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John Truby, in Anatomy of Story, says you shouldn't write a story that doesn't have an exciting premise.

But what makes a premise good, bad, boring, compelling, or exciting?

This is what Truby says about the importance of a story's premise:

One last reason you must have a good premise is that it's the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. Character, plot, theme, symbol—it all comes out of this story idea. If you fail at the premise, nothing else will help. If a building's foundation is flawed, no amount of work on the floors above will make the building stable. You may be terrific at character, a master at plot, or a genius at dialogue. But if your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

KEY POINT: Nine out of ten writers fail at the premise.

Truby says that good premise needs to be original or unique and that an author needs a theme that deeply inspires them to write a good premise.

What are the other qualities of a good story premise?

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    Truby explains in his book how to come up with an exciting premise. In what way do his instructions not help you?
    – Ben
    Mar 19 at 11:34
  • @Ben I added a quote from Truby's book about the importance of a good premise and I explained what he says about what a good premise is. He hardly provides any concrete details of what a good premise is even though he provides lots of examples of famous movies that he believes have a strong premise. He doesn't provide a set of criteria for what makes for a good story premise. Mar 19 at 17:00
  • Well, there is a chapter in his book, "Developing your premise", in which he recommends to "write something that may change your life" and gives two exercises to help you with that. Did you try them?
    – Ben
    Mar 19 at 17:31
  • There are some books that have a great premise (Jurassic Park, Da Vinci Code, Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games) but plenty that don't (what exactly is the premise of Bridget Jones's Diary? What makes the premise of 50 Shades of Grey stand out from a billion pieces of skipped-over pornography? What about Pride and Prejudice?)
    – Stuart F
    Mar 20 at 14:25
  • @StuartF The premise of 50 Shades is blatantly obvious: What if "you" (because its female readers identify with the protagonist), a sexually inexperienced, awkward college student become the object of the perverse desires of a handsome, rich, and secretly emotionally broken sadist, who introduces you to the darker side of romance and sex? That idea touches some of the deepest desires of many women. The book is remarkable well constructed, as literary analyses show. You can ridicule it all you want. I learned a lot from reading it carefully. It does what it does exceedingly well.
    – Ben
    Mar 20 at 20:57

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A strong premise is not a concrete thing. It's subjective. People that like sci-fi can read a premise that makes them very interested in knowing more about the story while the same premise would bore the pants off an aficionado of mystery novels or gothic horror.

It’s how you, as the writer, feel about the premise. If you read it and you are jazzed, then you'll have the inner drive and enthusiasm to develop the story into a complete novel. If you read your premise and you think its meh then you won't be driven to write the book.

Writing is hard. Writing well is harder. Having a good story to tell, one that means something to you, is very important since that can be an effective source of motivation and inspiration.

As an aside, Truby is largely focused on screen plays. There is an overlap to novels but different media have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the Art of Storytelling.

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Before we can answer what makes a good premise, we need to understand what a premise is.

What is a premise?

The premise describes, briefly, the state of affairs before the inciting incident (the exposition) and what then sets the story in motion (the inciting incident). If you think of a prototypical narrative arc, such as Freytag's pyramid, the premise is a one sentence summary of the story up until and including the inciting incident:

a diagram of Freytag's pyramid with the exposition and inciting incident circled and labelled as "premise"

The premise can be phrases as a statement or as a question: What if ... ?

The premise of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit could be phrased as a statement:

  • A person of no consequence to the events of the world at large, a person who does not even know what goes on outside of his bucolic hinterland, is torn from his comfortable life when a sorcerer and a group of dwarves barge into his peaceful home and recruit him to win back their kingdom for them.

Or as a question:

  • What if a person of no censequence was torn from his peaceful existence to win back their kingdom for a group of dwarves?

The rest of the story then provides the answer to this question:

     Q: What would happen if [the premise]?
     A: If [the premise], [the story] will happen.

In the narrative arc, the rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or whatever comes after the inciting incident in the story structure you use) answers the what-if-question posed by the premise:

a diagram of Freytag's pyramid with rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution circled and labelled as "what if"

What is the purpose of the premise?

In the question format it becomes apparent that the premise serves as a hook that piques the curiosity of the reader and makes him or her pick up a book and find out its answer.

Commonly, the premise is the core part of the blurb.

As writers we must not forget that the stories we write do not sell themselves by the quality of our writing alone. There are two "hooks" that make readers buy books:

  1. The first hook consists of the marketing that surrounds a book. This includes the title, the cover illustration, the book design, and the blurb. This is what a reader sees first and what incites him or her to pick up and look inside the book.

  2. The second hook is the beginning of the text: The first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page, the first pages (in order of decreasing importance) must grab the reader's attention and make them want to read the rest of the story.

This is important and something that writers must keep in mind: Before the hook that is the story's opening – what everyone means when they talk about the hook –, comes another hook: the premise.

The blurb (or in the case of a movie, the press release) of the first Hobbit movie, There and Back Again, was phrased by Warner Bros. as:

The adventure follows the journey of title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters and Sorcerers. ...

The press release goes on to describe more of the story, but you can recognize that it begins with the premise to hook the viewers.

But the blurb isn't the only function of the premise. Another is that for some books it serves as a basis for the hook at the beginning of the story.

The hook at the beginning of the story can be derived from the premise.

The premise of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, as given in the blurb is:

In a dark vision of the near future, twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live TV show called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed.   ← This is the exposition.

When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister's place in the games, ...   ← This is the inciting incident.   ... she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.

The opening of the narrative is:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the matress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with out mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

The opening serves as a hook that can be phrased as one or more questions: Why is the other side of the bed empty? What will happen on the day of the reaping? Why is Prim afraid of it? These questions incite the curiosity of the reader and make him or her want to read the story to find their answers. And these questions are then answered by the inciting incident: On the day of the reaping, Katniss Everdeen will save Prim by taking her place (the inciting incident) and then struggle to survive the Hunger Games (the rest of the story).

Like the premise, the opening hook has two parts. It, too, consists of the exposition and the inciting incident. But where the premise briefly summarized (or "tells") them, the opening hook evokes (or "shows") the exposition and foreshadows the inciting incident.

The opening of The Hunger Games, if we compare it with the premise, rephrases the premise in a specific way: the cold side of the bed, the rough canvas cover, and the impending reaping show us a first glimpse of the sensory reality of what the exposition will depict in more detail on the following pages; and the change from the usual (that Prim has crawled in with their mother) as well as the unease that becomes palpable in the atmosphere of the scene foreshadow the much more disruptive change of the inciting incident.

Thus the premise allows us to easily derive an opening that will hook the reader.

How to find a good premise?

Let us summarize what we have learned so far:

The premise is a brief summary of the state of affairs at the beginning of the story (the exposition) and the life shattering change that sets the story in motion (the inciting incident). As such, it is no more and no less than the essence of the first half of your narrative. ("Half" here does not refer to length, but to weight and structure. The other "half" is what follows from it: A [the premise] ⇒ B [what follows from it].)

This understanding makes it easy to know how to find a good premise. All we need is:

  • a situation (the state of affairs at the beginning of the story) that is rife with impending change and
  • a change that is both life shattering (according to John Truby in The Anatomy of Story) and puts the protagonist in a predicament because he or she is forced to act in conflict with his or her values (Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise).

If you find it difficult to come up with a good premise, that is no different than coming up with good characters or a good plot or any other aspect of your story.

  • Employ the same creative techniques (daydreaming, brainstorming, getting feedback and rewriting, etc.).
  • Don't get blocked by perfectionism. If you feel that your first novel must become a bestseller (and your first premise must be worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster), fear of failure will cause writer's block (or premise-conceiver block). Truby writes that coming up with a good premise requires experience. Allow yourself to learn to write (and to come up with premises) and think of your first works (and your first premises) as exercises.
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I don't know Truby, and I disagree about the theme. I have read a hundred books that (to me) have no detectable theme, but an exciting premise.

For a compelling premise, I prefer a simpler approach.

You need somebody (a main character, or main crew) that has a problem, and the problem has to threaten something so much they cannot tolerate the threat and must counter it, no matter what the cost. The hero(es) of the story would rather die than fail.

They may not realize that, at the start of the story, but that is the final act of the story -- they risk everything to not fail (and for a happy ending, succeed).

In Star Wars, the rebels are fighting the cruel and ruthless overlord, and risking (and losing) their lives.

In Die Hard, Bruce Willis risks his life repeatedly, he is cut, smashed and beaten, but he would rather die than lose his wife.

007 leaps out of an airplane without a chute, to dive and tackle a bad guy that has one, and fight the bad guy for the chute. 007 would rather die than fail his mission.

In Harry Potter, Harry would rather die than abandon his friends, and his own life is frequently on the line.

The essence of a hero is that they will risk their lives to succeed, perhaps repeatedly, because the goal is more important to them than living with the failure to achieve it.

The essence of good story telling is (plausibly) beating the living crap out of your hero, emotionally and/or physically, to emphasize this premise.

To me, the vast majority of popular fiction follows this template, and it sells. If you want to know how good your premise is, look for how many ways you can kick your (pretty likeable) hero in the face, before they finally, heroically, risk it all to achieve their goal.

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Premise supports the Theme

A good premise enables you to explore your theme from a fresh angle.

Example

One of the major Themes of the Lord of the Rings is: Common people can have uncommon impacts in times of trouble.

The Premise of the Lord of the Rings is: A great Evil has a singular weakness that must be exploited to defeat them.

This Premise and Theme work together, so that a common person is the one to exploit the Evil's weakness. The story is full of Elf Princes and Lords of Men, but its some guy from the stix that no one has ever heard of who defeats the Dark Lord in the end.

Freshness

This combination has been explored a lot since Tolkien's time. "Farm-boy saves the world" is a meme in fantasy writing at this point.

If you want to explore a similar Theme today, you would do well to find a Premise that makes it feel new and insightful.

So maybe you use a similar Premise, but with a completely unexpected main character.

Fresh Premise: A great Evil has a singular weakness that must be exploited to defeat them -- and the heroes are themselves so corrupt that it falls to a dissatisfied minion of the great Evil to do the deed!

This framing allows you to explore new aspects of your theme. Previously, "common people" had translated to "farm boys." But common could also mean "slaves of the Dark Lord."

Similarly, the old Premise implied that the "Noble people" that the commoners stand in contrast to were fundamentally good, if sometimes misguided. But this Premise changes that, giving you new ways to engage with the concepts of Common and Noble.

This Premise allows you to get deeper into your Theme, and explore it in ways that feel new. Thus - I would argue - it is a good Premise.

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  • Scholars have identified many themes in The Lord of the Rings. That common people have uncommon impact in times of trouble is not one of them. The premise of The Lord of the Rings is something like "A heretofore inquonsequential person from an obscure and bucolic hinterland that no-one in power has ever heard about inherits a device that can be used to destroy the entire world and, against his nature, must set out into the large world and become a hero to save the peaceful idyll he loves".
    – Ben
    Mar 21 at 20:36
  • @Ben - from that wiki entry, under "Pride and Courage" -- Tolkien explores the theme of "the ennoblement of the ignoble"
    – codeMonkey
    Mar 22 at 12:41
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Sure, there must be a lot of theories. But I just got to wonder why that theater guy, or anyone else for that matter, thinks a premise is so important? Sure, I guess for academic papers, parables, self-help books, and instructions for operating nuclear power plants strong premises are desired. But for regular old day-to-day writing, they come off sounding preachy.

Premises are usually made up after the fact. Sometimes by the writer, but usually it's that guy we all know who insists that everything happens for a reason. Do Odysseus' and Kesey’s road trips really have a premise? Haha, well I guess they do now.

Good stories are exciting for all sorts of reasons, but whether they have a premise or not hardly makes a difference.

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