In the Story Planner app, one of the first things you’ll find when you sit down to plan your novel is the premise, also known as the storyline in screenwriting. With a premise, you’ll have a clearer idea of the story you want to tell before diving into your first draft. It can also help you when trying to sell your story to literary agents, publishers, production companies, etc.
But what exactly is a premise?
A premise is four to five lines of text that summarize the overall idea of your story. In principle, you only need three elements to create a premise: the main character, the objective that allows the protagonist’s story to advance, and the forces that will oppose them. The storyline can also include the time and place where the story takes place, but this information is optional depending on its importance.
To make this clearer, we’re going to analyze each of the steps you must take to create the perfect premise, point by point.
1. Clarify the focus of your story. This will indicate which element you should start with. If the most important part of your novel is the main character and what happens to them, you should make that the first element of the premise. On the other hand, if the most important aspect is that it’s a novel with multiple points of view set in a dystopian universe, perhaps you should start there.
2. Find your main character. One thing that can’t be left out of the premise is the protagonist (or protagonists if there’s more than one). Don’t worry if they’re not well defined yet. You’ve just started planning, so you don’t even need to know their names; there will be time for that. All you need for the premise is a noun and a characteristic that defines the main character as simply and clearly as possible. For example: a clueless girl, a firefighter with a fear of heights, an eccentric scientist or three teenagers who run away from home. That’s all.
Of course, it would be ideal for the characteristic you give the character to also be the root of the conflict or something that adds depth and weight to the story. For example, in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea, the main character is an old fisherman who has gone 84 days without catching a fish. As you can see, the next point starts to build around this brief description of the protagonist.
3. Define the objective or goal. This part of the premise is key to creating the conflict of the novel. For there to be a story, we have two options: either the main character wants or needs something, or the main character is forced to do something.
Returning to the example of The Old Man and the Sea, we see that the old fisherman is forced to go out alone in his boat and manages to catch a giant fish. His goal will be to return home with the fish.
4. Determine the forces that oppose them. Finally, for there to be a conflict, and consequently a story worth telling, there must be an opposition, a force whose objective directly clashes with the protagonist’s. This antagonistic force can be abstract or an undefined group (forces of nature, a government, destiny...), but my recommendation is that you try to capture it in a specific character, if only as a symbol of this force or group.
In The Old Man and the Sea, the forces that oppose the fisherman are his own old age, the sea, forces of nature, sharks... but the main symbol of all these forces is the fish he wants to take home, the giant animal that in turn becomes his salvation and his destruction.
5. Set it in a time and place. These elements are only necessary in some stories, such as historical, futuristic or fantasy novels. In the case of The Old Man and the Sea, the plot takes place in Cuba in the mid-1950s, but it could happen at any other time and place and the premise of the story would remain the same.
6. Create the phrase that defines your novel. Finally, once you’ve defined all of the previous elements in order to shape your story, use them to write a single phrase that summarizes the story you want to tell. Remember step one, when you had to identify the most important element of your story; this is where the premise should start. With this in mind, work on this brief summary of your novel until it sounds complete to you, until you feel it perfectly explains the story you want to write.
For example, for Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea, we could create a premise like the following: “An old fisherman who has gone 84 days without catching anything manages to catch the biggest fish he’s ever seen, but he has to get it home alone and the fish isn’t going to make it easy for him.”
When you finish your premise, write it down somewhere visible, such as the project summary in the Story Planner app, and return to it whenever you need a reminder to stay on course while planning your novel.
Think of the potential reader who walks by a bookstore or the editor to whom you sent a manuscript. They have hundreds of available books...
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