Every story hinges on the premise, which is the idea that drives the story from beginning to end. The premise is a short blurb, often found on the back cover. The author may or may not write it out, but it is always there, at the very least in the author’s mind before and during the writing process.
How do you write a premise?
According to Joe Bunting at The Write Practice, a premise must contain three elements:
1. The protagonist
2. The setting
3. What the protagonist wants and why he can’t get it.
First, give a quick description of the protagonist using an adjective, as in the example below (Danyal was a grieving father) or describe the protagonist through the problem he is facing. See the examples below. We discern that Dmitri is hungry through the setting, and we discover that Maggie is lonely without that word being used.
Second, describe the setting in a sentence. In Dmitri’s story, the setting is described as “during Stalin’s forced starvation.” We also learn that it is cold outside through a bit of action in the premise.
Third, be sure to describe the problem the protagonist is facing. In Maggie’s story, her problem is that she needs guidance in choosing a man and therefore she needs her older sister back. The problem should always create a question in the reader’s mind, urging them to read the story. Will she get an older sister to replace her lost one? Will she be able to decide whose invitation to accept to the ball?
What happens when you start with a premise but don’t stick to it? That would be like our friends who signed a lease agreement on a house for rent, based on the picture they were sent. They were excited to move into their spacious brick and cedar three bedroom home. But when they arrived with their moving truck, they discovered instead an abandoned store front with black mold growing in the basement. Broken promises are not soon forgotten. Stick with your premise and you will win a reader that comes back for more.
Examples of Premises
It’s Christmas in the Ukraine during Stalin’s forced starvation. Dmitri huddles outside all morning in frigid temperatures, waiting for the wagon to roll by, hoping for a fallen vegetable. But he is not the only one watching. (Christmas in Khirkav, 1932, Pam Mytroen, 2016).
It is the night before his daughter’s graduation and she only wants one thing, but Danyal, her grieving father, cannot give it to her. How will they connect? (Onions, Satin, and Hope, Pam Mytroen, 2016).
Maggie Stevenson’s only Christmas wish is for an older sister to replace the one who abandoned her on Christmas Eve. Without her, how will she ever decide whose invitation to accept for the Christmas Starlight Ball? The only problem is when you’re 90 years old and you put your request on facebook, you never know who might come knocking. (The Snowflake Sisters, Pam Mytroen, 2017).
If Pam could spend all day in her kitchen baking pies, brownies, and making turkey dinner for friends, she would. But Murray Pura once told her to write first and then bake—advice that she is trying to stick with these days, except, of course, when her grandchildren stop in for milk and cookies.