I know, you'd rather stick needles in your eyes, right? Me, too. But no one ever has to read your lame early attempts, you get that, right? This exercise is for YOU to get comfortable with the story you're about to tell. It's your GPS for the story, one of the most important steps in starting a book. But it's absolutely appalling to me how many people write books without ever having settled on the premise.
I am always finding myself in this same conversation with aspiring authors.
Me: “So 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.”
Why would I ever want to look at a book if the author doesn't even know the storyline?
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, or the Kindle Direct Publishing upload 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.
And okay, they're some pretty bloody examples, as usual for me. So let’s try some love premises:
• A commitment-phobic Englishman falls in love with a beautiful, elusive American during a year in which all the people around him seem to be marrying and finding their mates at a round-robin of four weddings – and a funeral.
• A lonely widower and a lonely journalist who live on opposite sides of the country fall in love with each other without ever having met.
• A man and a woman debate the theory that a man and a woman can never really be friends, over a period of years in which they become best friends, then fall in love.
Note that I have not described any of those stories as “THIS BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE meets THAT BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE.”
This is a very common mistake that authors make. There is no faster way to make an agent’s or editor’s or producer’s or director’s eyes glaze over than to pitch your book as “It’s When Harry Met Sally meets Jaws!!!!”
Remember that this “method” of pitching was immortalized in The Player, a movie that is a satire of Hollywood. The famous pitch: “It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!!!” was a joke.
That is not to say it is not done. In fact, the Kirkus review of The Harrowing included the line: “Poltergeist meets The Breakfast Club”, and you better believe my publisher jumped on that and put it on the cover of the paperback. This is a literal description of my book, and I bless Kirkus every day for saying it.
But I, the author, am not allowed to say that. It’s cheating. It’s a joke. You can say it as shorthand to your agent, or to your friends, and your agent can say it that way to your editor. Some agents and editors really like to be pitched that way, apparently, although I know just as many who hate it.
But that's not going to help you develop your plot. When you sit down to write your book, you need a premise that is detailed and specific.
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.
Here’s my premise line for my thriller, BOOK OF SHADOWS.
A very rational, very male Boston homicide detective and a very intuitive, very female practicing witch from Salem reluctantly team in a race to catch a Satanic killer that she believes is trying to summon a real demon.
Who’s the story about? A homicide detective and a modern witch, and their professions and the descriptives “rational” and “intuitive” characterize them in a couple of words – and set up an obvious contrast and potential for an “opposites attract” story.
What’s the setting? Boston and Salem – again, opposites.
Who’s the antagonist? A Satanic killer – any way you look at it, that’s not good. What’s the conflict? It’s both interpersonal and external: it will be the cop and the witch against each other, and the two of them against the killer. What are the stakes? Life and death, and something possibly supernatural as well, if there really is a demon involved.
And there are clues to the genre: there may be something supernatural going on, but that’s only what she believes, so there’s a mystery there: not just who the killer is, but what the killer is. There's a sense of danger, too, possibly on several levels.
The best way to learn how to write a good premise line is to practice. I encourage you to take the master list of films and books you’ve made and 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 or DVR. Those aren’t usually the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.
But the very best thing you can do is to spend some time writing out the premises for your master list. Not only is it great practice for crafting premise lines, but it will give you a terrific sense of the elements that you want to see in a story, and quite possibly a good sense of the story patterns that you most enjoy.
ASSIGNMENT: Write out premise lines for each story on your master list, and for your own Work In Progress (WIP).
No putting this off - you're going to need this premise to move forward. It can be a lot easier to start by bashing out several sentences, a whole paragraph, and then start distilling it down, that's fine (in fact I encourage you to start a premise/synopsis file and keep adding descriptions of your story in different lengths to that file - believe me, you'll need all of them later!)
And remember, your premise sentence may change as you actually write the book and discover what your story is really about. This is just for you to start with what you THINK it's about. Don't sweat it.
But do it.
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. Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.
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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.
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