Most of us start a story with an idea. You develop it into a concept. Then you build a character to turn that concept into a premise.
- Secrets of church history hide in plain sight.
- What if the DaVinci art held the secrets?
- What if a professor of Renaissance art found secrets of church history that put his life in danger while they threaten leaders of the church?
Two elements work to create good stories together. That’s making a concept and then taking it to a premise. It’s all in service of making characters who can populate that premise.
“A big city cop moves to a small coastal town” is a premise. Your next step is to make a what-if, like “What if a big city cop moves to a small coastal town in South Carolina, then discovers a marijuana ring that’s illegal. The locals look the other way — can he?”
A story’s premise is more than a quick synopsis, or a simple thesis statement defining the theme or argument of a story. It is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer.
A story premise, along with its tool, the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. When properly conceived, it expresses your whole story in one or two neat sentences. Finding this premise line is no small task; in fact, the process of premise development can be the literary equivalent of skiing the black diamond trail. But when you get it right, the payoff in saved time, money and creative blood, sweat and tears is worth the agony.
That’s from a fine article by Jeff Lyons in The Writer magazine, a great craft publication.
There’s a five-step process in there to master. The essential component is a character to care about. Plot is just the plaything we use to enjoy our characters and their fates.
There’s more on using premise — and this is all character work that builds great plots — in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. The book includes exercises. We all love those, just to know we’re learning. When you work with a coach on your writing, you have an expert who looks at your exercises to help see what’s working. Get the book and do some exercises. Let premise power your book.