One of the most frustrating (and sometimes amusing, in a morbid kind of way) things for me as an author and teacher is how difficult it can be sometimes to get a writer's story out of them.
It should be simple, right - to answer the question: “What’s your book about?”
But writers who are used to being in the thick of writing sometimes have only the vaguest idea of the big picture.
So the conversation often goes like this:
Me: "What's your book about?"
Aspiring author: “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences – there’s just so much going on in it.”
Worse - these conversations often happen at conferences where aspiring writers are being equally vague if they happen to be lucky enough to get into a conversation with an agent or editor.
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 agents and editors are asking you what it’s about.
You will learn a lot more about what your book or film is about as you're writing it. But you need to know what you think it's about before you start that draft.
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, and that Amazon KDP screen asks 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/films:
- 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.
And you can see how that premise sentence inspired one of the major planks of the selling campaign for that book (and any book) - the cover design, one of my favorites. (The UK edition, from Little Brown, the US edition, on Amazon.)
The best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Take that list of ten books and films I made you do here, that are in the same genre as your book or script - preferably successful - or that you wish you had written! Now for each story on that list, 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.
So there are three exercises I'd like to suggest for you to try.
1) Take your master list of ten books and films and write a premise sentence for each. Share a few here if you care to - it will help other people and that's good karma!
2) Write your OWN premise, for your WIP or potential project.
And 3) harder, but really, really worth it - look at your mass (or mess) of brainstormed ideas and see if you can pull and/or create ten (oh, all right, five) complete premises out of that list.
Or do three this week, three next week, three the next...
And that third option is something I'm saying TO MAKE MYSELF DO IT, too, so no whining about how I've completely gone off the deep end. I have, of course - but I also think the story ideas that would come out of really taking that last exercise seriously would raise anyone's writing to the next level. And perhaps yield something exciting and HIGH CONCEPT, which we will be talking about this week, too.
But if you're not familiar with writing premise lines, the most important exercise for you right now is 1) - write the premise sentences for your own master list. It's like doing piano scales. Repetition is the mother of skill.
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.
This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.
STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries
Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amazon DE
You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here: