—setting—action—internal conflict—outcome.

Memento
When police discount his report of a second attacker, Leonard, who suffers short-term memory loss as a result of the attack, relies on notes and tattoos to hunt for the man who raped and killed his wife.

The inciting incident alludes to Leonard’s goal, later stated, and reveals Leonard’s motive behind his goal. He is described with the one trait, a paramount source of conflict (How does one investigate without memory for sensory details?) From story goal, we can infer additional conflict, as Leonard’s hunt will take him down seedy back alleys and to the mean streets of crime.

Inciting incident—character—limiting trait—method or action—goal.

The sense of beginning, middle, and end contributes to substantiating the story idea behind Memento. While premise might have shed light on the story’s structuring, writer Jonathan Nolan and director Christopher Nolan took the film to new heights in a brilliant non-linear narrative that recreates Leonard’s experience with amnesia in the minds of viewers. It’s a must see, or rather, must experience film.

The Pallbearer
Tom Thompson, persuaded to be the pallbearer at the funeral of a classmate he can’t remember, is reunited with the girl he had a crush on, only to learn that she’s the dead man’s girlfriend.

Straight forward. Character—inciting incident—goal—obstacle. Done.

Return to Me
A grief-stricken widower, Bob Rueland learns to love again when he meets Grace Briggs, a heart-transplant recipient who, unbeknownst to him, has Bob’ dead wife’s heart.

Similar story concept to The Pallbearer but with a nice spin. As neither Bob nor Grace knows the identity of the heart donor, I could have written, “unbeknownst to either of them”. The distinction would spike the conflict quotient but is irrelevant to premise. This is Bob’s story. Character—goal—conflict.

Groundhog Day
Insulted by the arcadian assignment to cover Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day festival, Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors wakes up the next morning captive of a time loop that slaps him with the same day-long insult, which has him attempting suicide and indulging in hedonism until, finally, Phil re-examines the life his priorities have created.

Great movie. Notice with film, how premise length alludes to the complexity and substance of the story. Traits—character—setting—inciting incident—conflict—outcome.

Novels, as an expanded art form, take a little more effort to identify principals and arrange them in a sentence. I’ll leave you with a list from novels that sample the genres. Study them. Some you’ll fine rough, some you might suspect guilty of trespassing the line between clear and convoluted. I recommend that you pick them apart. Following the list are exercises that will help you incorporate the chapter’s content into your wheelhouse.

Story Premise Examples

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Determined to become a gentleman when summoned to Miss Havisham’s home but there discovering wealth and joylessness to be bedfellows, news of an inheritance that grants the orphan Pip’s wish transforms his quest to understanding what it means to be a gentleman.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), Choderlos De Laclos
Valmont’s after boasting rights, and the Marquise de Merteuil revenge when the ex-lovers team up to ruin a pious married woman and a convent-reared fifteen-year-old in a game of sexual and psychological ploys that escalates out of control.

First Love, Ivan Turgeney
Sixteen-year-old Vladimir wonders if the capricious coquette Zinaida’s feelings are reciprocal or if she’s been using him and sets out to discover which suitor has won her heart, only to learn more about love than he was prepared to know.

Kim, Rudyard Kipling
Set against Britain and Russia’s fight for domination in South Asia, Hindu-speaking white street urchin Kim aids a Tibetan lama searching for the River of the Arrow and quietly seeks to solve the mystery of his birth.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Ishmael enlist with Queequeg on the whaling ship, the Pequod, only to find that its captain, the one-legged Ahab, is obsessively pursuing a private agenda—to find and destroy the legendary white whale, Moby Dick.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Marlowe battles his way up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, while rumors of Kurtz and his high-flown ideas of improving the natives cause Marlow to question who Kurtz is and what state he’ll find the outpost in when he arrives.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
When thirty-seven-year-old pedophile Humbert Humbert becomes guardian of the twelve-year-old “Lolita” he has schemed to possess, the two become lovers until she disappears two years later and Humbert, packing his gun, begins the long obsessive search for her.

Herzog, Saul Bellow
Middle-aged historian of Romanticism and man of sorrows, Moses Herzog, thrown into a tailspin by the betrayal of his wife, seeks consolation, revenge, and to understand life through outbursts of contention written in letters to newspapers, public figures, relatives, and the dead.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Homeless outcast Huck Finn—in type, a runaway slave fleeing for freedom—unites with Jim, a fugitive slave in search of the same, for a series of adventures along the Mississippi River in Finn’s journey to understand the world and his place in it.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The fragile, high-strung, and unpredictable seventeen-year-old Holden Cauldield, a self-perceived outcast, confronts “madmen stuff” after he runs away from his expensive school to hole up in New York on the last of his grandmother’s birthday money and the ensuing emotional chaos leaves him scheming to go west as a deaf mute.

100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In magic realism that’s set against the backdrop of South American revolutions, gringo exploitation, and bad weather, six generations of useless men and loving, implacable, and vengeful women pursue their quixotic obsessions.

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
Claiming want of solitude, Shakespearian director Charles Arrowby retires to Shruff End where he is surrounded with old theater friends and then recognizes one of the locals, his childhood sweetheart, still has the power to stir his ambitions for more of life.

Beloved, Toni Morrison
Sethe must confront a resurrected past—her flight from slavery, which prompted acts both born of love and unforgivable—when an odd, intuitive vagrant girl who calls herself Beloved appears.

Snow, Orhan Pamuk
In Kars to find the love of his youth, as well as his given reason—to investigate a suicide trend among young women (including a Muslim student prohibited from wearing her headscarf at university)—poet and political exile Ka becomes entangled in a staged coup and falls in love while witnessing death and attempting to mediate between revolutionary forces and Islamic terrorists.

Thing Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Unable to temper the fear of weakness that dominates his life subsequent the shame of his father’s disrepute, Okonkwo—a wealthy and respected warrior of the Umuofia clan and severe father of a twelve-year-old son whom he finds lazy and likely to revisit shame on the family—brings shame upon himself as his fear incites cruelty that contradicts the statues he is expected to uphold.

American Pastoral, Philip Roth
When Seymour “the Swede” Levov’s life comes to ruin, Nathan Zuckerman, 20 years removed from hero-worshipping the high school basketball star, determines to unravel the mystery of the Swede’s downfall, traversing the post-war years, the ‘60s protests, and the effluent ‘90s, only to become enraged by his inability to understand how ignorance and violence are the fruits of the American Dream.

Misery, Stephen King
Romance writer Paul Sheldon is carried from a car wreck by stalker-fan Annie Wilkes who faux-nurses the patient in her home until, learning he killed off the heroine in his Misery series, turns rehab into rewrite and run for your life.

Roots, Alex Haley
The family saga begins with a child’s birth in a 1750 African village and traverses the Atlantic, the selling blocks of Charleston, generations of slavery and sharecropping, to culminate in the death of a black professor whose funeral is attended by his children—a teacher, a Navy architect, and an author.

The Godfather, Mario Puzo
Michael Corleone wants to carve out a law-abiding life but joins the family business to execute vengeance after his father, mafia godfather Vito Corleone, is shot, which results in Michael’s chain of actions that pushes him across a line and ultimately positions him to become the next Godfather.

The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
When FBI agent Clarice Starling seeks information from an imprisoned serial killer to catch another, she must meet his quid pro quo interrogation terms and resurrect painful details of her father’s murder.

What Dreams May Come, Richard Matheson
Killed in a car crash on the anniversary of his and his wife’s decision not to divorce subsequent to the death of their children, Doctor Chris Nielsen finds himself in paradise where, privy to the knowledge that his wife is consigned to hell after committing suicide, he determines to rescue her.

EXERCISE

  • Choose five premises from the examples listed and restructure the sentence.
  • Choose five books and / or films that you’re familiar with and write a premise sentence for each.
  • For your story, write a one-sentence premise that contains (in as much detail as is relevant and as the sentence can support): main character(s), goal, and conflict… with a sense of the story’s beginning, middle, and end.
  • Once you have your premise, rewrite it in a variety of ways. This will enable you to see how it holds up and may shift priorities as you view the idea from different angles.
Written by The UnNovelist