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  • Writer's pictureJulie Gray

Writing Tips: The Premise Line

A good premise line is like a compass

Dear Blog readers, here is another blog entry based on notes I provided to a writer. I hope you find it helpful!

A premise line is a tool for the writer. Sure, it may seem similar to the blurb on the back of a book - a short description of the book - but that's something different. A premise line you wouldn't share with the reader - you use it as your compass and you would use it to pitch the book to agents.

The premise is an important guide to help you write fiction. It actually shows us the structure of the story what's at stake, who the main character is and what that main character has to overcome. So let's take a super easy example to illustrate:

When a giant shark terrorizes a summer resort at the height of its season, but the mayor refuses to close the beach, the town’s new sheriff has to overcome his fear of water and go after the shark with a motley crew.

So you’ll recognize, of course, that this is from Jaws. You’ll also recognize that not every story is so easy to jot down in such a way. But for the sake of argument, let’s look at this premise line. Who is the main character? The town’s new sheriff. What flaw or weak point is in the way of him achieving his goal (to catch the shark) – well, he’s afraid of water, and he’s new to the town and the mayor won’t cooperate. And people are dying. So that’s a few problems, right? What is at stake? People’s lives – this shark is eating people. Who is the villain here? Well, the shark, for sure, but also the mayor. What conflict are we going to see in this story? Shark eating people, sheriff arguing with the mayor, conflict with the shark itself – how can you catch much less kill it?

Let’s take another easy one:

When a vain blonde gets dumped by her Harvard-bound boyfriend, then she follows him to Harvard to try to prove she is smart and worthy enough of his love but when a snotty rival makes her life miserable and her law professor hits on her, she must decide between her ethics and brains and her very identity – trophy wife or budding lawyer.

So who is our main character? The blonde (this is Legally Blonde, just in case you don’t recognize it.) What’s her flaw and her obstacles? She’s vain, she doesn’t think she’s smart, she goes to Harvard and is a fish out of water. What’s at stake? At first, it’s her ego, right? She’s been dumped. She wants to prove that she’s smart and worthy. But what’s at stake later? Her ethics and identity. Should she stand up to the man who harassed her and do the right thing? Or just take the prize of having graduated and go get her former fiancée again? Who is the villain here? First, the snooty rival and then the law teacher. You can see in this story that the wants, needs and goals of our main character change. Because SHE changes. Stories change our characters.

Take another look at your premise lines – actually don’t – try to write one – or several, anew. A short, choppy three or four sentences that show goals, flaws, conflict and obstacles as in the examples above. A premise line is not usually written very poetically at all – it’s a roadmap. If you write a lousy one – do it again. Do it yet again. Erase, line out, do it again.

A good premise line should contain the following information:

1) When a character with an interesting flaw has this strange or challenging situation happen

2) which makes their goals impossible to reach and they have a lot at stake (job, love, identity, career, etc.)

3) and then, unfortunately things get worse and more complicated and

4) ultimately the character has to make a big change, choice or sacrifice which will result in resolution of the story.

Good luck!

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