How to Write a Premise: Lesson 1
What if you could write a novel without fail? What if you could be 100% confident that you would be able to take your idea and turn it into a finished novel no matter what? The zombie apocalypse could strike, and you would still finish your novel.
In this series you’ll learn how to take your idea and turn it into a solid plan that will help you finish your novel.
The first thing you need to do is write a premise, and in this first lesson, we’ll learn exactly how to do that. You’ll learn how to avoid one of the biggest mistakes authors make with their novel ideas, and we’ll also take a look at a great premise by a writer in our community and how we can improve it.
Click play to watch the first lesson or switch over to the transcript to read it.
Hey everyone. If you don’t know me, my name is Joe Bunting. I’m a #1 Amazon bestselling author of nine books, and I’ve taught thousands of people how to write and finish their best novels and memoirs, and now, in a free three-part series, I’m so excited to help you do that too.
Here’s the thing: out of the thousands of aspiring authors I’ve talked to over the years, most think the most important step to writing a book is to have a great idea. That’s actually what I used to think too. And it’s one of the reasons I spent more than a decade trying to write a novel and failing.
But when I finally did finish my first novel, I learned that an idea is only the first baby step in writing a book. No what is important is having a novel plan. In fact, I did an informal poll among my writing students and found that those who had a plan were 52% more likely to finish a book. 52%!
Now, we’ll talk more about what a novel plan contains a bit later, but the first and most important part of a novel plan is a premise.
What is a premise?
A premise takes your whole book idea and distills it down to a single sentence with three essential components:
Who has a goal
And is facing a situation / crisis / antagonist
In this series we’ll talk about each of these, but I want to start in the middle, with the goal, because honestly this is one of the biggest mistakes I see writers making.
To talk about it, let’s use an example premise. This is a great premise a writer in our community named Irene Colthurst sent us. Let’s take a look:
An aristocrat’s daughter who wants to aid the rebellion against her father’s colonial rule balks at the marriage arranged for her to the commander charged with suppressing the emerging rebellion.
Awesome. So let’s break this down. First, you have a protagonist: an aristocrat’s daughter. Next you have a goal: aid the rebellion AND not marry this guy. Last is a situation, which is some kind of emerging rebellion against her father. So good, lots to work with here.
Let’s take a closer look at the goal, “she wants to aid the rebellion against her father’s colonial rule AND not have an arranged marriage.”
One general mistake that I see new writers making a lot is what I call the “passive protagonist.”
As readers, we DON’T want to read about someone who is just along for the ride, who never make decisions.
If you look closely at your favorite characters, you’ll see that they are constantly making decisions. Harry Potter chooses to be in Gryfindor even when he could have gone into Slytherin.
Luke Skywalker chooses to help Princess Leia with Old Ben even when he could have stayed in Tatooine.
Holden Caulfield chooses to leave his prep school and goes to New York.
In this premise, I’m seeing the protagonist wanting to take action and wanting to not to take action (by balking at the arranged marriage), but I think it could be more explicit about what action she DOES choose to take. Because there’s NOTHING worse than reading a story about a character whom a lot of things happen to but they never make any choices. Don’t fall into the “passive protagonist” trap, and start right here in your premise by helping the character take action.
Also, think about your story as a whole. If this is your story,
then ideally the goal that you share in your premise is really here at the climax of your story.
For this premise, it feels like the goal is really more over here in the very early inciting incident stage. And that makes it tricky because then we don’t really know what kind of story you’re telling. Are you telling an action story where she gets involved in the rebellion at great risk to her life and ends up overthrowing her father here in the climax? Could you be telling a love story where she initially refuses to marry the commander but then realizes he’s a good man? Or perhaps there’s another love interest entirely, maybe she likes the leader of the rebellion?
But because you’re just finding a goal from this part of the story, we the reader (or agent or editor or YOU when you’re feeling stuck) don’t really know what this story is about. And when you’re halfway through your book and you’re stuck and you don’t know what to write next and you come back to look at your premise, you’ll be like, Wait, what am I really writing about?
We want this premise to help you at every stage of your writing process, so be really clear about what your character’s goal is. Make the goal as far into the action of the story as possible. And make sure the character isn’t passive, they’re actively taking their fate into their hands, making choices, and overcoming obstacles for the sake of their goals.
BUT even the best goal doesn’t work without a great protagonist and that’s what we’re going to be talking about in the next lesson. So stay tuned for that and until then, Happy writing!