…writing a story without a premise is like rowing a boat without oars. ~ James N. Frey, from How to Write a Damn Good Novel
I’ll admit up front that I have problems defining premise. So I Googled it and found differing definitions. I’m still not certain of what a premise should be. I know when writing research papers you need a premise. You are trying to prove something and your paper is the argument to prove your premise. In writing stories, maybe the same holds true.
Several websites and references appear to define premise the same as a “log line” or “tag line.” Others are quite different. Frey, who started me down this path while I was rereading his book purchased almost thirty years ago, defines it as something that leads to something—as simple as love leads to happiness or crime leads to punishment. Or it could be crime leads to happiness if that’s what you want your story to say.
The tag line for my novel, The Janus Code, was, “What if the ultimate computer firewall turned out to be the ultimate computer snooper?” By some of the following definitions, this would be the premise. By others, including Frey’s, it would not. It would need to be something that leads to something—cause and effect. Maybe my story’s premise is, “Releasing the ultimate computer snooper leads to world-wide disaster.” I’m not sure.
I didn’t take the following references’ advice (hadn’t read them at the time). They all say you should have a premise before you begin writing your story. (I think one reference said many authors don’t consciously do that, but if it’s a good story, the premise is there.)
If you want the scoop on premise, read from some of the following links. There is a wealth of information, but the writers don’t always agree on the definition of premise.
a : a proposition antecedently supposed or proved as a basis of argument or inference; specifically : either of the first two propositions of a syllogism from which the conclusion is drawn
b : something assumed or taken for granted : presupposition
- The Scribes website makes premise sound like the blurb you put on the back cover of your book.
- Writers’ Digest confused me with concept and premise. What they call concept, others call premise. At the end of this article, they compare Concept vs. Idea vs. Premise vs. Theme.
- James N. Frey defines premise more closely to what Writers’ Digest calls concept or theme. You won’t find this on his website; you’ll need to read the book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel. He says, “The premise of a story is simply a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict of the story.”
- On the website Taking Notes, Jeanne Vincent talks about theme and premise. She gives many examples of theme but basically uses Frey’s definition of premise.
- Hollywood Inkslinger, Andrew Oye, says, “Premise and Theme Are Cousins Not Twins.” He says the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story. He compares the premise to a “log line.” Even though he’s talking about screen writing, what he says applies to books as well.
- The Writer’s Store talks about themes, but says true theme is premise. Melanie Ann Phillips says, “A premise is a moral statement about the value of our troubles caused by an element of human character.”
- The Writer online magazine talks about premise in a way I think of as “tag line” or “log line.”
“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.”
- Where’s the Drama, another screenwriting website, has two separate articles on the same webpage —the first is on Log Lines and the second on Premise. Their definition of premise: “A premise is something to be proved, something asserted as true…”
If you read some of these, you will see why I’m confused about the definition of PREMISE.