Updated: Feb 16, 2020
In order to give you a decent definition of what a premise is, here’s a little look into my brain.
(Just a very little look, mind you, since anything larger might scare the faint of heart away.)
I’ve always loved history. There’s just something about it that’s so fascinating, with all of its opportunities to learn and imagine. At least that’s the way my brain saw it as a six-year-old… 10-year-old… 16-year-old… and so on.
This especially applied to the Revolutionary War. Perhaps it was patriotism that made me want to dive into that era so badly. I’m really not sure. All I know is that, if there was a Revolutionary War novel or nonfiction book out there, I wanted to read it.
For some reason though, out of all the story ideas that popped into my head as a girl, I never came up with anything involving my obsession. Not until one otherwise unmemorable day when I was 18.
I think I was just standing in my parents’ kitchen when it hit me: this vivid scene that captured my attention at bayonet-point.
A troop of British redcoats are storming into an 18th-century American cottage, demanding room and board. Inside is a hotheaded 18-year-old brother and his 17-year-old sister, both of them staunch patriots and not at all happy about the demands set before them. But with little other choice to be had, they bite back their protests.
That changes, however, when the evening progresses and one of the British officers goes to talk to the sister as a sincere act of courtesy. Believing that the only good redcoat is a dead redcoat, the brother takes issue with that interaction, punches the man in the face...
And gets dragged off to jail as a result while his sister remains behind, begging for leniency.
That right there? That’s one definite example of a premise.
Truth be told though, a premise doesn’t have to be anything as vivid as that. It can be a lot more subtle or abstract depending on so many potential factors.
For example, the feeling of quiet satisfaction you get from lying in your significant other’s arms. That could be a premise.
Or the sight of a leaf falling off a tree to spiral through the wind on a crisp autumn day. That could be a premise too.
Really, a premise is anything that makes you want to write a specific story.
Out of all the definitions I’ve ever found for this literary term, I might like Donald Maass’ the most from The Breakout Novelist: “... a premise is any single image, moment, feeling, or belief that has enough power and personal meaning for the author to set her story on fire...”
Going off that definition – by a big-name literary agency owner, for the record – you could also think of a premise as a basis or inspiration. It’s a purpose to write, though not a guarantee that you will. Premises come on their own accord. It’s up to us to do something with them.
In which case, as a writer, you've no doubt had dozens of them, if not hundreds, over the course of your lifetime.
To be sure, there are plenty of premises people have that never go much of anywhere. Let's be clear about that.
In the case of that Revolutionary War home being overrun by redcoats, it went on to become an entire novel and then a novel series.
That vivid scene of mine expanded so that it wasn’t just some sister, brother and bunch of British officers. It was Abigail and Garrett Carpenter along with their sister-in-law, Elizabeth, and her twin toddlers.
And it was Sergeant James Slasen, the blond-haired, hazel-eyed soldier who took me by surprise more than once as the premise gave way to a plot.
But for every Maiden America, there’s been two or three failed story inspirations, from the puppy-sitting job gone way wrong to the eerie lawn statue I happened upon one beautiful summer afternoon. Great ideas, sure, but not great enough for me to pursue them to completion.
Enough of my story stimuli though. Let’s talk about yours. What premise or premises are swimming around in your head?
Once you have an answer, let’s see if it’s worth pursuing…
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on premise here.