Friday, October 03, 2014

Nanowrimo Prep: What's your PREMISE?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So hopefully you took the last exercise seriously and are now armed with a Top Ten list and a hundred pages (just kidding) of all your story ideas, and woke up this morning with THE book that you want to write for NaNoWriMo. If not, keep working! It'll come.

If you have honed in on one, it's time to write your premise line.

I know, you'd rather stick needles in your eyes.  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. And it's absolutely appalling to me how many people write books without ever having settled on the premise.

So let's talk about how to do that.

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 for sure 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, and be warned: that method of pitching is a big turnoff to a lot of producers and editors.

However, some editors like to hear books pitched that way. I think it’s risky, and would strongly suggest that if you’re inclined toward that method, you also create a logline that is detailed and specific. It will be much more of a touchstone for your plot.

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 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

An ambitious Boston homicide detective and an enigmatic practicing witch from Salem reluctantly team in a race to catch a Satanic killer that the witch believes is trying to summon a real demon.

Who’s the story about? A homicide detective and a modern witch. The descriptives “ambitious” and “enigmatic” characterize them in a couple of words – and their professions 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.



If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, Sea of Love, The Matrix, Sense and Sensibility, Groundhog Day, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Wizard of Oz, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.

 Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.


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.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

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 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:


Bill said...

So what if I don't have any idea yet what my WIP is about? I have my list of movies and books that I love, but no idea how to create my own original idea in that genre/framework.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Bill, did you see this previous post and try the other exercise in it?

Angry Wombat said...

Oh! This is much harder than I thought! Getting something punchy enough, and short enough, yet still giving enough details to make the story interesting.

This is really hard!

Unknown said...

I haven't checked your blog in a few days and I'm behind already. Ahh.

I have been excited about a new book idea for a while. I have a few points and ideas I put down in the Spring but this will help solidify my outline.
I just wrote my premise line --actually two lines.

Angry Wombat said...

Right, after a night of wrestling with words I think I finally have something :)

Any thought on how badly I mangled those loglines?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kenny, it's true, it's hard. It does get easier! If you'd like me to comment on them, please post them here so everyone can benefit from my notes. Most people need the same kind of coaching on these.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Silas,, you're not behind. This is all completely self-paced. I'm keeping the posts linked in order on the Nanowrimo page of this blog.

And having two lines is just fine. In fact, for paranormal and other fantasy-based stories I encourage that so that writers are making sure to detail their worlds.

Angry Wombat said...

SO. I made my master list and came up with these loglines.

I sorta like them, but feel they dont live up to the stories :(

- Wreck it Ralph:
The Bad Guy in an old computer game goes on a quest to get the good guy medal, but can he become a real good guy before the relentless enemy he accidently unleashed destroys the whole arcade?

- Up!
A Bitter old man threatened with the loss of his house and memorabilia flies away with it all thanks to thousands of balloons to fulfill his lifelong dream in the wilds of south america. But he needs to reconnect with the world when his childhood hero turns out to be a paranoid evil man

- The Iron Giant
A small American town during the cold war is frightened when a damaged giant metal machine drops from the sky. It needs to prove it is not a threat before the ruthless US military catches and destroys it

- The Last Samurai
A veteran of the US civil war is hired to destroy the last samurai, but after he comes to embrace their culture he still needs to stop the modernized army that now seeks his death as well

- The Lies of Lock Lamorra
In the mysterious island-city of Camorr, an infamous young thief is caught up in a bloody underworld coup that threatens to destroy everyone he holds dear, and he has to outsmart the ambitious and deadly enemy at its own game.

- The Hunger Games
In a nation that keeps order through a televised fight to the death between children, a hardened young girl takes the place of her younger sister and needs to keep her humanity while surviving the other brutal contenders.

- The Gunslinger
The bitter last Gunslinger must travel across a demon-infested desert, and confront its murderous inhabitants to catch the enigmatic magician who holds the key to the center of everything - The Dark Tower

- The Hobbit
A comfort-loving hobbit needs to find his own courage to survive an unexpected adventure though wilds and forests, and help a band of dwarves to reclaim their homeland from a dragon.

- Pan's Labyrinth
In fascist civil war spain, an imaginative young girl must complete a trio of life-threatening tasks to reclaim her mythical kingdom and escape a sadistic army captain - her step-father.

- Roadside Picnic
Facing the hazardous depths of the alien zones to feed the black market in alien artifacts is a job only the desperate would consider, and to provide for his family, one such man braves its dangers and the government institute that seeks to police it.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Kenny, I haven't seen all of those films, but those are some great log lines!! Really well done.

Recent animated films are so complex that they're often the hardest to distill into a logline. Your logline for UP emphasizes different things about the story than I would - and I don't think EITHER of us have done justice to everything that's going on in that wonderful film.

Here's my quick attempt:

An elderly man who has lost the will to live since the death of his beloved wife attempts to fulfill a promise to her and finds himself caught up in a South American adventure with an irrepressible young Scout, a mythical bird, and a talking dog.

Angry Wombat said...

Thanks Alexandra :) Nice to know that I'm not doing too badly! Now I'm taking a look at all of those and trying to work out the "common bits" that they all show.

To me it seems that the big draw in all those stories is two fold
a) The main character is nearly always "misjudged/mislabled".
b) the antagonist is nearly always someone who is misusing power - almost a dark mirror of the protagonist when you look at it the right way.

I think that combination seems to tick the right boxes for me :)