Off the top of your head, how would you define premise? It’s the thing you hang your story on, right, or is it the heart of the story or is it what happens in your story?
I’ve made a personal breakthrough recently about “premise” that I’m pretty excited about. But before I get to what I’ve learned you should know a little of how I operate as a writer.
I don’t know if you have read Jeff Gerke’s Plot vs Character or not, but according to that book I’m a plot-firster which means I know what’s going to happen in a story way before I know for whom the story is happening. This tendency, I think, is one of the reasons I have been confusing “premise” with “plot.”
What shed light on the difference for me is a tutorial from Writer’s Digest called “Create an engaging premise in 4 steps” by Lisa Cron. It’s not that what she says is new, per say. All I know is what she talked about clicked with me and for the first time in 25 years I am confident that I will be able to write my story the way it should be written. How about that? And by God’s grace maybe we’ll all get to see it in print someday.
Okay, so what did I learn about “premise” as it relates to a story? And please understand, this is my takeaway, what stood out to me and helped me approach story with a little more balance.
Cron spent the first two-thirds of the tutorial explaining and defining “story” before she even touched premise, but I found I needed the education to help distinguish between plot and premise. What really opened by eyes was her actual definition of “story” and her break down of the parts:
Story is "How what happens affects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result."
- The plot - the surface of the story, the events
- The protagonist
- The story problem - the simulation
- This is what the story is really about
Oh, well when you say it like that…
Especially after reading Gerke’s book, I knew I needed to work on character-building and I’m sure it helped lay the foundation for me to fully embrace just how important it is to have fully developed characters – what the story is really about.
Knowing your characters also leads to “premise.” To create a premise, Cron has you answer four questions:
§ What? What would happen if...?
§ Who? Whose story is it?
§ Why? Why will any of what happens matter?
§ When? Tick, tick, tick
I’ve always known Who and When, but not really the Why and to my complete surprise I didn’t know What either. Wow! Twenty five years and I didn’t know my What! I was making the “What would happen if…” about a plot point, not my main character. I’m so thankful God doesn’t give up on us (on me).
About “What” Cron stated, “…developing a solid premise, starting with a surprise / something out of the ordinary that implies a problem - before you begin writing, will save you months of rooting around in the plot for your story later.”
In my case, “months” should be changed to “years,” but I digress. I discovered before I could nail down What, I had to work out Why. Why will any of what happens to my girl matter? Reinforced by another good quote from Cron, “It's always the why - the internal story - that drives the plot, not the other way around.”
The last thing I’ll mention that also really helped me is her statement about two things every protagonist enters a story with:
- Something they already want really badly
- A misbelief they have to overcome to get it
These two things helped me narrow down Why, what’s motivating my girl, and how what happens will affect her.
So that’s what I learned in a nutshell. You probably already knew all this, but I’m just so excited, and thankful, I hope you don’t mind me sharing it with you again today.
Humbly submitted by H.T. Lord