Your Story Premise – how to improve it

How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.
How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.

Nailing your story premise from the get-go can save you a lot of frustration later. A great story premise serves as the basis from which to grow your entire tale.

There was a time when I’d get an idea for a story and start writing right away, letting the muse guide me. The Nostalgia of Time Travel was such a muse-inspired story. But since then, running aground at sea made me think again. Sure, I still encourage the muse to ride on the mast and sprinkle her magic down on me, but I no longer set sail without a story map.

That map is the story premise—a compacted form of the tale, containing essential ingredients that act as a checklist for a yet-to-be-written story.

“Inevitably, your story premise improves when it hints at the secrets, wounds and flaws of your hero, the power of his nemesis, and the difficulty of attaining the story goal.”

There are many opinions about what constitutes a great premise. Here’s mine:

A story premise ought to: 

  1. Introduce a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming outer challenge.
  2. The pursuit of the challenge must be complicated by the hero’s secret, a wound or a flaw.
  3. The story premise must include a powerful and intriguing nemesis.
  4. It ought to exude a sense of verisimilitude, no matter how fantastical the story.
  5. It should hint at a theme that is both personal and universal.
  6. It must fascinate or intrigue.

Take the sentence: After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster must lead a band of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain.  

This gives the reader an idea of the story, but it is colourless and thin. Filtering the idea through the first of our six must-haves we get:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster reluctantly steps up to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain, when no one else will.

“If your premise does not grab your attention from the get-go, neither will your fleshed-out story—at least not without many unnecessary rewrites.”

Not there yet? How about:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret has to lead a group of teenagers through dangerous terrain to a new place of safety.

Better, but not quite there yet:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.

Although this premise, based on my forthcoming novel, The Land Above, must be refined further it is a more effective snapshot of the potential story than the first version. It addresses the main requirements on the list: 

  1. It contains a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming challenge.
  2. It tells us that the hero hides a secret, suggestive of a wound, weakness or flaw.
  3. It includes a terrifying and motivated antagonist. 
  4. It feels authentic, given the genre. 
  5. It contains a theme that is both universal and personal—individual and group survival.
  6. It is intriguing.

Running your story premise through these filters will undoubtably improve the potential of your story.

Exercise: Write down your story premise in a single sentence. Don’t be too critical at first, just capture the thrust of your tale. Then, apply the six filters suggested above. The sixth version of your premise ought to be much improved.

Summary

Come up with a single sentence snapshot of your story premise. Improve it by applying the six filters discussed in this article.

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