Friday, 19 October 2012

The Promise of Premise

Writing thriller fiction – the Promise of a Premise

So what exactly is a premise?
Ta Da! I have a dictionary definition to hand…“Logic proposition from which inference is drawn” Mmmm… Are we much the wiser?
The point of the premise in fiction is that it truly is a kind of road map of where the story should go -and where it definitely should not! When I first started writing I did not understand this concept properly and, I must admit, I do still sometimes struggle with defining it for some of my story ideas. But when I get it right it really is as if a cloud clears and my ideas begin to coalesce properly in my mind.
Sticking to my premise makes me keep to the point of the story all the way through instead of veering off at tangents and getting lost. When I wrote my first stories I did not plan - just went with the flow of a good story idea. But before I had gotten very far my story idea started changing as I stumbled upon new and fascinating stuff for my character to get into… I ended up in a hopeless mess with no idea of how to straighten it all out. Then I suddenly remembered the original story idea and realised I had unintentionally abandoned it.  (If you are a ‘seat of your pants’ kind of writer a premise of some kind is, I think, essential.  But maybe you can stay nicely on course without one.)

Anyway then I read a few books and realised that premise was what I was missing. It is not the plot of a story but the main point and leads directly from the main story question to the resolution at the end. James Frey describes it as “A statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story.” For example: In Dickens’ Christmas Carol the premise would be – ‘looking and learning from past mistakes leads to redemption and forgiveness’ because in the end, of course, Scrooge is a changed character. In my latest book ‘The Afterlife of Darkmares’,  the premise I used was ‘mother love can overcome everything, even ‘other worldly’ threats. ‘

Adding subplots and other characters does not change this central theme of the story because the thread running through and holding it all together is premise which once promised must be delivered on at the end.
This is how I try and stay on track. But maybe you know a better way to keep to the central story line?


  1. The idea of a premise can be a nebulous thing to pin down. I like your definition of it being the main point of the story - I'd kind of thought of it as being like the main set-up of the story, or the hook. Interesting! I don't plan a lot, but I do sort of keep the premise in mind, if that makes sense? There's something to be said for letting the characters take their own course - maybe that way you'll find out who they are, and a point to the story that you hadn't realised to start with!

  2. I never plan, but I always have the last paragraph in mind so I always know where I'm going.

  3. Writing the story in my head before I put it on paper helps me stick to my premise. You make excellent points.

    Janie Junebug

  4. I work off a premise, too. It's the only way I've learned to keep things straight in my head!

  5. Having a defining statement for your novel is of principle importance. It certainly helps to know which track to stay on when trying to come up with an ending to the story.

  6. That is a great way to work... I tend to write a series of short stories.... Sometimes they are pointless .... Maybe I need to take a lead out of your book! Xx

  7. As a newbie, I don't believe I have a better way to stick to it. I tend to work the story through in my head before I sit down to write, so that's how I stick to it, I guess.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse