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Is It a Good Premise?

September 30, 2006

Many stories fail because the writer has no clear idea, or no idea at all, of what the premise for the story is. And if they don’t know what the premise is, how can they judge what is or what isn’t needed in the plot, and whether the whole thing (the novel/ short story, etc) works?

And does this make the premise the starting point for the writing activity? Rather than a story or plot idea?

Do NOT confuse a premise with a moral. A premise is only true within the context of your story, and does not have to adhere to any moral code in real life. “Premarital sex leads to bliss” is a perfectly workable premise for a work of fiction, regardless of whether or not you happen to agree with it in reality. In essence, the premise is nothing more than a compass, a tool that the writer can use to keep the story on track.

Know your premise. Let it guide you like any good compass. A premise isn’t a road map, it isn’t a paint-by-numbers formula, but it does point you the way to a strong, self-consistent story and keep you from wandering into irrelevancy.

Examples of premises:

  • Bitterness leads to false gaiety
  • Foolish generosity leads to poverty
  • Honesty defeats duplicity
  • Heedlessness destroys friendship
  • Ill-temper leads to isolation
  • Materialism conquers mysticism
  • Prudishness leads to frustration
  • Bragging leads to humiliation
  • Confusion leads to frustration
  • Craftiness digs its own grave
  • Dishonesty leads to exposure
  • Dissipation leads to self-destruction
  • Egotism leads to loss of friends
  • Exctravagance leads to destitution
  • Fickleness leads to loss of self-esteem

Although these are only flat statements, they contain all that is required of a well-constructed premise: character, conflict and conclusion. (The 3 C’s) What is wrong then? What is missing? The author’s conviction is missing. Until he takes sides, there is no story. Only when he champions one side of the issue does the premise spring to life.

A story premise sets out a story’s core dramatic issue, the movement of that issue toward resolution, and the fulfillment that resolution sets up for the story’s audience.

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