A great story premise lies at the core of most successful stories. Of course, an excellent premise that is not rendered effectively through good characterisation, emotive storytelling, good pacing, a sense of verisimilitude, and the like, can’t carry the tale on its own, but it is a good place to start.
What follows below are four simple guidelines for coming up with a winning premise that maximises your chances of writing a successful story.
1. Make the premise as extraordinary and unique as you can:
Rehashing old ideas from past novels and films results in unoriginal and predictable stories. The premise of Jurassic Park was unique at the time, and the box-office receipts proved it.
2. Insure that the premise statement is clear and contains a strong set-up and pay-off:
Here’s and example: A pedantic and inflexible hospital director’s daughter is abducted by an ex-surgeon who has been struck off the register for malpractice and whose child failed to qualify for a liver transplant and died as a consequence. (Set-up)
This is intriguing, but it’s not enough to motivate the story. Here’s the pay-off:
The hospital director is told by the kidnapper to find a liver for his own daughter, who has had hers removed by the kidnapper and is being kept alive by machines, within two days, or she’ll be allowed to die.
3. The concept must evoke dramatic questions:
In this example, such questions are indeed evoked: Will the hospital director manage to find a liver for transplantation and save his child? Will the kidnapper live up to his word? Will the hospital director become a more compassionate and caring man, or will this experience fail to change him?
4. The premise evokes the entire story in its essential form:
Steven Spielberg defined high-concept as a short pithy sentence or paragraph that allows one to hold the entire movie/story in the palm of one’s hand. A strong story premise does the same sort of thing. In the above example, we know the kind of story we’re in for. That’s not to say that it is predictable and devoid of twists and surprises, only that we know the type (genre) of story we’re about to experience.
The story premise is a short description of the entire story in its essential form. Coming up with a premise that is unique, contains a strong set-up and a pay-off, and generates dramatic questions beyond itself, affords the writer a blueprint for writing a successful story.
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