Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Premises, Premises

Picture it: While on vacation in New York, you find yourself sharing the elevator of your superswank hotel with a hotshot literary agent. This is your chance to pitch your saga about Jimmy the Pirate’s quest for redemption and ultimately doomed struggle against schizophrenia.  You squeak something about having a manuscript ready for submission.

She sighs and glances at her watch. “Lay it on me.”

“Well, uh…” you start in your awesomely articulate way, “there’s this pangolin, you see.”


“Pangolin. But, uh, that doesn’t really matter, because he runs away on the third page.”

She raises an eyebrow.

“Umm, I mean, it’s, like, totally important for the…uh… set-up… because then Jimmy the Pi—”

DING. The elevator doors open. “Well, good luck with your project.” And with that the agent strides out of your life forever.

You  cover your face in shame. “Why? Why didn’t I work on my pitch? ”

No, but really. Sitting down and writing a premise doesn’t just come in handy during elevator pitches, but also interviews, tweets, and other real life circumstances.  It’s actually a good way of testing whether your story idea is actually worth pursuing.

There is more than one way to write a premise, but an easy way to think about it is: [optional: set-up]…[protagonist]…[verb]…[goal]…[obstacle/stakes]

And here is how it plays out with some popular books and movies:
  • An unloved orphan discovers he’s really a famous wizard who must battle against an evil wizard to redeem his family’s death and save the world.
  • A rougish yet charming pirate joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship from an even more rougish pirate.
  • When a thirty-year-old elf learns he is human, he leaves the North Pole to live with his birth father, who’s not really prepared to have an elf as a son.
  • Then there’s good ol’ boy meets girl: can their love overcome their conflicting backgrounds? Variations of this fit everything from Romeo and Juliet to Twilight to Warm Bodies.  

Sometimes coming up with a good premise is no harder than putting a fresh spin on a tried-and-true concept. And sometimes it makes you realize your clever idea is actually an obvious rehash of what’s been done before. Painful as that may be, it’s much better to figure it out after you’ve written out a one-sentence premise than a whole manuscript.

What are your thoughts on premises? When do you write them – before you start drafting or after you’re done? And how does that affect your manuscript?


  1. This is what Blake Snyder spends a lot of time on in his wonderful book, SAVE THE CAT. Not only is it important to start with a premise, but as you write, it's important to go back to it often. And it's wildly useful when pitching or doing a query letter! Great post.

  2. This sure was helpful. Thank you so much!

  3. SAVE THE CAT is a great resource not only for creating premises (or what he calls log-lines) but for getting a handle on the overall structure of a story.

    In other news, you'd be amazed how many people neglect to mention what their book is about in their cover letter when submitting to agents. Usually, these are the people with the longest cover letters (unless they're the ones with no cover letters at all.) Also, a premise might be a good way to check if you are writing to a trend that's going to be hard to sell. "In a world of werewolves and vampires, star-crossed lovers must..."

  4. This was very helpful, thanks for the post and insight! For myself, I usually think of my premise after I've written a story, and am thinking of this in terms of my pitch. Sometimes I find the focus that I want/intend (in my pitch) is not quite clear in my story and often helps me go back and do more thoughtful revisions.

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