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  • Writer's pictureHayley, Developmental editor

What is a premise?

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

What is a premise, and do I have one?

Definition of premise: Something that you suppose is true and that you use as a basis for developing an idea. A proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion.

You want to write a book, and you have an idea. It hits you right between the eyes over your cornflakes one morning and burns to be written. So, you set to work and start hammering away at your keyboard, plunging in. You are certain you will write this amazing story, publish it on Amazon and make loads of money, give up your job at the bakery, and live off the proceeds of your gory horror, ‘The Muffin Man at the End of the Street,’ and happily hammer out several sequels. Thanks Amazon, you’re the best!

You think it is unique, and you get precious about it. I see many people on such places as Facebook and Goodreads, afraid to share in case someone will steal their idea.

Relax. It has probably been done before.

At least the concept has certainly been considered, and probably much if not all of the premise as well. If you look hard enough, you will end up with a ‘dammit’ moment. I waited too long. Someone has already written it.

Yes, and no, because you haven’t written it. What makes a story unique is you; your take on the world, your ideas, and your perspective, additionally your style, your voice, your characters and the situations you place them in.

So, back to you and your ‘cornflake eureka’ moment. You carry on and you hit a wall. Your characters have decided to take the high road, not the low road, as you envisioned, because they have lost their map (or rather you, the author, have lost your map). You reach a cliff edge, metaphorical wolves behind you and a sheer drop ahead and you didn’t plan for this and there is no way out!

You have written yourself into a corner. How did this happen? You may refer to it as writers block, but is it really?

Perhaps it is and your map is still clear in your head or somewhere in the rainbow of Post-It notes decorating your living room wall, it is simply your imagined ‘situations’ that have changed. You are still at A, and you can still see C, but B is giving you issues, (B being the middle of your book). Or you have muddled through the middle but cannot find a way to end it.

It might be that your premise is weak.

Fear not. For I am here, to help untangle the ramen you are drowning in, to send the giant eagles to rescue you from your cliff-top plunge, your professional beta reader and developmental editor, come to save the day.

One way to examine if you have a premise is to write the beginning of the end into two or three sentences, one if you can manage it. If you are struggling with a synopsis or a blurb then this is also the place to start, and if you cannot do this then it might be that that your premise is weak, or is not a premise at all, simply a freefall of situations tied together. Many TV series (soaps) are this, great concept; each week a new situation, and some can, and do, live off this for years, but often, especially so with fantasy, they are all concept and I personally, get to episode 3 and get bored.

With a novel, this will not work. Even a series of books needs to have some kind of ending, to answer at the very least, the narrative questions posed, in each book, or the reader will feel cheated.

But consider Dexter or Breaking Bad. Why were they so successful?

Great concept, strong premise, unique spin, and they end. You might be very sad about that, I know I am. But a satisfactory ending and leaving the audience wanting more…that is golden. The Holy Grail. There is a gravestone to wail over, but they lived a good life, and we will always remember them.

So, let’s go right back to the beginning again and your flash of inspiration over your cornflakes.

Your concept, and perhaps the beginnings of a premise.

As a novice writer you may not have considered any further than your concept and a ‘situation’ (more on this later).


So first let us consider concept, what it is and how to turn a concept into a premise.

I have chosen a movie (Alien) to use as my example, as it is the formulation of a story that we are examining here, not just how to structure a novel (yet) and movies are very accessible. Good stories, whether spoken, film or novel format are all the same. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Concept for Alien: Deadly alien monsters in space.

The source of hundreds of stories and movies. Add in aliens invading earth, and you have the concept for a thousand more. When it comes to concept, it has probably been done before, in some fashion, many times over.

To achieve a premise, it needs conflict, goals, and stakes. This is what takes a concept and turns it into a premise. It is the foundation of your story, of any story, and it must put a unique spin on the concept, and to do that you need a premise.

Below are two simple methods to determine, examine or construct your premise. If you have already written 100 pages and are now stuck, then you may have to take a really long look at what you have so far, (or I can do that for you) and there may be a lot of work ahead. Ideally, you are doing this before you get that far, but the world and inspiration doesn’t always work that way, so do not be disheartened. You have started, you have a draft down, nothing is lost, even if it is simply to get the ideas out of your head, to clean out your idea closet so you can fill it again with junk you cannot bear to part with but will probably never use; yes, I am talking about you, Swing Ball.

Premise determination

Method 1: [Conflict]-[Goal]-[Stakes]

Method 2: [When]-[Character acts]-[Until]-[Leading to]

The premise for Alien:

A deadly alien gets loose on board a spaceship. The ship’s android/computer (corporation) has been programmed to bring it back to Earth [conflict]. The crew must catch it and kill it [goal]. If they do not, then it will kill them all and end up back on Earth[stakes].

[When] An alien attaches itself to one of the crew [Character acts] Ripley tries to prevent it, but Ash lets it in [Until] it births out of Kane’s chest and escapes [Leading to] the crew fighting for their lives.

Sounds pretty exciting, right? The story has a firm direction.

From these two methods, and of course being the author (I wish), I can fill in the gaps to create a blurb.

Blurb(elevator pitch)

After landing on an unexplored moon, answering a distress call, an alien attaches itself to one of the crew of mining ship Nostromo. First Officer Ripley tries to prevent it but the ship’s Medical Officer, Ash, overrides her decision to quarantine. What starts as a rescue mission turns into a fight for their lives, as they let something monstrous on board.

Tag line to beat all taglines, now and forever, I bow down to you:

In space, no one can hear you scream.

It may be that my swiftly constructed blurb gives too much away, and to be honest, the entire blurb could be condensed into the tagline (it is so good). It was more as a demonstration of how determining the premise helped to write a blurb. Which can then be expanded into a synopsis, novel plan etc.

Far too many blurbs give the game away and give the entire premise and more. Hold back, tease the reader. The premise is for you, to spearhead your story’s journey. It needs to be set up in the first 25% of your book, along with the narrative question(s).

Of course, this is a very simplified version of the complex story. In fact, it is the premise for more than Alien, (recent movie Life, was almost an exact copy, but with better lighting and a cleaner ship) and it is basically the premise for Aliens as well, when you think about it. I won’t mention the others as they are not worth mentioning, suffice to say, this premise has been used many times, though arguably none so masterfully.

The fact that the premise is the vague basis for many stories, and if that is your premise, then you must ensure that it is far removed from the Alien story structure; it is far too famous to emulate in any way (unless you were to flip it, perhaps), and the producers of the series, with far too many sequels, beat that alien to death.

You may have a great idea but are unsure how to construct or modify your novel to ensure that your premise is interesting, exciting, and unique.

Ensuring your premise is strong is a very important first step.

Whether you hire me as an alpha/beta reader, or developmental editor, an examination of your concept and the strength of your premise will be included in the manuscript assessment.

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