How to Write a Premise for a Book

Write a Premise

The advice on how to write a premise varies, but the consensus emphasizes it’s a crucial step toward turning your idea into a novel.

Tips on How to Write a Premise

An Idea Differs from a Premise

An idea and a premise are not synonymous. Before getting into the details, let’s define terms.

  • Idea (aka Concept): An idea or concept refers to the basis for a novel. Writers often phrase the concept as a what-if question (e.g., What if an innocent man died in a prison riot and the arresting office died of grief because he couldn’t overturn the conviction?).
  • Premise: The premise gives a story’s big picture and writer’s development strategy. It’s stated in one sentence, combining character, plot, theme, symbol, event (i.e., the Story Problem), and a sense of the hero and story outcome (i.e., the hero’s change).

For example, in John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, he shared this premise:

An aging beauty tries to get a man to marry her while under constant attack from her sister’s brutish husband. — A Street Car Named Desire

➨Why Start with a Premise?

I understand the itch to write. I’ve got a closet shelf littered with half-written manuscripts because my initial idea proved insufficient to support a story.

James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure offered this sobering question:

Why spend six months, a year—ten years!—hammering out something that editors and agents, not to mention readers, will not care about? You need to come up with hundreds of ideas, toss out the ones that don’t grab you, and then nurture and develop what’s left.

To sum up, a premise nurtures and develops an idea that grabs you, giving strategic inspiration and guidelines to keep you on course to complete the novel.

➨Genre and Audience Expectations

In hindsight, like most people, I lacked knowledge of genres. Readers know what they like, and although they may not specify a genre, their book selections show savvy purchase decisions.

For writers, understanding your chosen genre helps you develop a premise worthy of a full-length novel.

  • Do you have a genre or subgenre in mind?
  • Are you aware of your chosen genre’s conventions and obligatory scenes?

Genre and audience expectations influence your premise, and are essential to the strategic direction of your novel. Here’s an illustration for the cozy mystery genre.

➨My Journey to Turn an Idea into a Premise

I had an idea to write a thriller set in a small town. I wanted to raise the hairs on the back of the necks of my undefined audience with spin tingling action, excitement, tension, and suspense.

In my writer’s journal packed with ideas, one got me excited. I wrote an elaborate opening scene, plus the murderer’s backstory. It began with a murder followed by the hunt for a serial killer.

But when I evaluated if this premise could change lives, I ran into several snags:

  • I had not turned the idea into a premise.
  • Despite several tries, I could not describe any life-changing possibilities for my undefined audience or me.
  • My idea struck me as more of a shadow of stories I had read or watched rather than an original concept.

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Start with a Killer Concept

Several half-written stories taught me to replace a lackluster idea with a killer concept. I found many of my initial concepts did not translate into a well-crafted premise. At first I tried to force the process, spending time to make ideas work. I learned to abandon poor ideas and search for concepts with more appeal.

➨List Your Passions

Have you ever started something new and realized it was only a passing interest? I’ve still got my small stained-glass project, but don’t expect me to make windows for cathedrals. Been there, done that (on a small scale), and I’ve moved on.

Some ideas are like that stained-glass project—fun and interesting, but not worthy of investing more time and energy.

I’ve learned to use my passions to focus on my story ideas. I hunt for one that grabs me. Then I develop and nurture the best of the best into a working premise.

For example, I love mystery books and films. I embraced my writing passion by clarifying preferences:

  • Likes: I prefer novels and movies that create puzzles to solve while delivering fast-paced scenes. The mystery and thriller genres overlap, but I enjoy puzzles the most.
  • Dislikes: I don’t like “on the nose” scenes, especially the ones that state rather than show emotions. Also, whenever a story delves into crude dialogue, I sense a lazy writer and my mind exits the scene.

➨Identify Your Favorite Books and Films

After compiling what I like and disliked, I listed favorite books (e.g., Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) and films (e.g., Hitchcock’s Rear Window). My list of novels and movies emphasized a writer could deliver intriguing adult subjects without resorting to crude dialogue and gruesome descriptions.

Next, I listed book criteria aligned with my preferences:

  • Interesting Characters: Protagonists with strong morals yet flawed like the rest of us. Antagonists, who were ordinary people, until they stepped over the line and became criminals.
  • Tangled Plot Twists: Events that forced characters into untenable situations and moral dilemmas, bubbling to the surface their error-prone thoughts, speech, choices, and actions.
  • Creative Lines and Descriptions: Clever dialogue, inner revelations, and dynamic visions. For example, I love the way Raymond Chandler revealed Philip Marlowe’s thoughts in the Big Sleep: Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
  • Universal Themes: In the crime, mystery, and thriller genres, justice versus injustice tops the list, with heavy influences of good versus evil, courage versus fear, selflessness versus selfishness.
  • Popular Genres: I’m inspired by excellent mysteries, but not those that lapses into soap-opera cliches. I found a subgenre niche between mystery noir and cozy mystery—a clean cozy with an edge—like the best novels and films of the fifties.

If a story has the potential to satisfy my listed criteria, I’m more likely to buy and read that novel. That revelation encouraged me to refine my premise.

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List Premise Possibilities

I found this part of the process more difficult than expected. The temptation to keep refining had me changing initial premises too many times. Here are the top two of my many drafts:

  1. A Nazi officer and his family escaped Germany in 1945 with gold and art, settled in Texas, and one of the twin grandsons killed his parents to abscond with millions in pillaged WWII loot.
  2. An introverted gallery owner learned to overcome fear and solve a murder.

The first sounds exciting and the second deals with a universal theme; however, both initial premises are imperfect drafts subject to evaluation and change.

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Evaluate Your Draft Premises

Instead of adding more potential premises, I qualified my top two by answering a series of questions.

➨Premise Quality

  • Q: Does the premise create enough possibilities for a full-length novel?
    A: Unfortunately, neither premise 1 nor 2 created enough possibilities.
  • Q: Does the premise provide an interesting landscape for the story?
    A: Premise 1 and 2 failed to denote an interesting landscape for the story.
  • Q: Does the premise make room for abundant details?
    A: Premise 1 made room for abundant details, but not premise 2.
  • Q: Will your premise entice potential readers to get the novel?
    A: The first premise sounded like a retread of history-based novels, and the second premise sounded boring yet might attract readers who want to overcome fear.
  • Q: Does the premise sound original and plausible?
    A: I sensed while answering questions that combining drafts 1 and 2 could create a fresh and believable premise. Here’s my updated premise:

When the murder of a client disrupts an introverted gallery owner’s peaceful life in the Texas Hill Country, she uses her researching skills to identify the killer and discovers the intriguing odyssey of a priceless painting looted in World War II.

➨Premise Challenges

An objective review of the updated premise assessed the challenges and proposed solutions:

  • Q: Will this premise confuse readers with the required number of interesting and relatable characters?
    A: I envisioned a relatable amateur female sleuth who has strong investigative skills but fears losing her peaceful life, and that emotional flaw hinders her efforts to identify the killer. She’s aided by her husband’s technology skills and encouraged by her best friend. In contrast to the sleuth’s serious efforts, the quirky community characters will lighten the narrative without confusing readers.
  • Q: Will this premise allow building a believable and interesting world?
    A: The small town set in the beautiful Texas Hill Country will engage readers of cozy mysteries. The fictional community creates abundant possibilities for a multi-book series.
  • Q: Based on this premise, can you envision how the main character will transform, and will readers find that change meaningful?
    A: Until her client’s death, the gallery owner led a sheltered life and was unaware of how fear held her back. By the end of the story, she’ll learn to move forward despite her fear and heed the call to sleuth.
  • Q: Can you make the theme and message come through to readers without sounding preachy?
    A: The internal theme (e.g., you can’t let fear hold you back from what you’re called to do) and message (e.g., by heeding the call, you can do more in life than you hoped or imagined) are universal. The crime genre and audience expectations require an external theme of justice versus injustice.
  • Q: Does the potential premise allow you to convey essential details without an up-front information dump?
    A: Given the interactions with husband, best friend, and community characters, the sleuth can convey essential details without an up-front information dump.
  • Q: Can you create narrative drive (i.e., what-happens-next questions that keep readers turning pages) without sounding like a cliched serial?
    A: I can envision scenes that place questions in the minds of readers, each one designed to keep them turning pages for the answer.
  • Q: Can you provide the details without overloading audiences with too much information (i.e., will they “get it” without an explanation)?
    A: To avoid too much backstory at the outset, an interesting prologue could bridge the historical period from 1945 to present. An epilogue at the end can wrap up loose ends without sounding like a documentary. For example, Clive Cussler used this technique in his long-running Dirk Pitt series.

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Choose a Storytelling Strategy

To arrive at the overall storytelling strategy, I needed to state in one line (A) how I would tell the story and (B) what I’d convey in the story. Based on my research, I could tell the story from several perspectives, including the protagonist’s mindset, the setting, the present, the past, cultural, community, and familiar story frameworks (e.g., fairy-tales, legends).

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby used The Godfather as an example:

  • Premise: The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.
  • Strategy: Use the classic fairy-tale strategy to show how the youngest of three sons becomes the new “king.”

To sum up, I decided the classic quest (the “how”) framework best fit this story, showing the sleuth using her knowledge of art to discover the looted painting (the “what”). This strategy provides readers with a puzzle and engages them with interesting historical facts.

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Select the Best Lead Character

Within the Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense category on Amazon, I found a mystery subgenre of women sleuths. Above all, it’s a niche that ranges from noir to cozy and contains books written by famous and debut writers.

After reading many mysteries, studying the Amazon marketplace, and reading dozens of reviews, I’m convinced my best character is a female amateur sleuth. Her occupation as a gallery owner offers the opportunity to share many little-known facts about art, but it’s her Boston terrier named Ike that will draw in readers who love animals.

Research of the genres and subgenres helped me choose the best character, but I still had to make sure my passion drove the character selection instead of focusing primarily on market expectations. If you want to learn about the app I used for research, check out Publisher Rocket.

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Determine the Opposition

Characters without conflict are boring, so I had to determine who or what would oppose my heroine.

The identity of the person who opposes the sleuth remains hidden from readers until the climax, but throughout the story, she will face conflicts. For example:

  • The main character resists the call to sleuth because she fears the loss of her idyllic life.
  • Her best friend’s troubled past feeds sleuth’s fears.
  • The local police chief first encourages then hinders sleuth.
  • The setting changes from idyllic to deadly.
  • The sleuth will face off against five suspects and encounter threats.

Identifying the chief conflicts before writing prepared me to align and prioritize the value shifts occurring at Midpoint. For example, the sleuth’s values will shift from resisting to embracing her calling to investigate, and her motivation shifts from fear to courage.

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Specify the Moral Choice

Near the end of the story, the sleuth will face a moral choice that could turn deadly, and her decision replaces what she thought was an idyllic life with an exciting adventure as an amateur sleuth, setting up the opportunity for a series.

I decided the moral dilemma faced by the lead character would pit selflessness (e.g., doing the right thing for others) versus selfishness (e.g., maintaining her idyllic life).

  • If she does the right thing, her husband will suffer.
  • If she maintains her ideal life, she’ll suffer from guilt.

This dilemma would increase tension until her breakthrough decision in the climax, engaging readers until story end.

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Validate Your Premise’s Appeal

This crucial step determines if the fleshed-out premise is likely to satisfy the writer, target readers, and a wider audience. Here are the validation questions and my responses:

  • Q: Are you passionate about writing a full-length novel centered on this premise?
    A: I’m passionate about writing this book because it incorporates my values while mixing elements of thriller and mystery.
  • Q: Will readers care enough about this premise to buy your novel?
    A: I believe the answer is yes, but this will be a delicate balance because I must position the book as cozy mystery with an edge.
  • Q: Do you see people buying such stories?
    A: Yes, and examples include:
    • M. C. Beaton: She wrote cozies with an edge set in modern times (e.g., Agatha Raisin Mysteries and Hamish Macbeth Mysteries).
    • Jana DeLeon: She takes the cozy right to the edge. It’s the lead character’s edgy demeanor and profane humor that draws her target readers.
    • Amanda M. Lee: She takes the cozy into the paranormal.
    • Rhys Bowen: She writes stand-alone historical cozies and series.
    • Martin Walker: He delves into a variety of murders in more than a dozen books.

In conclusion, after researching the marketplace and reading dozens of books, I can see people buying a book based on my working premise. In the Preparation phase of the Global Story Plan, the next task is to choose the structure and point of view.

In case you’re wondering how I rapidly sorted through hundreds of books on Amazon to find authors who generated respectable monthly sales in my chosen genre, check out Publisher Rocket.

Publisher Rocket for Research

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Wrap Up

It’s work to write a premise. Lots of it! Drafting a working premise was more effort than expected, but I’d repeat the process in a heartbeat because of what I learned about me, my story, and Amazon’s marketplace.

Above all, I came to this conclusion:

To avoid writing 50,000 to 100,000 words that go nowhere, discover your best possible premise!

What’s Your View?

How do you go about turning your idea into a premise? Do you see the front-end work of value or wasted effort?

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