What is a Premise in Writing? Why Should You Write it First?

Your story needs a premise. Whether it’s a screenplay, novel, or essay, having a killer premise will get you that publishing deal (and more).

A well-crafted story premise is a valuable asset—the heart and soul of your story in one or two neat sentences. But, crafting the premise line isn’t as simple as it may sound (especially for newbies) but with practice it becomes natural.

If you ever heard someone say “writing isn’t easy,” they were right, and the fact that there are hundreds of articles and video tutorials explaining something as brief as a premise line only supports this.  

Okay, so it’s important, but what is a premise and why should you write it first?

In this article, I answer these questions and a couple more.

premise in writing

What Is a Premise?

A premise is the story’s central idea, a foundation upon which the whole narrative is built. The premise (fiction) we’re talking about is somewhat an extension of the dictionary/nonfiction explanation, which defines the premise as “a proposal from which a conclusion can be drawn.”

In a sentence or two, a well-crafted premise expresses your story’s heart and soul and has dual functionality. It communicates the story’s direction and purpose to the reader and acts as a guide or flashlight for the writer. This means that a good premise is a good storytelling roadmap for both the reader and the writer.

A Premise Should Have These!

A strong premise is unique, but ideal premises have the same three elements:

3 elements of a story premise

1. Main character

The premise must have a short description of the central character. This description can take up to 2-3 words, and it must effectively capture the protagonist.

Examples:

  • Vile councilman
  • Crooked preacher
  • Honest sheriff
  • Hardworking FBI agent

Even if you have multiple protagonists, the description still has to be brief; use 2-3 words to describe the characters as a group, a race, a domain, etc. Just choose words that describe them as a unit.

Examples:

  • LAPD SWAT
  • Saudi Arabian Royals
  • Group of militant aliens

2. A goal

Every protagonist has to have a goal, and this purpose or need should be included in the premise. Therefore, the premise should also include a simple explanation of what your main character desires or needs.

This part describes what they want or are destined to do. For example, your protagonist is shipwrecked on a monster-infested island, and they either have to adapt and live on the island or figure out a way back home.

Although the example gives the protagonist two options, usually, the premise outlines one goal, which may change along the storyline.

3. The situation or obstacle

Without an obstacle or conflict, a story becomes bland. The protagonist has to be in some sort of fascinating situation, crisis, or conflict. The protagonist has to be met with external pushback that opposes their goal, thereby creating dramatic friction.

Of course, it’s usually the work of the antagonist that brings about the main conflict of the story, which brews into the story’s climax.

Here’s a fictional premise template:

“There’s a character who wants to do something, their goal meets opposition, and therefore a need to overcome the ensuing conflict arises.”

Why You Should Write a Premise First

1. It Is Your Story’s Cornerstone

A premise forms the foundation of your book or story. It gives you a basis for the major decisions that you have to take as you write or research your book. Once you have a good premise, you can use it to check to see if something fits that premise, and you either add or remove that thing according to its alignment with the premise.

2. Vital for Organization and Coherence of Ideas

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, your head will get cloudy at some point. You write and think about a lot of things, and they can clog your brain, and, at this point, you might be stuck.

You need a compass to tell you what to write next. Fortunately, you have a good premise that will help you get back on track. When you refer to your premise, it’s like you’re taking some sort of refresher course.

3. A Good Premise is a Marketing Asset

a publisher is thrilled to read the premise of a novel
A publisher is thrilled to read the premise of a novel.

A good premise is marketable. Just that one, well-crafted sentence has the power to land you a publishing deal or TV show.

In screenwriting, having a good premise means that your logline is sexy enough to get the producers drooling over your script.

4. A Premise Condenses the Story Idea

A good premise condenses a story into a simple idea. You don’t need a complex idea to have a great story.

You might have the urge to work on very complex ideas, but most of the time, simple is better. If your ideas are complex, condensing them into a line or two will simplify things for you.

And the bad thing about working with disorganized, complicated ideas is that they are demanding, and you’re likely going to get stuck along the way. And if you haven’t published anything, getting stuck while writing your first book spells doom for your career.

How to Write a Strong Premise

Sometimes, a story gets rejected because the writer fails to develop a convincing premise. If the premise is all over the place, how is it supposed to convince literary agents or publishing houses that you are actually a good writer?

You need a strong, organized premise, and below are tips on how you can create an impressive story premise:

  1. The theme comes first. The story’s theme is important because it expresses the story’s stand on a particular issue. Every story has a point of view that reveals the writer’s takes on a topic; it could be politics, war, peace, racism, tax rates for wealthy people vs. the poor, or the implications of advancements in military technologies. It is important to identify the theme at the beginning of your story planning process because it gives the story a directive essence and premise. Apart from choosing a theme that you are interested in, identify a theme that is saleable.
  2. Exploit your characters’ goals and motivations. If you come up with a strong motivation, the premise is likely going to make more sense. A killer premise takes advantage of the protagonist’s challenges that—in turn—lead to a strong motivation or goals that easily convince the editors or agents. Good character motivation can also help you develop other pieces of your premise because it explains the reasons why a character might be making certain decisions and why the story is heading a certain way.
  3. Make it brief. You should be able to explain the central idea in as few words as possible; the simpler and quicker it is to explain the premise, the better. After writing the first premise draft, scan for any extra decorative words or details to ensure pithiness. You cannot sacrifice brevity when crafting your premise because most literary agents are going to skim through your premise and probably make a decision just from that. So, if it’s too wordy or muddy, they are likely going to throw away your work and never even get back to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a premise or logline or whether you are screenwriting or novel-writing, you should be able to explain it in a short time.
  4. Always ask yourself explorative questions. One thing that creative writers know best is to ask themselves for solutions. The idea creation process requires creative writers to ask themselves simple questions that will take the process from the core idea to a full-fledged story. The idea is the same for crafting the premise; you ask simple questions regarding the elements of a premise that I briefly explained in previous sections, questions about the protagonist, the plot idea, the inciting incident, etc. Ask yourself “what if” questions such as “what if an intergalactic warrior comes to earth to fight humans who are on a planet-destroying spree?” “What if a young preacher finds out he is a descendant of a bloodthirsty knight who’s come back to collect a debt from descendants of his former enemy? The questions can take many forms as long as they prove helpful for your idea creation process.
  5. Share your premise. Whether you believe that you are a good writer or not, you have to ask for third-party input. After writing the premise, you have to see whether people other than you find it interesting.

So, share the premise with people, be it other writers, editors, your family, or friends. In this day and age, people are always busy, but you can politely ask them to share their opinions as soon as you share the premise, and always be ready for different kinds of feedback.

The opinions are likely not going to be similar, but if more people are saying they find it interesting, then it is good; otherwise, go back to the drawing board.

Premise vs. Logline

A logline is used primarily in screenwriting to explain what the story is about. A premise and a logline are not the same thing, but a lot of screenwriting students and newbies mix these two up and often use the two terms interchangeably.

The logline is actually broader; it conveys the narrative heart of your story by expressing the plot of your story. The logline condenses the essential elements of your screenplay (protagonist, antagonist, central conflict, and setting) into one or two sentences. The logline conveys the story’s narrative concept, signals the tone, and highlights the core emotion of the story’s premise.

Typically, the premise is what distinguishes our story from others, what makes it unique. Most of the time, it is what makes our story sellable.

example of a premise

The premise line is usually the portal to your logline because it presents the whole structure of your story by introducing all the key components of the story highlight that will be in the logline.

Rather than being the same thing, a premise and logline are complementary; both of these are useful when you are pushing for publishing deals or pitching your screenplay.

When you send query letters to magazine editors, literary agents, or publishing houses, you will need an impressive logline. Likewise, when pitching your story, you will need a good premise line and logline alongside a comprehensive synopsis or chapter breakdown.

Final Words on Premise Writing

A typical premise includes the main character, their main goal, and a situation or obstacle. The premise lays the foundation of the story; without it, it would be difficult for the story to maintain its shape throughout the writing process. It’s also useful in terms of marketing your book because it is what can make agents interested in the story.

The premise is not only the heart and soul of your story but also a flashlight that can light up your way through the process of developing the story from a simple idea into a book.

It simplifies the story and strips it down to its bare bones, thereby making it easy for you to present only the most essential elements that are significant for forging a cohesive structure.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.