One quick note before we begin: writing a strong premise is the first step to writing a book. The second step is structuring your book. To learn more about how to structure a bestselling, award-winning book, check out The Write Structure, my new book how to apply the timeless structure principles of bestselling stories to your book. You can get it here for a limited time low price.
What is a Premise? Premise Definition
Before we talk about why you should write a premise, let’s talk about what a premise actually is. For the purposes of our writing, here’s a definition of a premise for writers: A single sentence summary of the central plot or argument of a story, book, or other writing piece.
In the screenwriting world, this is called a log line, and the purpose is to take your whole idea and summarize it down to a single sentence.
By the way, if you’re curious, here are the dictionary definitions of premise:
- “A proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion,” according to Dictionary.com
- “The fundamental concept that drives the plot,” according to Wikipedia
- When plural (premises), a property or building, e.g. “Get off my premises!”
As writers, we of course care most about the first two premise definitions. You can see, too, there are different definitions depending on if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. That’s because premises are extremely useful whether you’re writing stories or nonfiction.
But maybe you’re wondering why this matters. Here’s why you should start with a premise sentence.
Why You Should Write a Premise Sentence First: 5 Reasons to Write a Premise
Writing a premise first can change everything for your writing process. Here’s why:
“ Great stories come from simple, big ideas. They might look complicated to the reader, but they actually have a clear foundation.Tweet
1. A Premise Simplifies Your Idea
Most new writers have complicated ambitious ideas. However, great stories are simple! They might look complicated to the reader, but most bestselling books have a simple, clear foundation.
Complicated, ambitious ideas are challenging to actually finish, and if you’re a new writer, the most important thing you can do to practice and become a better writer is to finish your book!
That’s why if you’re writing your first book (or even your tenth), the best thing you can do is to simplify your idea.
And the best way to simplify your central idea is to write it as a single, sentence premise.
2. A Premise Becomes the Foundation of Your Book
You have to make a lot of decisions when you’re writing a book. Should you add a new subplot? Does this bit of research fit into your article?
A premise gives you a foundation upon which you can judge those decisions. If you’re not sure whether to add or remove something, you can ask, does this fit the premise? If not, delete!
3. A Premise Gets You Unstuck When the Writing is Hard
Writing is hard. Writing a book with hundreds of pages is even harder!
At some point during the writing process, it’s very likely you will get lost. You won’t know what to write next. You may not even know what your book is about anymore.
When that happens, you can come back to your premise and remember, “Oh yeah! That’s what my book is about!”
“A premise is the compass to find your way when writing your book gets hardTweet
4. A Premise Helps You Get Feedback
Have you ever had someone ask you what your book is about and had no idea what to tell them? You start explaining, but then a few minutes in you watch as their eyes glaze over and they make an excuse to leave?
Here’s the thing: no one wants to hear a five-minute book idea. (That includes agents, editors, and publishers.)
Your premise becomes your elevator pitch, a quick way to describe what your book is about without boring the listener.
And that means, a developed premise can become an idea testing methodology, helping you get more feedback before it ever becomes a finished product.
And that will help you make your book better.
5. A Premise Can Get You Published
Did you know a single-sentence premise is one of the most important part of a book proposal and query letter?
A good premise can literally get you published.
I make every writer in our community write a premise when they’re first getting started with their book. What’s amazing is that months or years later, when they’re finally ready to publish, they tell me, “OH! That’s why you made us write a premise. You actually know what you’re doing!”
Well, yeah! “A good premise can literally get you published.Tweet
Now that you know why you should write premise, how do you actually write one? Let’s break it down into the three types of premises you might write:
- Premise for a story (novel, screenplay, short story)
- Memoir premise
- Nonfiction premise (book, article, essay)
Use the links above or scroll down to find the type of premise you’re writing. Let’s start with the premise of a story.
Premise of a Story: 4 Steps to Writing a Bestselling Story Idea
If you’re writing a story, whether a novel, short story, or screenplay, you must summarize your entire story concept into a single sentence. Here’s an example premise of an actual story, this one from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum:
A young girl is swept away to a magical land by a tornado and must embark on a quest to see the wizard who can help her return home.
You might be wondering, how do you take a whole story and turn it into a killer premise? You must have four things:
1. A Protagonist In Two Words
Compelling stories have engaging characters, and in your premise, you must identify and describe your protagonist, your central character, in just two words. Here’s the formula:
An adjective + a noun
What does that look like practically? Here are some examples of central characters from actual stories:
- young girl = Dorothy Gale
- rebellious survivalist = Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
- maverick vampire = Edward Cullen from Twilight
- FedEx executive = Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away
Remember, you’re not giving away the entire character arc here. Instead just focus on two words that capture the heard of the central character.
“ A good premise describes the protagonist in two words. Ideally, these words will also suggest why they are ironic for their situation.Tweet
What if I have more that one main character?
If you have more than one main character, as is often true for love stories, for example, you can either describe both in two words or describe them as a couple, e.g. “star-crossed lovers” in Romeo and Juliet.
If you have more than two protagonists, you must either describe them as a group/team (e.g. “a team of teenage mutant turtles” or as perhaps even the realm or world itself (e.g. “the kingdom of Westeros”).
However, be careful about this as it can make the writing much more difficult. Keep in mind, George R.R. Martin has been working on A Song of Ice and Fire for more than twenty years and it still isn’t finished.
2. A Goal
Next you need to identify what the protagonists goal is. What do they want?
For example, Dorothy’s goal is to return home after getting swept away by a tornado. Katniss’ goal is to save her sister from the Hunger Games. Tom Hanks’ goal is to get off the deserted island.
What is your characters goal?
Note that their goal may change throughout the story, but you usually want to identify in the premise is the one they have right after the inciting incident. (Not sure what that is? Check out our inciting incident guide here.)
3. A Situation or Crisis
Next, identify the situation, crisis, antagonist, or core conflict in the story.
Here you usually focus on one of two major story elements: the inciting incident or the climax of the story. If you’re not sure what the core structure elements of your story are, check out our guide on plot structure here.
Examples of this element from popular stories include:
- A volcano erupts in Los Angeles (Volcano)
- Swept away to a magical land by a tornado and must embark on a quest (Oz)
- contest in which children must fight to the death (Hunger Games)
- a hunter-vampire stalks Bella leading the entire Cullen family to defend her (Twilight)
Have more examples? Leave them in the comments and we’ll add them to the list!
Note: It’s ok to give spoilers!
4. The Special Sauce
Agents and editors at publishing houses receive thousands of pitches for books. Screenwriting agents and producers receive thousands of pitches and screenplays.
When I’ve asked them why the choose the books or screenplays to publish or produce, they inevitably say something like this:
There’s just something about the story. Something special that set it apart.
For the most part, I find this to be an unhelpful answer. However, after reading thousands of stories by professional and amateur writers myself, even judging more than a dozen writing contests, I sort of get it.
Winning, bestselling, blockbuster stories always are well written, highly crafted. But that’s not all that sets them apart. There’s also just something unique about them.
That thing might be a different way of looking at the world, a unique character voice, an interesting take on current events, a distinctive style, or some other aspect that sets it apart from the pack.
How do you figure out your special sauce?
I have no idea (apart from practice, which as you can probably imagine, I’m a huge fan of). However, the one thing I can say is the answer is not to add more complications. Great stories, and great premises, are simple!
“ A good premise contains a special sauce element—something that makes it unique. Writers don’t figure out their special sauce by complicating the idea, but presenting a new perspective on a simple one.Tweet
Now that we’ve covered how to write the premise of a story, let’s talk about how to write a premise for everyday life!
Premise for Memoirs: 4 Steps to a Bestselling Memoir Idea
As someone who has written a memoir, I tell all my memoir students that writing a book about your life is one of the hardest challenges you can take on as a writer.
You think it’s going to be easy. It’s your life after all.
The problem is that because you know what happened, simplifying it becomes almost impossible.
This is why premises are especially important for memoir writers. Let’s look at how to write them in four steps:
1. A Core Problem or Situation
Good memoirs are about one problem you faced in your life, one situation, event, season, or even day.
This is the biggest challenge, because how do you narrow your life experience down to a single problem or situation?
And yet, a book about your entire life story, from birth to the present, is much less interesting than it sounds.
Find the problem you were facing in your life, ideally a problem many others are experiencing even now, and focus your storytelling on that.
2. A Character (Likely You)
As with the novel premise, memoirs focus on a character, described in third person with two words:
An adjective + a noun
For example, in my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris, it was a “cautious writer.”
Do the same.
3. A Lesson Learned
Unlike novels, memoirs must convey some kind of life lesson. Some memoirs are completely focused on this, are more how-to/self-help books than narrative driven. Others focus primarily on the story, letting the lesson peak out only occasionally.
Nearly all memoirs, even the celebrity tell-alls, are about some kind of life lesson.
4. The Special Sauce
Anyone can write a memoir. What makes the published, bestselling memoirs is something different, something special. It’s hard to articulate, but usually for memoir they have something of the following:
- “Celebrity.” Bookstores are full of celebrity memoirs, from Michelle Obama to Justin Bieber to Will Smith. One editor, after she passed on my book, asked me why it couldn’t be more like Hilarie Ros Burton’s memoir, the actress from One Tree Hill. “Hmm,” I thought, “I can’t think of a reason.” Celebrities can also include social media stardom or being well-known in a small, but specific niche. However, most of us are not celebrities. So what other options do we have to make our memoirs special?
- Authority. Are you an expert in your professional field? Are you a well-regarded expert in some niche? (Or do you want to be seen as one?) Writing a memoir, especially a more how-to, self-help driven memoir, can be a great way to both build and profit off of your authority.
- A Unique Experience or Perspective. My friend Marion Roach Smith wrote an NY Times bestselling memoir based on the experience of her mother receiving one of the first Alzheimer’s diagnoses, a disease which was fairly unknown at the time. Have you experienced something no one else has? That might be your special sauce.
- A Unique Voice or Style. Some voices are so unique, so impactful that they capture attention. It’s hard to say why. I think about Ernest Hemingway’s mentor, Gertrude Stein, who wrote one of the most famous memoirs of the early 20th century, or One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp (or for that matter, the memoirs of Annie Dillard—my favorite—and Anne Lamott, since we’re talking about variations of A names). If people say, “There’s just something about your writing style that I love,” then maybe this can be your special sauce.
- Something else.Yes, I know this is vague and unhelpful. The problem is that no one can truly explain why some book ideas stand out and others don’t.
Don’t have any of these things? That’s ok! You can still write your memoir. You just might find that agents and editors aren’t very interested in it. As someone who’s memoir was rejected by dozens of publishers, many of whom commented on the strength of the writing and story, I will say your story is still worth writing!
The best thing you can do is your best, treat the writing like practice, and learn from it as much as you can so that you’re more prepared to write you next book.
Last, let’s talk about how to write a compelling argument for a nonfiction book, essay, or article.
Premise for Nonfiction Writers
For nonfiction writers, your premise is a two- to three-sentence summary of the main argument or narrative of the book. Here’s what Michael Hyatt says in his guide Writing a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal:
The premise is a two- or three-sentence statement of the book’s basic concept or thesis. Usually, it identifies the need and then proposes a solution.
Since this is the first part of every book proposal, it’s important to get it right. For example, for the last month I’ve been working and re-working mine for a book that I’m ghostwriting, trying to cast the right vision for our future book.
A compelling premise for a nonfiction piece must contain four things:
1. A Felt Problem or Situation
Great nonfiction books are about problems. You think they’re about solutions, but until you identify the problem that your reader’s are experiencing and demonstrate that you understand it, no one will trust you with their time and attention.
Furthermore, this problem must be felt by the reader. You might think that people have a problem with being too busy, for example, and that your book about saying no is perfect for them. But unless you describe the problem in terms people are actually experiencing, they won’t stay long enough to hear the solution to their “problem.”
2. A Person or Group with Authority
Who discovered the solution to the problem? You or someone else?
Once you identify the problem, briefly describe in a few words the person or group providing the solution.
This might be you the author, a case study, a profile, or the subject of the book.
3. A Solution or Method that Works
What is your unique method that you will demonstrate in this book to solve the problem?
Describe it in a few words.
4. Special Sauce
Finally, as with memoirs and novels, there must be something special, something unique that will set your book apart. Usually this will be one of the following:
- Authority. Are you a leader in your field? Are you a well-regarded expert in some niche? (Or do you want to become one?) Writing a non-fiction book can be a great way to both build and profit off of your authority.
- Unique Experience. Have you experienced something no one else has that you now want to share with others?
- Proven Solution. Can you demonstrate real results with your solution to people’s felt problem?
- A Large Audience. Do you already have a large following, whether through an email list, social media, or other following?
Don’t have any of these things? That’s ok! A book can be a great way to build up your authority and audience. However, you may have to pursue self-publishing.
Now, the Most Important Step: Test Your Premise to See If It’s GOOD
Writing your premise is just the first step. Next you have to test it to see if it’s interesting.
How do you test it? I learned this from Blake Snyder, the late screenwriter and author of Save the Cat.
Here’s what you do: you share it with people. You share it with your family and friends. You share it with co-workers and random strangers at your local coffee shop.
You ask them, “Hey, what do you think? Would you read this book?”
And if enough people say yes, then you might be ready to start writing. If enough people say no, on the other hand, then you might need to re-work your premise.
There are two objections I hear when I ask people to do this, though:
1. What if someone steals my premise?
What if people steal my idea? What if someone takes my idea and writes a book with it and becomes a famous bestselling writer, and I’m left out.
Honestly, this isn’t something you should be worried about, and here’s why. Because if two people started with the exact same idea, what would happen is they would write completely different books!
Don’t worry about people stealing your idea. Worry about your ideas not getting the feedback they need to get better. Worry about your ideas not getting written in the first place.
2. What if people hate my premise?
If that happens to you, I just want to say I’m sorry, but also that it’s a really good thing, it’s a good thing you found out now before you started writing a book, than after you finished.
Writing a book takes a really long time, hundreds even thousands of hours. It’s great to know if your idea isn’t working BEFORE you start writing rather than after.
However, there’s also a chance that they’re just wrong. As Jeff Lyons, author of Anatomy of a Premise Line says, “Try everything; listen to everyone. Follow no one. You are your own story guru!”
Examples of a Good Premise
Need more help on writing a strong premise? To practice writing a premise that will hook a reader, study how successful stories draft a premise. I like to look at IMDB or back covers for practice. You can see some examples I’ve pulled from these resources below (with some edits, if the name of the character is used post-production or publication instead of with a two-word description).
- A starving teenager voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games: a televised competition in which two teenagers from each of the twelve Districts of Panem are chosen at random to fight to the death. (The Hunger Games)
- After his son is captured in the Great Barrier Reef and taken to Sydney, a timid clownfish sets out on a journey to bring him home. (Finding Nemo)
- An ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors. (A Man Called Ove)
- A chronicle of one woman’s one thousand one hundred mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent personal tragedy. (Wild)
- A married woman realizes how unhappy her marriage really is, and that her life needs to go in a different direction. After a painful divorce, she takes off on a round-the-world journey to “find herself”. (Eat, Pray, Love)
- An idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question: What makes a life worth living? in a memoir that finds hope in beauty against insurmountable odds. (When Breath Becomes Air)
- The story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. (Hidden Figures)
- A revered journalist takes on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers” — the best and the brightest, the most famous, and the most successful. He asks the question: What makes high-achievers different? (Outliers)
- Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about publishing but were too afraid to ask in a funny, candid guide by one acclaimed author. (Before and After the Book Deal)
What Is Your Premise?
Do you want to write a book but aren’t sure where to start? Are you working on a book now and need some help refocusing?
Regardless of where you are in the process, it’s a good idea to spend some time writing a solid premise. You wouldn’t build a house without laying a strong foundation. In the same way, don’t start writing without writing a strong premise.
It might feel like an unnecessary step, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run. Give it a try! “Want to write a book but aren’t sure how to start? Try coming up with a one-sentence premise.Tweet
Have you written a premise before? Do you have one for your work in progress? Let me know in the comments.
By Joe Bunting
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