How to structure a premise for stronger stories

"A big-city copy moves to a small coastal town..." Developing a carefully structured premise can arm you with a strong story and a solid pitch line. It’s something agents can sink their “jaws” into.
By Jeff Lyons | Published: September 1, 2013


premiseBefore an author writes a word, or thinks of scenes or characters, an idea sparks the imagination and a story is born. Or is it?

When inspiration strikes, many writers think they have a story, when in fact they have something else. Untethered by the foundation of a real story, they risk becoming lost in the story woods, writing down blind alleys and backing themselves into literary corners. How can you know if an idea that excites you one day will have legs over the long course of developing a book or series of books?

The only way to know for sure is to master the skill of story premise development. A story’s premise is more than a quick synopsis, or a simple thesis statement defining the theme or argument of a story. It is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer.

A story premise, along with its tool, the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. When properly conceived, it expresses your whole story in one or two neat sentences. Finding this premise line is no small task; in fact, the process of premise development can be the literary equivalent of skiing the black diamond trail. But when you get it right, the payoff in saved time, money and creative blood, sweat and tears is worth the agony.

Fortunately, taking five essential steps can lessen the pain and facilitate mastery of the premise process. These steps form a repeatable and proven method for developing any story. This is a critical skill for any writer, because the premise line is a key ally in writing effective query letters to agents or publishers and pitching film production companies or studios. And the premise line is more than a pitch tool. When you find a premise line that works, then you can know with confidence that you have a story that will stand the test of development. These five steps can guide your writing process, acting as a road map to keep your narrative on track and focused.

After all, if your story is going to go off the rails, isn’t it better to discover that before you get to page 400?

STEP 1: IDENTIFY THE CORE STRUCTURE OF YOUR STORY.

For our purposes, a story is defined as a metaphor for a journey that leads to change, as played out by the dynamic interdependence of character and plot. A story is further defined because it possesses a careful structure. At this basic level, story structure is a natural force like the wind.

This first step helps you identify the seven structural components present in any story – regardless of genre.

  • Character Who is your protagonist?
  • Constriction The person at the focus of the story is constricted in some way. Some personal problem haunts, drives or motivates him or her. Try to get a sense of what your protagonist’s problem is and sense how it triggers action. The constriction is usually activated by some initiating event that forces the protagonist to move from where the story starts toward a new path of action (the adventure).
  • Desire The protagonist wants something tangible: the money, the romantic interest or to find the radioactive dirty bomb by the end of the story.
  • Focal Relationship Who is the protagonist talking with throughout the story? What relationship is the focus of the protagonist’s attention? This relationship will be the engine that drives most of the drama in your story, even in multiple point-of-view stories.
  • Resistance More than an internal constriction, there is also the sense of serious, external pushback. Something opposes the goal seeking of the protagonist, and this force creates dramatic friction. This is the central opposition and he or she is bent on stopping the protagonist from fulfillment. Who is this opposing force?
  • Adventure/Chaos Entropy is the tendency of all things to move toward disorder and chaos. This is the adventure and often comes in the middle of a story.
  • Change You may not see the exact end point of your story, but you can assume your protagonist will not end up where he or she began. Does your protagonist evolve or devolve?

These are the components of a story’s core structure. If they are present, then you have a story. If they are missing, vague or muddled, then you don’t have a story.

STEP 2: DO YOU HAVE A STORY?

What’s the difference between a situation and a story? The main difference is that the seven core structure elements are missing from a situation. But there is a quick way to identify a situation without worrying about a structure analysis.

Any situation has these four conditions.

  • A situation is a problem or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.
  • A situation does not reveal character; it tests problem-solving skills.
  • A situation has no (or few) subplots, twists or complications.
  • A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space that it started in.

Situations are parts of stories; they are not stories themselves. These four conditions are not present in a story, so if you see them, then you know what you’ve got.

STEP 3: MAP THE CORE STRUCTURE TO THE ANATOMY OF A PREMISE LINE.

Are you still unsure if you have a story or a situation? Then use the Anatomy of a Premise Line template to unlock this mystery. This template takes a very specific form.

[When] some event sparks a character to action, that [character acts] with deliberate purpose [until] that action is opposed by an external force, [leading to] some conclusion.

Mapping the core structure elements in step one to this template will quickly tell you if you have a workable story. Let’s break down each clause into its constituent parts to see the true power it offers your writing process.

Clause #1: When Clause

Take your sense of the first two components of the core structure and try to combine them into a “when” clause.

When … some event provokes the protagonist to act (not react)

You have a sense of a character. Now is the time for dimension. Who is the character? What sparks him or her to action? Some call this the inciting incident; maybe you don’t have that clearly in your head yet. That’s OK. What else might push the character forward (or backward)? What happens to this person that gets him or her to act and begin an adventure? The when clause is asking, “When something happens …” – what’s the “something”?

We’ll use the novel Jaws, by Peter Benchley, as an illustration how this might play out in execution:

When: … a doubt-filled, fearful, big-city cop moves to a small coastal town dependent on tourism …

Here the character is clear: He is constricted with fear and doubt, and there is a sense of the spark that broke his inertia, i.e., he moved from the city to the coast.

Clause #2: Character Acts Clause

Take the next two components of the core structure and combine them to give you the next clause in the premise line.

Character Acts … the protagonist joins with one or more people acting on some desire with purposeful intention

This clause captures the sense of a tangible want and defines the relationships involved, especially the core relationship (if any) that drives the middle of the story. Now is the time to give a clearer idea of what the character wants and who is moving through the story with him or her. This should also give a sense of the motivation for the desire, not just the thing that is desired (i.e., “with purpose”). Using Jaws, once again, we get the following:

Character Acts: … he teams with an oceanographer and a crusty sailor to Convince the doubting, money-grubbing Chamber of Commerce to close the beaches because a giant man-eating shark is lurking just offshore…

The protagonist wants to catch the shark and he’s doing it with his buddies (later the oceanographer becomes more defined as the key buddy). There is deliberate purpose in this and a clear, tangible desire.

Clause #3: Until Clause

The next two components of the core structure combine to give a clear statement about the opposing force acting to upset the story’s trajectory.

Until … the protagonist’s actions are met by some external force that generates disorder and/or chaos – the adventure

This is the big-picture jeopardy of the adventure and the central opposing force acting against the character’s action. For Jaws we have:

Until: … the shark terrorizes swimmers, threatening the survival of the town …

The writer identifies the nature of the “serious pushback” and the chaos that will ensue, including the final outcome if the pushback wins. Here is the force defined, as well as the tendency toward disorder, in a clear and dramatic statement that fits perfectly with the idea as a whole.

Clause #4: Leading to Clause

Leading to … the dénouement – an evolutionary change for the protagonist

The chaos component of the adventure crosses the third and fourth clauses due to the nature of crisis: It spreads and is messy and is often indistinguishable from the resistance it creates and the change it generates. In this final combination, we see how chaos leads to resolution, the order implicit in all chaos. This finds its expression in Jaws as:

Leading to: … forcing them [the town] to allow the cop and his buddies to take on the monster mano-a-mano, during which encounter the cop faces his fear and saves the day.

Finally, the writer expresses the change that is at the end of all disorder and chaos, as well as the change that is personal to the character from the “when” clause. There is a coming full circle in a sense; the beginning, middle and end all tie back to the first and most fundamental step of sensing a protagonist and a personal story.

STEP 4: FINALIZE THE PREMISE LINE.

This is how the final premise line would look:

Final Premise Line: When a fish-out-of-water, big-city cop moves to a small, coastal town dependent on tourism, he must team with an oceanographer and a crusty sailor to convince the doubting, money-grubbing townsfolk to close their beaches because a giant, man-eating shark is lurking just offshore, until the shark strikes, forcing the townsfolk to allow the cop and his buddies to take on the shark mano-a-mano.

Here you can see the entire structure of the story in a single sentence. As stated earlier, two sentences are fine, but shoot for one – brevity forces cutting the fluff. In Jaws you know the protagonist, the focal relationship (in this case made up of three men) driving the middle of the story, you get a sense of the adventure itself and see the opposition structure that feeds into the final ending. It all fits, it all flows and it is a metaphor for a human experience resulting in evolutionary change; it is a story. Armed with this premise line, you can confidently move forward to writing, knowing your story’s armature is strong.

STEP 5: TEST THE PREMISE LINE WITH OBJECTIVE READERS.

Once you think you have a solid premise line, then is it time to start writing? No! If you’re smart, you’ll “unit test” the premise line. Find three or four trusted readers who have experience with storytelling, whom you respect – maybe even hire a professional consultant – and get their feedback. Your mother is not in this category, unless she is a novelist. You need objective feedback, not hand-holding. Does the premise line work for them? Do they “see” the whole story and get a gestalt picture of the overall structure? Does the idea pull them in? Do they sense the beginning, middle and end and would they write this themselves if they had come up with the idea? These are just a few of the questions you want them to answer. If you get more passes than thumbs-up, then you have to reassess and decide if you want to move forward with a new idea or fix this one. If you get a lot of thumbs-up, then you’re probably good to go.

What if you have a situation and not a story?

This is not a bad thing. Some of the most successful commercial fiction ever written falls into this category. The point is that you, as a writer, need to be able to recognize what you’re writing (a story vs. a situation) so you can make informed and conscious choices about what you write, why you write and how you write.

If you have a situation and you love the idea, and you think readers will enjoy the ride, then go for it. There is no judgment here about a story being more valuable than a situation; readers enjoy both. The question is: What kind of writer do you want to be? If you decide to write a situation, and not a story, then make it fun, exciting, filled with set pieces and challenging puzzles. Readers will likely love it, and Hollywood may come knocking at your door. If you prefer writing a story, then hunker down and get into the structure and tell a fascinating tale of human growth and change. Stories are primal and at the heart of our humanity. Situations entertain us; stories entertain and teach us what it means to be human.

These five steps will help you develop a powerful story premise that can be your early warning system protecting you from story creep and months of lost writing time. Once mastered, premise development can guide your entire writing process while giving you an effective and professional pitch tool to use with publishers, agents and editors. Trust in the premise line. It will tell you if you have a story or a situation. The rest is up to you.

Jeff Lyons is the founder of Storygeeks.com, a professional services company offering story development and consulting services to authors and screenwriters.

———————-

Seventeen-year-old Bella is drawn to bad-boy vampire…

Using New York Times best-selling author Stephanie Meyer’s book, Twilight, we can see how the Anatomy of a Premise Line template can be used on a contemporary genre novel. This book is an interesting hybrid of a story and multiple situations combining into a surprisingly satisfying read. Even in a YA blockbuster like Twilight, the Anatomy of a Premise Line can provide a clear premise that can be used as a development road map. Most important, it confirms that even with episodic plotting, adhering to a map of core story structure components can work.

Clause #1: When Clause

Character
Constriction

When … 17-year-old Bella agrees to move to nowheresville Forks, Arizona, and live with her father

Clause #2: Character Acts Clause

Desire
Focal Relationship

Character Acts … she finds herself powerfully drawn to classmate and bad-boy vampire Edward Cullen, with whom she begins an obsessive love affair culminating in her desire for him to turn her into a vampire

Clause #3: Until Clause

Resistance
Adventure/Chaos

Until … the affair and Bella’s life are threatened by James, a predatory vampire who targets Bella for death because she is a “hard target,” as he loves the hunt more than the kill

Clause #4: Leading to Clause

Adventure/Chaos
Change

Leading to … Bella uniting with Edward and his vampire family, who kill James, effectively bringing Bella closer into the vampire fold.

Premise Line as a Sentence:

When 17-year-old Bella agrees to move to nowheresville Forks, Arizona, and live with her estranged father, she finds herself powerfully drawn to classmate and bad-boy vampire Edward Cullen, with whom she begins an obsessive love affair culminating in her desire to be turned into a vampire, until the affair and Bella’s life are threatened by James, a predatory vampire who targets Bella for death because she is a “hard target,” as he loves the hunt more than the kill. This leads Bella to unite with Edward and his vampire family, who kill James, effectively bringing Bella closer into the vampire fold.

  • BeanPods Press

    Excellent article!

    • Storygeeks

      Thank you :)))
      Jeff

    • Alicia

      Thank you!

  • Sylvia Chiang

    Very useful. I have been trying to come up with my “story in a nutshell” for a while now. Reading this blog helped me to write the best version I’ve done so far. Thanks.

    • Alicia

      That’s good news, Sylvia. Keep at it!

  • http://milano.bbakeca.com/ BBakeca

    Very interesting and useful article!

    • Alicia

      Thanks!

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  • http://www.writerstoauthors.com Jason McColly

    Thanks for an interesting read. When developing my story premise, I try to incorporate several story elements in order to give my story direction and keep me focused.

    I make sure that it has my lead character, his objective, the main problem (or conflict) in the story, and the opposition. Sometimes I might switch out the opposition for a hint of the ending. My goal though, is to see my story in a nice snapshot so I can see if it has enough to carry the weight of a full length novel.
    In the past I have started writing with just a story idea but after awhile the magical story idea fizzled and left me wondering where my story was going. Having the premise keeps me focused.

  • http://www.marilynhudsontucker.com Marilyn Tucker

    Bella moved from Arizona to Forks, Washington. BTW, thank you for an excellent article. We rarely see so much information stated so succinctly.

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