Not every great story has a premise, but a good many do. And if a story does have a premise, it’s referred to quite often. Premises can be used to beef up a story and add additional motive for characters. Whether it’s a prophecy to be fulfilled, a loved one that needs avenging, or 13,971 years of world history, a premise can be very useful.
To start off: what exactly is a premise? Simply put, it’s the event or string of events that come before and often cause the main events of the book. It can be something as big as an apocalyptic event or something as small as a road trip gone slightly sour, but whatever it is, it’s important.
You’ve probably seen this in many kinds of art before. In The Lord of the Rings, the forging of the Nine Rings is the premise for the whole saga. In Redwall, the exploits of Martin the Warrior set the stage for further adventures. When Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, everyone could easily see that there was a premise to the story. The problem? The premise remained mostly in shadow until the prequels came out in the early 2000’s.
Many authors start the story with the premise in mind, but it is also possible to go back and add one. (however, this is difficult and unideal for reasons that I’ll innumerate in a moment) Whatever you do, it’s essential that you follow a few tips that I’ve prescribed in order to boost the clarity of your backstories of world and character. (note: I’m not saying “follow me, I’m right”, just asking that you’d hear what I have to say)
First off: there are two main kinds of premises: World Events and Character Backstory. A World Event is an event that happens on a large scale and generally effects the world at large. A Character Backstory is smaller and usually only effects on the main character personally. However, since the main character drives the main plot, the Character Backstory can easily serve as the premise. (note: Character Backstory can only serve as the premise if it’s the backstory of some important character. Anything else is just backstory)
When writing on World Events, it’s usually something catastrophic like a killer virus, a world war, a hostile takeover of the world by a single government, loss of all technology, severe natural disasters, and so forth. Of course, you can make it something good, but that depends both on your temperament and what kind of story you’re writing. I prefer world-ending disasters.
When writing Character Backstory, don’t necessarily focus on its impact on the world. One of the premises for the movie based on a popular book series The Dark Tower is that the main character’s father died in a fire. This is extremely relevant to the story as it marks Jake (the main character) as a sorrow-ridden character who eventually goes beyond that and saves the multiverse. Focus on the impact a certain person or event has had on the main character, and do it personally.
There are a few more tips I’d like to address, and these are classified among the “essentials”. The first of them is to make the premise relevant. If you can’t make the reader care about the hero’s backstory or this certain war that preceded the fall of mankind, you lose a lot of leverage. Preserve your leverage by making the premise exceedingly interesting and important throughout the story. This usually requires development, expansion, and explaining, but it’s a small price to pay to get the reader hooked on a story that they’ve barely started.
The second is to refer back to your premise often. To avoid apparent plot holes (not real ones; just ones that the reader thinks are there), you should refer to your premise often. Whenever a chance comes up to mention the Breaking of the World in The Wheel of Time, Jordan doesn’t fail to bring it up. Why? Because it’s important, relevant, and interesting. It helps the reader to feel immersed in the story.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!