Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Promise of 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 just how I try and stay on track.

Having said all that maybe you know a better way to keep to the central story line?



  1. So a premise is the same as a thesis statement, right? When I was a writing tutor at a university, we told students that the thesis statement could be compared to the key on a map.


  2. Thank you, Pat, for such an excellent post and a great reminder of the importance of having a theme at the core of the book, the hook on which all else hangs. I write by the seat of my pants, which is the best way for me, but it does mean I lose sight of why I'm writing that particular story! Every so often, I come to a standstill and say, "But why?" It really helps to have those moments. They rein me back to the central conflict and now I keep a brief sentence that summarises the theme/conflict on a notepad beside me as a constant reminder. It's not so wordy and repressive that I lose heart in what I've just written. But it's just enough to make me pause and take a good look at the tangent that's tempting me before I gallop off at breakneck speed and end up on the edge of a cliff.

    Your post has come at a good time for me because I have just spent an entire week working on a novel which isn't coming together very well. And I think that's because this time I have set off without enough thought. I haven't taken a moment to write that short sentence that pinpoints which particular glue is going to stick the whole structure together. Today will be a fresh start. Thank you! x

  3. Hi Pat, great article explaining what premise really is. I also struggled with it at first and even now it is at times hard to define. As if writing were not hard enough already :-)

  4. I've found myself with a tangle of a story on my hands more than once. If I can stop and try to work out what I'm trying to say sometimes I can separate out the threads which don't fit and get the piece back on track.

    Sometimes I can't!