What’s your premise?

by Alex

I’m off to New Orleans this week to teach a five-day writing workshop run by Deborah LeBlanc called The Pen to Press Writers Retreat.

Yeah, pretty excited! Also feeling a huge sense of responsibility. Anyone who commits the time and money to a retreat kind of workshop is really saying to the entire world – “I’m serious about this, I’m ready.” And I want to give these people the best of what I know.

So my first lesson is going to be about premise.

I was at some author event the other night and doing the chat thing with people at the pre-dinner cocktail party and found myself in conversation with an aspiring author who had just finished a book, and naturally I asked, “What’s your book about?”

And she said – “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences– there’s just so much going on in it.”

WRONG ANSWER.

The time to know what your book is about is before you start it, and you damn well better know what it’s about by the time it’s finished and people, like, oh, you know – agents and editors, are asking you what it’s about.

And here’s another tip – when people ask you what your book is about, the answer is not “War” or “Love” or “Betrayal”, even though your book might be about one or all of those things. Those words don’t distinguish YOUR book from any of the millions of books about those things.

When people ask you what your book is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the premise?” In other words, “What’s the story line in one easily understandable sentence?”

That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch” – it all means the same thing.

That sentence really should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre. And – it should make whoever hears it want to read the book. Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say – “Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”

Writing a premise sentence is a bit of an art, but it’s a critical art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights. You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian, and the Sisters in Crime books in print catalogue editor ask you for a one-sentence book description, or jacket copy, or ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstores (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have about one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.

And even before all that, the premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.

So what are some examples of premise lines?

Name these books:

– When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

– A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

– A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Notice how all of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out. Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.

Here’s my premise for THE HARROWING:

Five troubled college students left alone on their isolated campus over the long Thanksgiving break confront their own demons and a mysterious presence – that may or may not be real.

I wrote that sentence to quickly convey all the elements I want to get across about this book.

Who’s the story about? Five college kids, and “alone” and “troubled” characterize them in a couple of words. Not only are they alone and troubled, they have personal demons. What’s the setting? An isolated college campus, and it’s Thanksgiving – fall, going on winter. Bleak, spooky. Plus – if it’s Thanksgiving, why are they on campus instead of home with their families?

Who’s the antagonist? A mysterious presence. What’s the conflict? It’s inner and outer – it will be the kids against themselves, and also against this mysterious presence. What are the stakes? Well, not so clear, but there’s a sense of danger involved with any mysterious presence.

And there are a lot of clues to the genre – sounds like something supernatural’s going on, but there’s also a sense that it’s psychological – because the kids are troubled and this presence may or may not be real. There’s a sense of danger, possibly on several levels.

The best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Make a list of ten books and films that are in the same genre as your book or script – preferably successful – or that you wish you had written! Now for each story, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

If you need a lot of examples all at once, pick up a copy of the TV Guide, or click through the descriptions of movies on your TiVo. Those aren’t necessarily the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

And now that you’re an expert -go for it. Write yours and share!

Hope everyone has a great holiday weekend!

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I am thrilled to announce that while I’m in New Orleans next weekend the brilliant Megan Abbott will be blogging here on Saturday. I can’t wait!

17 thoughts on “What’s your premise?

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Here’s a rough premise for an idea I’ve been playing around with:

    A young photojournalist must discover the connection between her magazine’s editor and someone who is rumored to have “powerful connections” before they can find her and otherwise convince her that she didn’t see anything.

    Reply
  2. Angelle

    Okay, I’ll play, using my WIP:

    Someone or something is hunting reluctant angel Ross and her fellow heavenly beings through the dark corners of Los Angeles and if they can’t stop it, the Apocalypse starts here and now.

    Hmm. I’m not sure if I’m happy with this.

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I think that’s good, RJ, really concise and gives a sense of the characters and genre. What I’d suggest is that you find more descriptive words to be more specific about the characters and the tone. I think of them as “sizzle” words. ” Young photojournalist” doesn’t really give me much of a sense of character – is she ambitious? Troubled? Idealistic?

    Is she having an affair with her edior or is he or she a parental figure or idol?

    “Otherwise convince her” is a little subtle for a premise. Is she in mortal danger? Are they chasing her? Does she have to go on the lam? Is there a specific time clock – “she has three days to find X before Y kills her?”

    Do you see what I’m saying? Is there a way to convey more of the adrenaline and stakes of the action here? You want to be as specific as possible in as few words as possible.

    I find a good trick is to overwrite it in purple prose and then refine it – but you need to get in that “Wow!!” factor. Sex, action, mayhem, terror…. or at least big emotional rollercoaster!

    Reply
  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Thanks for the advice, Alex. That was really helpful. Wish I could make it to New Orleans for the retreat. But I’d love to know if you’re ever in the Boston area doing a workshop.

    Reply
  5. Clair Dickson

    Okay, I wanna play.

    “Bo Fexler, sexy female PI, uses her brains, fists, and body as she encounters sex, violence and drugs in a hunt for a missing man and his ugly secrets.”

    Reply
  6. Angelle

    Clair: I was intrigued, but wanted a few more concrete details to be really hooked and want to read. Can you give us a specific about the man or his secrets? Also, you might start with “Sexy Bo Fexler, female PI”. It never hurts to start with sex, if you can 🙂

    Reply
  7. Elaine

    Fantastic piece, Alex. I want to take one of your workshops one day myself! Have a brilliant time in New Orleans… xo

    Reply
  8. Louise Ure

    Call me old-fashioned, but I do so prefer the term “premise” to “elevator pitch.” Kind of like referring to an “author comment” instead of a “blurb.” Much more refined.

    Reply
  9. Dana King

    I’m with you, Louise. “Premise” sounds organic to the creation of the book; “elevator pitch” is an attempt to refine 100,000 words into twenty.

    Great post, Alex, thank you. This is the best, most concise definition I’ve seen yet, with practical tips on creation, as well. Have fun at the retreat.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “Someone or something is hunting reluctant angel Ross and her fellow heavenly beings through the dark corners of Los Angeles and if they can’t stop it, the Apocalypse starts here and now.”

    Angelle, I like this a lot, but you don’t have to be coy about a premise. Tell us what the someone or something is – or at least say something liike – ” A mysterious hospital counselor who may or may not be the Devil” (to steal from my premise for THE PRICE) – if you want to be ambiguous.

    That would also make the “it” more clear in “if they can’t stop it”, which right now is vague.

    Reply
  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Creature! I wish you could come!

    Louise, I completely agree – I cannot bring myself to say “elevator pitch.” It just sounds – desperate, somehow. Sort of like stalking.

    Reply
  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Alex,I’m always scared to do these things because I haven’t practiced . . . not after all these years.

    But reading this piece is an inspiration. I’m going to take books I know well and see if I can do it. Then, when I work up the courage, I’ll try it with my new books. I think it’ll be incredible liberating once that damn internal editor SHUTS UP!

    Reply
  13. Jake Nantz

    Wow. I’m a little (okay, a lot) late to the party, but I’ll try with my WIP:

    “When someone who may or may not be a Muslim extremist starts picking off members of the southern publishing industry, a dogged young detective and the veteran partner he despises must save a writer and an ex-president that the world would probably be better off without.”

    Reply

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