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How to Ensure Your Story Has a Strong Premise

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

Every great story, bestselling novel, or Hollywood screenplay began with a premise. Story premises serve as both a hook for the reader and a guiding light for the writer, providing a storytelling roadmap from the first page to the last.



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What Is a Premise?

A story’s premise is the foundational idea that expresses the plot in simple terms. A good premise will communicate your story’s essence in a one-sentence or two-sentence statement.

What Should a Premise Include?

A strong premise should include ideally include three elements in a single sentence:

  1. Main character: Your story premise should include a brief description of your protagonist, such as “a teenage wizard” or “a grizzled detective.”
  2. Your protagonist’s goal: A solid premise will also include a simple explanation of what your main character desires or needs.
  3. The situation or obstacle: What crisis or extraordinary situation does your protagonist find themselves in?

How to Write a Premise: 4 Steps for Creating a Strong Premise

Writer’s block affects even the best writers. How are you supposed to show off your writing skills if you don’t have a story premise in the first place? Allow this list of step-by-step writing tips to serve as your worry-free guide in helping you come up with a killer story premise:

  1. Begin with a theme. When writing fiction, novelists, short story writers, and screenwriters alike often begin with a theme that interests them. After all, your theme will inform both your point of view and the premise of your story. What real-life problems are you interested in exploring? The corruptive influence of extreme wealth? The omnipresence of technology in our daily lives? The age-old battle between faith and doubt? Nailing down a theme early in the creative writing process can serve as a road map that can help guide you towards your story structure and premise.
  2. Start by asking yourself simple questions. One of the most basic steps you can take to generate story ideas is to ask yourself simple questions. Begin with whatever your kernel of an idea is: Perhaps it’s a character, a plot idea, an inciting incident, or a setting. Then, ask yourself questions that begin with “What if?” What if when a twelve-year-old boy discovers he’s a wizard? What if a girl could talk to her pets? Answering these questions can help expand your kernel into a full-fledged idea and, eventually, a solid premise.
  3. Ensure that your characters have a strong motivation. Many great premises are borne from a character’s motivation or primary goal. In Stephen King’s Misery, a story set in a remote part of Colorado, the main character is a writer who is held captive by a rabid fan. Thus, it makes sense that his simple motivation would be to escape his captor. Beginning with a simple character motivation can help develop other parts of your premise as well.
  4. Be able to explain your premise in as few words as possible. Once you’ve settled on your basic story idea, make sure it can be explained simply and quickly. Write down your premise, and say it out loud. Is there any way to eliminate extraneous words or details and still get your point across? Brevity is essential in crafting a premise, even when you’re working on a longer written work, as in screenwriting or novel-writing. If you’re sending query letters to potential literary agents, they will likely only skim your premise before deciding whether or not it’s worth reading further. If your premise is too wordy or confusing, your work will likely be ignored. Similarly, screenwriters often sell story ideas solely on the strength of their logline. Regardless of whether your premise is low concept or high concept, you should be able to explain it to potential buyers in a few seconds.
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