Story structure and planning begins with the premise

This is the first of a series of posts on how to plan and structure your work of fiction.

When we think of planning we usually start thinking about plot structure. However, there’s something that happens before we get to the plot, and that’s the story premise.

The premise is a clear formulation of the conflict that starts the story, the character who is affected by the conflict, and what they must do in response. You can map it out like this:

  • A character
  • in a situation
  • has a problem
  • and must take action or bad things happen

When we put those points together in a paragraph, we have the premise. A popular formulation starts with the word ‘When’ and then uses words like ‘now’, ‘must’ or ‘has to’ to indicate the action the hero must take.

When an asteroid hits earth, Joe Bloggs finds himself alone in a city of a million dead.  Now he must find a way to reach the safety of the underground bunkers said to lie beneath the city – a cryptic message from a dying stranger his only guide.

Here’s a slightly different form but still using words like ‘when’ and ‘must’:

Alfie Jones, a misunderstood, sci-fi addicted kid, picks up a coded message on his homemade radio when he directs the antenna towards Mars. He becomes convinced the message contains plans of an alien invasion and must persuade his sceptical parents and friends that the danger is real.

You can use any other formulation as well, as long as it contains the character, the conflict, and the action they must take (or are forced to take) in response. The premise is like a shortened form of the blurb that will be on the back cover.

A premise statement helps you define what you story is about and helps you write a focused an engaging story. It also come in handy once you’ve finished writing and want to get agents and publishers interested in your story. The premise is one of the first things they’ll read when they assess your submission. I value the creation of a solid premise so much I have included it as one of my 9 core skills of writing publishable fiction.

If you find it difficult to define the premise of your story, it might be because you haven’t yet figured out what the story is really about. And that’s OK. Some authors define their premise before doing much writing, while others write out a whole draft so they can explore where the story wants to go, and then they define the premise, expand it into a plot structure, and write a second draft.

Take the next step in planning your story and see how we expand the premise into a full plot structure.

To get the full story on crafting premises, see my book and course Write Masterful Fiction (details below)

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