Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Editors Want to Know Your Story's Premise

Editors Want To Know Your Story's Premise by Joan Y. Edwards

Editors ask: What is your story's emotional premise? What is your story about in three to six words?

Before you write your story, while you are writing your story, or after your story is finished you must know what your premise or theme is. You must know what your story is about. What are you proving about life with the characters and the situations in your story. Are you proving that poverty plus distrust leads to crime? Are you proving that faith versus fear leads to success? Are you proving that ambition plus jealousy leads to failure?

Bill Johnson said a good story revolves around human needs in his article: Premise -- Foundation of Storytelling (2000)

William Foster-Harris says premise is a solved illustration of a problem of moral arithmetic, such as pride + love = happiness in his book: The Basic Formulas of Fiction (1944).

According to James N. Frey, author of How to Write Damn Good Novel, “to find your premise, you start with a character or a situation, give the protagonist a dilemma, and then say what if such and such happened.” In his book, The Key, Frey adds that premise has to have character, conflict, conclusion, and conviction of the author.

James N. Frey, Emily McKay, and Debra Dixon agree that every character in your story must have a (GMC) goal, motivation, and conflict. However, the goal, motivation, and conflict of your protagonist is the one upon which the proof of your story’s premise should be based.

A premise is what you, the author, set out to prove in your story. With your premise, you are saying to your readers, given these characters and this situation, human nature is such that it will end up this way. It is a very short emotional summary of your story that says this human emotion, quality, or condition struggling against an extremely negative emotion, quality, or human condition leads to a final changed human condition at the end of your story. It doesn’t always have to happen that way in real life. However, it’s that way in your story.

Your premise is a message for your readers that when two particular human emotions, qualities, or conditions are pitted together, you come up with a concluding emotion, quality, or condition.

The same premise can be used for different stories. A premise is universal.

Joan’s Emotional Premises for Movies

Blind Side (2009) Premise: trust plus compassion leads to family.

Saying, proverb, cliche: One person can make a difference.

Love Story (1970) Premise: courage versus illness leads to unselfish love

Saying: Perfect love means unselfishness.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) Premise: addiction plus respect leads to love.

Saying: Practice What You Preach

Fatal Attraction (1987) Premise: love versus obsessive jealousy leads to death

Saying: What Goes Around, Comes Around

Liar Liar (1997) Premise: lies plus love leads to divorce; truth plus forgiveness leads to reunification

Saying: Lies Catch Up with You in the End

Make your main character with one of these, struggle for or against one of these, and end up with one of these emotions, traits, vices, virtues, qualities, or conditions of his/her body, soul, and mind.

Emotions, Traits, Vices, Virtues, Qualities, and/or Conditions of the Body, Soul, or Mind

abundance, acceptance, accusation, addiction, admiration, affection, alienation, ambition, anger, annihilation, anxiety, apathy, approval, attention, authority, awareness, awe, beauty, belief, belonging, betrayal, blame, brutality, challenge, chaos, cheerfulness, choices, coming of age, competition, compassion, commitment, confidence, contempt, cooperation, corruption, courage, cowardice, creativity, crime, curiosity, death, debt, deception, dedication, desire, despair, destitution, destruction, dignity, disillusionment, disapproval, disaster, disbelief, discomfort, disgust, dishonesty, disrespect, distress, distrust, divorce, doubt, dream, education, enlightenment, enthusiasm, envy, equality, experience, etiquette, evil, excitement, failure, faith, faithfulness, fate, fear, forbidden, forgiveness, freedom, friendship, fun, fury, future, gain, generosity, genius, good, gratitude, greed, grief, guilt, handicap, happiness, hatred, honesty, honor, hope, humility, humor, hunger, identity, independence, indignation, individuality, initiation, injustice, innocence, insanity, intelligence, interest, isolation, jealousy, joy, justice, judgment, kindness, knowledge, lack, legal, lies, life, loneliness, loyalty, marriage, materialism, money, morality, murder, nature, nobility, order, obsession, oppression, pain, panic, passion, past, patience, peace, pity, power, peace, persecution, perseverance, pleasure, possibilities, poverty, principles, prejudice, pride, problems, protection, punishment, rage, rebelling, rebirth, redemption, rejection, relationship, religion, respect, responsibility, revenge, reverence, reward, romance, ruin, rules, sacrifice, sadness, satisfaction, security, selfishness, self-doubt, sex, shame, shelter, sickness, sinfulness, sorrow, spirit, starvation, stinginess, stubborn, success, suffering, suicide, surprise, survival, talent, taxes, tenderness, terror, thankfulness, thirst, time, tragedy, trapped, triumph, trust, truth, understanding, unfairness, ungratefulness, valor, vengeance, violence, vulnerability, war, wisdom, wealth, wonder, work, and wrongdoing.

Use the Practice Chart below and put what you think would happen with the two traits I’ve chosen. Make your own chart listing the premise for each of the stories you have written. Write a premise for ten of your favorite movies. Write a premise for ten of your favorite novels.

Joan’s Practice Chart for Writing a Premise

Your Character with what trait?

+ Dilemma Conflict Struggle

Has to Fight Against What Trait?

Leads to What Result?

Extreme Positive or Negative Emotion, Quality, or Condition

Conflict with, struggle against or fight for powerful, emotion, quality, or condition

Leads to Different Extreme Positive or Negative Emotion, Quality or Condition

1. extreme love

extreme disgust

leads to what?

2. extreme respect

extreme fear

leads to what?

3. extreme peace

extreme hate

leads to what?

4. extreme perseverance

extreme greed

leads to what?

5. extreme loyalty

extreme envy

leads to what?

6. extreme curiosity

extreme cowardice

leads to what?

7. extreme humility

extreme grief

leads to what?

8. extreme courage

extreme lust

leads to what?

9. extreme faith

extreme suffering

leads to what?

10. extreme hope

extreme hunger

leads to what?

I have heard people call this a theme, rather than a premise. Regardless, you have to have it, you have to know it, you have to believe it 100%. After you have your premise, you can write your pitch and the events of your story from the beginning, middle, and the end. Your premise will be proved by your story. Universal emotions and conditions that are understood by all human beings is transferred to your reader, and you will have a best seller.

Books That Discuss Premise

Art Of Dramatic Writing (1946,1960) by Lajos Egri free download of Chapter 1

How to Write a D... Good Novel (1987) by James N. Frey

How to Write a D... Good Novel, II (1994) by James N. Frey

How to Write a D... Good Mystery (2004) by James N. Frey

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

The Key: How to Write a Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth (2000) by James N. Frey

Online Articles That Discuss Premise

Basics of Screenwriting, Session I, one of the contributors is Amy Dunkleberger

Definition of Premises

Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Writing by Emily McKay

Premise--Foundation of Storytelling (2000) by Bill Johnson:

Story Premise (1998) by Kim Kay:

Start with a Solid Premise,

Theme and Premise by Jeanne Vincent:

Theme vs. Premise by Joel Haber

Understanding Theme and Premise by Susan J. Letham

Online Articles That Discuss Emotions and Human Needs

1. Fundamental Human Needs

2. What Are the Universal Themes

3. List of feeling words:

4. List of negative feeling words:

5. List of general emotions:

6. Basic Emotions by

7. Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

8. Robert Plutchik’s Eight Primary Emotions and How to Use Them, Part 1 and Part 2 by Daniel Benjamin Smith and

9. Nine Emotions from Sedona Method by Hale Dwoskin

10. Nine States of Emotional Empowerment by Swati Chopra

11. Paul Ekman’s Big Six Emotions:

12. Character Helps for Writing from SFF.Net, Julie West

13. Character Helps for Writing with Intense Feelings from SFF.Net, Julie West

14. Feelings Clip Art:

15. Great pictures matched with emotions:

16. Good description and pictures of emotions:

17. Lists of emotions:

Thank you for reading this article. I am honored. I hope my explanation of premise helps you latch onto it and make your stories stronger, more meaningful, and highly marketable. I appreciate James N. Frey reading over this article to make sure that I didn't lead you astray.

Do something good for you.
Never Give Up

Joan Y. Edwards
"Joan's Elder Care Guide:" Release Date, June 2015 4RV Publishing


  1. Interesting information, Joan. Thanks for sharing with us.


  2. Joan, I especially liked this statement: "William Foster-Harris says premise is a solved illustration of a problem of moral arithmetic, such as pride + love = happiness in his book: The Basic Formulas of Fiction (1944)." This is certainly not something new if he stated this in 1944. However, I don't recall hearing "premise" used until the last few years. Before that, I heard "theme." Whatever we call it, we have to have it. I believe premise gives a broader definition than theme and one that helps writers to clarify the heart of the story. I appreciate all the thorough research shown here. Very impressive.

    Linda A.

  3. Dear Vivian,
    Thank you for saying this was interesting information. I studied and collected it from many different sources to figure out for myself and readers what a premise is in plain English. I enjoyed sharing what I learned with you and the other readers.
    Do something good for you today!
    Never Give Up

  4. Dear Linda,
    Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to write. I'm glad that William Foster-Harris definition of a premise helped click an inner knowing of what your story has to have to resonate with the heart of readers. It is an honor to share my research with you.

  5. Linda, I agree that premise does give a broader definition than theme. I never liked the use of "theme" concerning fiction, but premise keys on what is needed and used for good writing.

    Joan, thanks for finding the term we needed to use.


  6. Dear Vivian,
    You're very welcome. I'm glad that premise gave you a clear way to show what it is you truly want to prove in your story.
    Thanks for being observant, wise, and pro-active in helping us get our work published.
    I am thankful for all the many gifts, God has given you. I am glad you share them with us.