A story premise focuses your writing. To excite the interest of an agent, it is imperative that the agent knows immediately what your novel is "about." The value of this cannot be underestimated. A clear story premise sets out the core drama of your story, and the need that drives your main character. Remaining clear about the premise helps you decide which scenes to keep and which must go.
Blindness, by Jose Saramago, is a novel about an ophthalmologist, his wife, and a small group of people who try to survive as an entire city goes blind and enters a state of chaos.
This one sentence synopsis is the premise of the novel. It answers the questions What happened to whom that starts the story? and What will he or she do about it? This last part, the story goal of the character, is crucially important, as it raises the following question in the reader's mind: Will the character succeed? It is that main question, along with other minor questions raised in individual scenes, that will keep readers reading. When readers no longer need to know something, they lose interest and stop reading.
What happened to whom? Blindness happened to an ophthalmologist, his wife, and a small group of people. What did they do about it? They learn to survive the resulting chaos.
Drama revolves around human needs, such as the need to be loved, the need to survive or overcome challenges, the need for basic life necessities. The need to grow, or understand, or better oneself.
Ultimately, you will also need to know the result of the characters' need fulfilment efforts, but for now, it is enough to make it clear to readers what has happened to whom and what decision the character has made to cope with the problem and ensuing need. These two elements of the story premise cause readers to ask questions, and questions keep readers reading. It's vital to remember this.
Get in the habit of stopping your own reading to ask yourself why you're reading any book. What question has the author created that causes you to want to know the answer? As you train yourself to recognize how questions are raised, you will be better able to pose them yourself.
Now imagine that you tell a friend that you went to New York for the weekend. Everything went well-no turbulence on your flight, posh hotel, and exquisite food. Your friend may ask a few half-hearted questions. Which hotel did you stay at? Do you have a favourite restaurant? The conversation won't go much beyond that.
Imagine the same scenario with an upsetting incident. You tell your friend that you went to New York for the weekend and a woman collapsed in your arms on the subway. Your friend will spring to life and lean toward you. Who was she?
Why did she collapse? What did you do? Was she all right? Problems and the need that results raise questions.
So: What upsetting incident happens to your protagonist to set your story in motion, and what does the character decide to do about it?
Character >>>> problem >>>> goal = strong premise
What is your novel "about"? Your answer to this question will either stimulate or douse interest in your book. A strong story premise will focus your writing, just as a good thesis focuses an essay. A poor premise can cause you to write a lot of material that may never fit your story or interest readers. News stories focus on human needs.
Not: The city tore down several buildings to enlarge the freeway
But: a family is out on the street with nowhere to go because the city tore down several buildings to enlarge the freeway.
The first incites no reader emotion. The second engages reader interest and incites empathy and reader emotion because it raises a question about a human need. Where will these people go? Who will help them? How will they begin again? What they do to overcome their problem and resolve their need is the story.
A premise is the plot in one or two sentences.
A story premise is most useful when it names a specific character, a specific problem, and a specific goal. A premise is not an abstract idea.
Action, particularly action that causes problems for someone, engages reader imagination and raises interest. The best stories involve both the intellect and the emotions. For this reason, any intellectualization in your story needs to revolve around a character acting to rectify a problem that has upset his or her world. Soul searching needs to revolve around goal-oriented action.
Not: My novel is about the increasing tendency toward isolation in the twenty-first century.
But: My novel is about a brilliant computer engineer who tries to save his reputation after his role in the creation of a deadly missile becomes public.
Note how this story premise names the character, his problem, and what he does about it. It also raises many questions: Why is his reputation ruined? What happened with the missile? What does he do to save his reputation? Is he successful?
Not: My novel is about what happens to individuals who have extreme surgical makeovers.
But: My novel is about a woman with Body Dysmorphic Disorder who undergoes dramatic surgery to correct her imagined flaws.
Each revised premise raises questions, and this is what your story premise needs to do. The more compelling the questions raised, the more readers you will attract. If you are uninterested in action, goals, and complications, you want to write an essay, not a novel. You will see this pattern of action carrying ideas in even the most literary novel.
A novel is a book-length narrative that involves characters that confront obstacles in the pursuit of a goal.
The drama in your story need not be "big." You don't need car chases and natural disasters, but you do need interesting goals and interesting action that moves characters toward goal achievement. A good premise makes your ideas as tangible as possible for others.
Story Premise = What problem to whom? = What response to what need?
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Creating Fictional Characters, Part I
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