Though it may not look like it on the surface, a strong premise is key to nearly every stage of the writing process. Your novel’s premise will be there to keep you on track as you write, help you honor your original inspiration while editing, and even find your ideal readers when it comes time to publish.
A well-crafted premise is a pretty powerful writing tool!
Of course, before we can talk about actually using that tool, I should probably answer a quick question:
What is a premise?
Your novel’s premise is a one to two-sentence synopsis of your story, covering the foundational elements that make your novel yours. A strong premise will do a few important things:
- It should imply a conflict,
- It should show a unique perspective,
- It should tease how your story will start,
- And it should hint at your main character’s reaction to the conflict.
To help you see what I mean, here are a few premises you might recognize:
- Mulan: A young woman disguises herself as a man in order to join the Chinese army and protect her father from the draft, entering a deadly war in the process.
- Star Wars: A young Jedi goes on a quest to destroy an evil empire, only to discover that his father is one of its leaders, betraying everything he believes.
As you can see, both of these examples follow a common structure. Some character is faced with a difficult conflict, sets out to achieve something related to that conflict, and gets into trouble. Though we don’t get any spoilers about how these stories end, there is a clear implication—this character has a lot of challenges ahead of them.
With those examples in mind, take a moment to write down your novel’s premise, remembering to keep it short. Again, this is all about distilling the most important elements of your story. You don’t even need your protagonist’s name!
Once you have a premise in hand, let me show you everything you can do with it…
1. Planning Your Story
Typically, the first time you’ll need to consider your story’s premise is while outlining your novel.
This is the chance to distill your many ideas into a cohesive plot, complete with a cast of characters, an engaging story world, and a series of interesting scenes. However, outlining can be a massive undertaking. Some authors (myself included) write outlines that are thousands of words long. Even if every word in that outline is useful, it’s still a lot of information to sort through.
Having a clear premise solves this problem.
As you saw a moment ago, your novel’s premise is short—like, really short. It strikes directly at the heart of your novel, meaning taking the time to write it down is a great way to figure out what parts of your story truly matter.
If you’re struggling to figure out what your novel is “about,” then you’ll definitely want a premise to guide you.
2. Writing Your First Draft
Next up, it’s time to write!
Writing your first draft is a process full of uncertainty, exploration, and excitement. Early on, your story will have tons of possibilities to get lost in—but eventually, you’ll need to find your direction.
This is where your premise arrives to save the day.
Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you will get stuck while writing your first draft. When this happens, one of the best things you can do is reference your novel’s premise. How does the scene you’re writing relate back to that core idea? Does it move your story forward? Does it matter to the bigger picture?
Though simple on the surface, it might surprise you how quickly these questions (and your premise) can help you cut through the fog!
3. Editing Your Manuscript
Much like writing, editing is equal parts fun and stressful. You’ve finished your first draft, meaning now you need to dig deep and transform it into a polished novel.
Along the way, you’ll likely make a lot of changes.
For the most part, these changes will be good, but it is possible you make so many changes that you forget what you’re working towards. After months of editing, your story might look completely different from what you started with—and also completely confusing.
If you’re struggling with this, your premise is a great way to reset your writing compass. Pull out your novel’s premise and remind yourself what this story is about. Think back to your original inspiration, vision, and plans, and then consider how to honor those in your current draft. While revisions are an important part of the writing process, it’s also important to stay oriented and focused while editing. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to end up overwhelmed.
4. Publishing Your Novel
Publishing (especially self-publishing) involves a lot of explanation. You’ll need to explain your novel to prospective agents and publishers, pitch it to readers through your marketing, and likely fill in supportive friends and family too.
Luckily, you don’t need to make up these explanations as you go.
Your novel’s premise is essentially an elevator pitch for your story—so don’t be afraid to treat it as such! When someone asks you what your novel is about, share your premise. When it comes time to write your novel’s back cover blurb, use your premise as a starting point. And finally, highlight your premise to readers in the form of emails and ad copy.
By using your premise to ensure every part of your publishing process is consistent, you’ll have a much easier time getting your novel out into the world.
5. Finding Your Fans
Speaking of readers, this is the last major use for your novel’s premise.
Finding your ideal reader is often a tricky process, one that involves a lot of research and careful consideration. The question is, what do you do once you’ve found them? How do you prove your novel is what they’re looking for?
Well, that’s where your premise comes in!
Because your premise highlights the most important aspects of your story, it also provides a good window into what your novel is about. A young woman might set out to find herself, while an elderly grandfather comes to terms with his life. These two stories are very different and thus appeal to different readers. By sharing your premise through social media, blurbs, email, and ads, you can quickly signal to readers whether your novel is right for them.
At the end of the day, your novel’s premise is a small part of your writing toolkit—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. By taking the time to write a solid premise and then use it to the fullest, you can set yourself up for success in nearly every stage of the writing process.
Whatever your story’s premise is, I hope it’s a worthwhile companion on your writing journey!
Tell us in the comments: What is your novel’s premise? How has it helped you plan, write, or publish your novel?
Lewis Jorstad is an author and developmental editor who helps up-and-coming writers hone their writing craft over at The Novel Smithy. When he isn’t working on the next book in his Writer’s Craft series, you can find him playing old Gameboy games and sailing somewhere around the eastern half of the US. You can also check out his free ebook, The Character Creation Workbook, and grab a copy for yourself!
You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter and instagram.