Plan Fiction & Nonfiction Writing in a Premise Statement

What is a Premise?

It’s an overall summary, expressed in five or six concise sentences to capture the essence of your story. It’s an illuminating planning tool and later a polished version may become part of your pitch to a publisher.DSCN2108

As a story plan, it saves time, giving your writing direction and focus. You can test your ideas in this shorthand version, probing the premise to see if it contains the makings of a compelling read. And it helps you envision the whole project, from beginning to end.

Writing the premise is important no matter your genre. It’s the recipe for the cake and it should include all—or, for nonfiction, as many as possible—of the ingredients from the Elements of Story chart listed below.

Write your premise and underline each of the Elements of Story. What’s missing? In a rewrite try to bring in those missing elements.

Premise Checklist:

• Start with the situation. What sets the story rolling?

• It should be short. Maybe five sentences.

• Do you have a large cast of characters? Narrow that to just a few focal characters for the premise, perhaps without even giving names. (Assigning names will tempt you to start fleshing out details and this is an overview.)

• Is place/setting important? Maybe place is so significant it’s almost a character, or an antagonistic force? If so, it will feature in the premise.

• What does your central character, the protagonist, want? She must have a goal; and an antagonist that gets in the way. (This can also apply to nonfiction! Maybe the narrator will enter the tale to allow the reader to identify with someone? In memoir, of course, the narrator/writer IS the protagonist.)

• What’s the PROBLEM? To be a “story” there must be a problem(s). (A happy tale does not engage readers.)

• Is there a ‘premise line’: a few words that express the germ of your idea. Often this premise line constitutes the situation.

The Elements of Story

  • Protagonist & his goals/desires;
  • cast of characters;
  • conflict/problems /tension (external or internal; or both!); & an inciting incident;
  • plot (the causal chain of events mainly relates to fiction, but can emerge in nonfiction too);
  • narrative arc (inciting incident, escalation, explosion, resolution); theme (you may not know this until the manuscript is complete); a moral (an old-style ingredient you may not want to include);
  • point of view;
  • mood;
  • setting.

An Example of a Premise, with the Elements of Story Identified

Reginald & Alice Pidcock of Vancouver Island, BC, c.1872. Courtesy Museum at Campbell River, 19383.

Reginald & Alice Pidcock of Vancouver Island, BC, c.1872. Courtesy Museum at Campbell River, 19383.

A young English gentleman [protagonist] comes to British Columbia for the gold rush in 1862. [situation] He seeks adventure and opportunity [goal] but finds the gold rush has climaxed, plunging many into isolation and poverty [inciting incident]. He falls in love with this rugged seascape, but when he marries a woman of his own culture and class he must pit himself against [conflict] the hostile forces of nature [antagonist], a beggared Colonial government [antagonist], and a job that requires him to convert Aboriginal people he does not understand to British values.

For more on premise see Jack Hodgin’s exceptional book A Passion for Narrative and Elizabeth George’s book Write Away.