All stories begin with a premise (a battle in space, two people falling in love, a dog getting lost). But, often, our original conceptions are hazy and unformed. Sometimes, they’re not even a premise, so much as the what-if question that will lead to a premise. What if a little boy’s brain grew too quickly for his body to keep up? (Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card.) What if an orphan boy was given a fortune by an unknown benefactor? (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.) What if an assassin was hired to kill himself? (My own Behold the Dawn.)
What-if questions are hugely powerful. But if we don’t refine them into full-blown premise sentences, we’re not taking full advantage of them.The late YA author Norma Fox Mazer explained in an article in the March 2010 issue of The Writer:
When I pick up a book in the library or the bookstore, I always want to know what it’s about. Yet when I’m asked the same question about a story on which I’m working, I stumble anxiously over my words. I don’t want to answer! I dislike taking the fascination of creating a world and characters and reducing it to a few phrases. All the same, answering this question is what I force myself to do for every book I write. Ideally, I know what the book is about (and can state it in a single sentence) before I start writing.
Crafting a good premise sentence is valuable for a number of reasons:
It identifies viable ideas. Condensing and solidifying an idea into a premise sentence gives you an immediate assessment of whether this idea will stand up for the length of an entire story. Let’s take the what-if question that inspired my upcoming fantasy Dreamers (working title): “What if what we dreamed about was actually happening?” It’s a good idea. But we don’t know it can carry the weight of a plot until we nail down the details in a premise sentence: “Renegade journalist Chris Redston discovers his dreams are really memories of a world he lives in while he sleeps and which he will, reluctantly, have to fight to save from destruction.”
It solidifies characters, conflict, and plot. A premise sentence forces you to identify a main character (as explicitly as possible: you’ll note my premise sentence indicates his name, his occupation, and a personality trait), a central conflict, and, as a result, a general plot. Your what-if question gives you an idea; your premise sentence gives you a story.
It distills the book’s essence. In the madcap frenzy of creation, particularly in the early days of inspiration, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the colorful possibilities. A story has so many potential directions that it can be difficult to select the best one. Sometimes you’ll be chapters into the story before realizing you should have taken another path. A premise sentence is like a mini outline, one that’s useful to even those who dislike outlining. Writing down your idea (and it is important to actually write it down) gives you a lodestone by which to direct the frigate of your story.
It guides you to the next question. Once the premise sentence has given you the central crux of your story, the next step usually becomes obvious. Once I knew my premise for Dreamers, I knew some of the questions that still needed to be answered. What was this dream world like? Why was Chris the only one who discovered it? Why was it in danger of destruction?
It gives you an easy answer to questions about your story. Well-meaning friends, family, and fans ask, “So what’s your new story about?” and you hem and haw, flustered by the difficulties of explaining a 300 page novel in a few words. The easy solution is to offer them your premise sentence. It’s an answer that both satisfies their curiosity and allows you to appear confident and prepared.
It prepares you for selling your work. Finally, creating a premise sentence early in your writing process prepares you for pitching your work to agents, who inevitably require a concise, gripping description of your story. If you start now, you can polish it to perfection by the time you’re ready to start shopping your book.
The above is from K.M. Weiland's amazing blog "Wordplay."