Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What's your premise?

So I was at some author event the other night and doing the chat thing with people at the pre-dinner cocktail party and found myself in conversation with an aspiring author who had just finished a book, and naturally I asked, “What’s your book about?”

And she said – “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences– there’s just so much going on in it.”


The time to know what your book is about is before you start it, and you damn well better know what it’s about by the time it’s finished and people, like, oh, you know - agents and editors, are asking you what it’s about.

And here’s another tip – when people ask you what your book is about, the answer is not “War” or “Love” or “Betrayal”, even though your book might be about one or all of those things. Those words don’t distinguish YOUR book from any of the millions of books about those things.

When people ask you what your book is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the premise?” In other words, “What’s the story line in one easily understandable sentence?”

That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch” – it all means the same thing.

That sentence really should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre. And – it should make whoever hears it want to read the book. Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say – “Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”

Writing a premise sentence is a bit of an art, but it’s a critical art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights. You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian, and the Sisters in Crime books in print catalogue editor ask you for a one-sentence book description, or jacket copy, or ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstores (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have about one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.

And even before all that, the premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.

So what are some examples of premise lines?

Name these books:

- When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

- A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

- A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Notice how all of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out. Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.

Here’s my premise for THE HARROWING:

Five troubled college students left alone on their isolated campus over the long Thanksgiving break confront their own demons and a mysterious presence – that may or may not be real.

I wrote that sentence to quickly convey all the elements I want to get across about this book.

Who’s the story about? Five college kids, and “alone” and “troubled” characterize them in a couple of words. Not only are they alone and troubled, they have personal demons. What’s the setting? An isolated college campus, and it’s Thanksgiving - fall, going on winter. Bleak, spooky. Plus – if it’s Thanksgiving, why are they on campus instead of home with their families?

Who’s the antagonist? A mysterious presence. What’s the conflict? It’s inner and outer – it will be the kids against themselves, and also against this mysterious presence. What are the stakes? Well, not so clear, but there’s a sense of danger involved with any mysterious presence.

And there are a lot of clues to the genre – sounds like something supernatural’s going on, but there’s also a sense that it’s psychological – because the kids are troubled and this presence may or may not be real. There's a sense of danger, possibly on several levels.

The best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Make a list of ten books and films that are in the same genre as your book or script - preferably successful - or that you wish you had written! Now for each story, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

If you need a lot of examples all at once, pick up a copy of the TV Guide, or click through the descriptions of movies on your TiVo. Those aren’t necessarily the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

And now that you’re an expert -go for it. Write yours.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

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Stacey Cochran said...

Alright here's mine for the novel I've been working on since last fall. You might remember, Alex, I came up with the title The Eternalist on that trip over to Charlotte.

A working class family is given a massive inheritance from a rich widower that they don’t even know because the woman believes her deceased husband’s ghost has told her to do so. Her middle-aged children, however, believe she’s losing her mind, and everyone gathers together at her mansion in the mountains of North Carolina to hear her explanation. They quickly discover that the ghost is not just in her mind.

Please critique.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I think that's very good, Stacey - it has almost all the elements I listed above You certainly see the conflict and it's an intriguing hook (She did WHAT???).

The elements that are not coming across yet are the tone and the stakes. Well, actually, and specific genre. We know it's supernatural, but is it a comedy or horror, inspirational or thriller, or something in between? Without adding more lines, can you find substitute some more descriptive words, especially the adjectives and verbs, to make the conflict sound funnier, or more ominous, as the case may be? Are we afraid these people will end up dead or insane or in prison, or do they only stand to lose some ego and find love along the way?

What emotions are you trying to evoke in your reader?

Stacey Cochran said...

Great suggestions, Alex. I started with the idea of compassion for this woman in mind; that is, her belief in her husband's spirit is true to her.

And her grown child care so much for her, this tears them up inside.... because they believe she's losing her mind as a result of losing her husband.

It's supposed to be both emotionally compelling and, at times, frightening as hell.

Picture Tuesdays with Morrie crossed with The Shining.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure if this would be a premise or a hook, but here it is.

"One morning, Meredith Shaw wakes up dead, then her day really starts to go wrong."

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's a hook, RJ, and it's excellent - very funny!

Chesya said...

Lets try this:

During integration in the sixties, a young black girl uses her powers to see the dead to help solve a crime for which her brother is falsely accused.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wow, Chesya, I love that one - would pick up that book in a second. It has everything I like in a thriller - Big social conflict as well as psychological conflict, huge emotional and physical stakes, a person with supernatural powers who is probably not at all in control of them, which makes everything more dangerous and makes the whole thing a coming of age story as well, and the brother-sister dynamic which I never get tired of.

Just excellent!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

More examples from recent deals in Publishers Weekly.

Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, American Rust
Told from several alternating perspectives, the book is a tale of redemption and survival in smalltown America, in which a murder changes many lives.

from debut authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Peterson
In the first book, a girl from a cursed family of extraordinary supernaturals moves from a boy’s dreams into his hometown, but he is unable to save her.

Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes
Sherman pitched the book, about falling in love over food in Paris, as Julie and Julia (also edited by Clain) meets Le Divorce (without the divorce).

three books in a supernatural series by Richard Kadrey
The first book is called Sandman Slim, and the main character is a wizard who returns from 11 years in hell to find out who betrayed him and murdered his girlfriend.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Listen to Alex - she knows what she is talking about -- and I should know; I took a class with her at Pen to Press - the best danged class I've ever taken on writing since ...since years.

Tammy said...

OK, here's mine for the current work in progress -- comments are welcome:

When one of the kids on her caseload disappears and another winds up dead, social worker Tessa Riley goes looking for answers. As she digs for the truth, she comes face to face with a monstrous conspiracy, where innocent young girls are for sale to the highest bidder, and the lives of those closest to her hang in the balance.

The working title at the moment is Abuse of Discretion.

Anonymous said...

Okay Alex, thank you for this helpful post! Here's mine for a novel I've been working on called Dead World Living:

A special Agent dying of cancer races to follow a trail of clues that have led her to believe that there is a gateway to a world where death and disease no longer exists before a fallen angel finds it to infect yet another civilization with destruction.

Can you please critique?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Ace - it's an intriguing concept, but complicated. I think you need to clarify and simplify the premise line. I had to read it three times before it clicked in what you were talking about.

For example "A special Agent dying of cancer discovers a gateway to a world where death and disease no longer exists, but must fight to save this world from a fallen angel who intends to infect yet another civilization with destruction."

BUT - I don't know if that's actually your story. And I think you need to give some idea of how your heroine discovers the world to begin with - ie - through dreams, or through coma, or what.

Hope that helps a bit!

Anonymous said...

Wow, you are psychic. I had come up with these three before I saw your reply:

When a special agent finds out she's dying of cancer, she races to find a world free of death and disease before a fallen angel seals it up.


A terminally ill female agent must find the doorway to a disease-free world before a fallen angel eradicates all civilization on her present world.

A reckless female special agent races against her terminal illness to find a gateway to world, she and others have collectively dreamed of, before a fallen angel completes his mission of destroying their planet.

You are right, it is through dreams, but I'm having trouble trying to quantify if it makes sense that her and others, who had the same dreams, get her to the doorway.

I must admit, I thought I had it all down to a science until I reaad your blog. This is a very helpful blog. I will truly be indebt to you, once this gets published.

I'll tighten it up this weekend, though, when I'm off work and can hear myself think.

Ace Antonio Hall said...

Is this better:

A faithless, ex-military cook finds out through prophetic dreams that she is to help a group of religious survivors defeat a fallen angel and find a gateway to a parallel world that is free from disease and the living dead before she dies of terminal cancer.

mary said...

My story takes place in the time of yore. The turmoil begins when due to a promise made between fathers, a heated argument ensues. The father of my heroine is accidentally killed by my hero's hand whilst attempting to protect his own father.

Since she has no protector, my hero becomes her protector by becoming her husband.

Guilt can be a powerful force. Is it guilt that draws my hero to my heroine or something much more stronger? Can they overcome the past and build a life together?

Read on...and enjoy.


Alex, how is this for a premise?

Please critique. Thank you.

Karen from Mentor said...

Mine is more of a book jacket blurb. I started caryying around a synopsis of all three books I'm working on because it's easier to talk about something that I KNOW so well to someone innocent to my wholly invented world if they have a jumping off point.
Thanks for the post. Great and informative as always!

Jax Stephens is a 47 year old professional organizer, recent widow and mother of 28 year old twin sons. Her life is calm, predictable and normal; then she meets divorcee Gina Harris.
During what should have been a routine organizing job for Gina , Jax finds a decomposing body, is threatened with a shotgun, witnesses nine fresh bodies littered over Gina’s tree lawn and is accused of murder on tv.
Jax not only has to finish a brilliant make over of Gina’s house, she has to help the police and FBI find the real murderer before she’s put in the slammer herself for a crime that she didn’t commit.
And, oh yeah, Jax gets involved with a really hot guy who just happens to be a BIT younger than she is and they have lots and lots (did I say lots?) of sex.

Kori said...

Wow, hi! I just found your blog via your guest-blog over on the blood red pencil about twenty minutes ago, and am now going through everything you've listed to help me with my own novels. I've completed one (it's with friends for editing) and am about 2/3rds of the way through my second, but I have a bit of a problem. XD They're utterly different genres. Utterly different. Epic fantasy versus paranormal suspense.

Since the paraspense is the one I'm working on at the moment, I'll see what I can do to get the premise out for it, based on what you've given me in this post.

Twenty year old Zander Jaden is afraid of the dark. In the three years since his mother died, he's been haunted at night by things he calls 'the creatures' - yellow-eyed, sharp-clawed beasts that want nothing more than to tear him to pieces. Three years of losing sleep because of the creatures, and Zander finally swallows a bottle of prescription sleep aids to get some rest, but the rest of his family thinks he just tried to kill himself, and installs him in a sprawling mental hospital in the middle of nowhere. The creatures find him even there, and he's racing against time before a total solar eclipse gives them the power they need to break free.

Now that I've written that, I can see that it needs to be a bit shorter, and that's not even HALF of it (there're all those powerplays between Jaden and the other patients in the hospital, his doctor, astounding revelations, but I don't know how much to give away with this.) I'd like to pronounce it 'very okay' for my very first attempt, but I'd love feedback on it if you've the time.

Anonymous said...

Danielle Monson -- here's my premise:

A rescue team must go to a ship crashed in the high mountains and rescue its two occupants while higher authorities – the head of Medicine and the head of Military – quarrel over whether to save the two aboard or kill everyone involved in the rescue. Then the team learns that one of the two they are to save is a worthless and despised human.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

It's a good plot, Danielle, and concisely told - but I would try to get in a few more descriptive words about the characters so we know who we're dealing with and who we're rooting for.

Ja'Nese Dixon said...

An undercover investigation against a vicious rebel group, suspected of trafficking conflict diamonds, is jeopardized, FBI agent Camille Blackwell is left with no choice but to trust fellow agent, the infamous Marc Fulton. Together, they must find the rebel leader before he finds Camille.

Ja'Nese Dixon said...


Forgive me. I was so excited to see that you're still reviewing premise statements that I clicked "Publish" before entering my greeting.

Here's my premise for my NaNo story:

An undercover investigation against a vicious rebel group, suspected of trafficking conflict diamonds, is jeopardized, FBI agent Camille Blackwell is left with no choice but to trust fellow agent, the infamous Marc Fulton. Together, they must find the rebel leader before he finds Camille.

I look forward to reading your comment(s).

Thank you!

Unknown said...

Alexandra, have you seen Shrink with Kevin Spacey? Here's the premise I took away from that film, or the Controlling Idea as McKee would put it: Happiness is possible after a loss because no one exists in a vacuum. Or Happiness is possible after grief because the human spirit endures. Would you say either of those is right?



Anonymous said...

Its all in the manual they make you read before they download your being into those tiny bodies in those dark wombs.

Charlotte Jolliffe said...

Hi Alex,

I'd be grateful if you could give me a quick critique of this premise:

Jack lived to be 16 till his abusive father's actions lead to his death. But revenge from beyond the grave only lead Jack to a crumbling world called the Wasteland, where he finds his last chance to choose his fate: the Upperworld or the Underworld. But growing forces of the Underworld threaten to consume him and topple the limits of the Final Law, forcing Jack to become a demon forever. Only his love for a vampire named Daisy and his ability to forgive the unforgivable can possibly save him--and all future spirits.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I am an aspiring writer, and I am in the midst of writing a book. Here is my premise to the novel that I currently am working on.

A dejected one-armed teen becomes an unlikely hero when he’s thrown into an alternate world wrapped in conflict

Please critique
P.S. This is my first post EVER, so I'm curious on the feedback, thanks.

Jamie said...

First and foremost, thank you Alexandra for all this extremely useful information. A friend I met at a university TV workshop introduced me to your site.

I dropped out of university to write my first script, as I don't have the grades to apply to Film Production anyway, and it has been quintessential to my development as a screenwriter (we'll wait and see how I fare as a director lol.)

Here is my logline:
A young girl is faced with conflicting moral issues while facing her own mortality as she struggles to find peace and justice by seeking revenge on the father who killed her mother and raped her as a child.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Okay, Alex, I am getting set to pitch my new screenplay in Hollywood. What do you think?-Thanks

Know-it-all JD”s obsession with civil war re-enactments and tournaments alienates his girlfriend and teenage daughter until he discovers Lee’s secret plan to win the war and a crucial tournament teaches him that even losers can win.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex, I'm struggling with this one as my WIP doesn't have a simple clear cut plot. My book opens with my protag that I lead my reader to believe is one person. At the end of the first act the reader discovers that she isn't who she says she is and the main premise of the book follows her "true" identity.

How do I write my premise, covering all those points, without revealing my intended surprise?

Anonymous said...

Okay maybe I have it, lol.

Alexa Dade, a secretive, troubled multishifter, is rescued from a military special ops team by a mysterious man with his own agenda who reveals that the military has selected her genetics for their top secret nanorobotics project, but in this world where everyone has something to hide, being a multishifter is nowhere near Alexa’s biggest secret.

Carly34 said...

Attempting to work on my premise/hook, please offer any suggestions/critiques/help!

A troubled graduate student left broken-hearted, homeless, and with little money moves back in with her parents and sister, and is forced to confront her demons while discovering a family secret.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Carly - your premise has the same weakness that most writers' premises do - you're holding too much back and not being specific. The hook of your story is the family secret. So what's the family secret? Don't be coy about it.

Jacqueline Corcoran said...

This is the best information I've seen on what should be in the premise, and I posted the link to this info on today.



JenniferB said...

Hi Alexandra,

When you are dealing with a book series, do you write a premise statement for the series, and then one for each individual book? Or do you combine the overall premise of the series in to the first book's premise? I don't know

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Jacqui! I'm glad to hear it was useful.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jennifer, yes, you should definitely do a premise for the overall series and for each individual book.

If you're struggling with that, try practicing by doing one for the entire Harry Potter series and then one for one or two of the individual books.

Or for any series you like! This is EXCELLENT practice for anyone doing a series. In fact, I'm going to do it myself for my own new series right now.

JenniferB said...

Thanks Alexandra, I will definitely try that with a couple series in the genres I want to write in.

For a follow-up to the whole premise concept, do you find that your premise may change as you get in to developing the story, or in to a series? Or do you make sure your premise is solid before starting?

Thanks for this terrific blog - it has taken a process that has scared me and broken it down in to manageable parts.


JenniferB said...

As a follow-up to my previous question...I just read your post over the weekend when you are talking about the role of the premise in a series....and've already answered my question.

Thanks again, Alexandra....

Natasha said...

Hi there - I'm very excited to be attending your sessions at the RWA conference, and was hoping you could spare a few seconds to provide feedback on my pitch - if you're too busy preparing for the conference however, I completely understand!
Many thanks

It’s 1996. Lily's grunge, Maggie's goth. When their two worlds collide, they become an inseparable army of two against the world – until ten years later, when on Lily’s wedding day, they are abducted and made vampires. They find themselves locked in a real battle for the world’s survival against a megalomaniac vampire and his army of monsters, and are forced to choose between life and death – and each other.

When troubled psychic teen Lily and her best friend, rebellious goth Maggie do a magic spell on a drunken Halloween night, they can’t imagine it will mean that ten years later, they are abducted on Lily’s wedding day and made vampires – then forced into a battle for the human race’s survival against a megalomaniac vampire and his otherworldly army of monsters, where they have to make the choice between life and death – and each other.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Natasha, I like #1 much better! It has much more of a voice, and it's also clearer.

Sandy O said...

I found your premise information very helpful and look forward to hearing/meeting you at the RWA conference. Here is a premise for the romantic-suspense I'll be pitching.

Perception is the story of a masoginist who is hunted by an enemy from her past and unwittingly becomes involved in a scam the cocky detective down the road is investigating. A suspicious death forces them to work together before one of them becomes the next victim.

York Davis said...

Hi Alex. Thanks for all your insightful blog comments on writing.

After considerable research, I wrote an unperformed play on the life of famous vaudevillian May Irwin. I've started a screenplay on her early life with the working title "The Coon-Singer". The logline would be:"May Irwin, from small-town Canada, could NEVER become the U.S.A's best-known coon-singer, a vaudeville queen and first movie-star, or could she?"

Interestingly enough May was one of the first to feature African- Americans onstage in the cakewalk dance and in 1897 gave a much-applauded charity performance at Manhattan's Coloured Home and Hospital

May's life was certainly exciting and interesting enough for a bio-pic, but would any major studio consider such a script? Perhaps it would be too different from today's popular movie themes and the racial themes still too controversial to sell?

I'd appreciate your comments, especially re. marketability of my script. Thanks Alex...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi York. I can't deny it's a hard sell for Hollywood, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it - it sounds fascinating. If you're in LA and you have connections you might do best approaching an actress or African-American run production company first.

But I always encourage people who aren't already entrenched in Hollywood to write their dream projects as books, first. Books actually sell more often to Hollywood than films do, and it's less of a long shot to publication or production. Good luck with it!

Christina Mathis said...

Alex, love the way you think. WhenI started writing screenplays, Syd Fields text-booky type materal was the "it" materal around, kinda sterile though. So I have 2 scripts I need to go line by line to update, add depth, tighten & tweek. I'll start with my feature length. "DESPERATE HEART" (working title)


Cardiovascular surgical chief is set up to take the fall for a stolen donor heart, which was sought after by a sick Columbian Drug Lord, and his friend who would do anything, or pay anything to get one. Thanks. Christina, Houston, TX

Dominick Stewart said...

Alex tell me what you think of my premise...
Two estranged brothers race through a perilous wasteland to find their missing father before a tyrannical Doctor and his minions can stop them and bury a world-changing secret once and for all.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Dominick. SFF premises are harder than most because you have to concisely get across a sense of the world as well as of the story.

I'd suggest adding more detail, because there's a lot right now that I just don't understand about your world. Is this the future? Is it Earth, or another planet? Is the perilous wasteland somewhere we know, or how did it come about? What is the world-changing secret?

It often helps to start a premise like this with the sentence: "In a world where….." and fill in the details of your story world.

Dominick Stewart said...

Great tips Alex thanks, how does it sound now.

Two estranged brothers race through a chemical ridden post World War 3 wasteland to find their missing father before a tyrannical Doctor and his diesel controlling "Gassers" can stop them from revealing their father's secret project, a steam-powered generator that could power their underground colony indefinately.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That is 100% better!! Don't you think so?

Dominick Stewart said...

Yes, thanks for the help. We have learned a lot from this site over the last two years of writing our script.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I'm so glad to hear it! When you get a chance, would you be willing to post a short review on Amazon here?

Reviews always help!