Every story should have a premise. This is different than a plot or a conflict. Plot describes what is happening. Conflict describes why it’s not happening. But premise. Now that’s something that it’ll take a moment to sink our teeth into. James Frey in How To Write a Damn Good Novel says that EVERY story, if it is to be published by a company, must have a premise.

The picture for today is an excellent description of what happens to your novel if there is no premise. It could very well read: PREMISE ENDS YOUR NOVEL’S SILENT DESTRUCTION. So what is a premise. I’d say that a premise is the “moral of the story.” It’s the lesson-learned or the less unlearned. It’s the thing that the reader is looking for inside of your characters, and then the reader wants to see that theme plastered on the street signs in your small suburban town.

Here are some memorable premises:
1) Turtle and the Hare: the race is not given to the swift, but to him who endures.
2) Green Eggs and Ham: Try things you haven’t had before. You might just like it.
3) The Grinch That Stole Christmas: Christmas is about more than just presents.

Each of these stories says something to the reader that we can all see. If your story does not have this, then your scenes aren’t connected. That’s harsh, but it’s true.

1) Sara went home.
2) Sara got in bed.
3) Sara went to sleep.
4) Sara woke up.
5) Sara was happy.

What the heck are you talking about!!! That makes no sense. Sara is useless. This story has no meaning! It’s not even a story…it’s…it’s…it’s a series of events, linked together, b-by numbers! Poppycock!

This is going to be great. Watch how this works. Let’s say the premise is this: Sleeping can be peaceful. Now, there’s a point. Questions come to mind. Thoughts arise. What about Sara made her sleep unpeacefully? Was it Freddie? Was he haunting her nightmares again?

Let’s try another premise: Death is not inevitable. This gives us the idea that every decision Sara has made has caused her anxiety because she felt that she was going to die. Not in this story she doesn’t.

Here’s one more premise: Aliens can become humans. See how that changes the linkage of events.

This is just a small example, but if our stories don’t each have a premise, then we are not able to fully pull the reader into what we’re saying. Frey describes a novelist who realized that all of her unpublished novels did not have premises, and all of her published novels did. Coincidence? Maybe. Probably not, though.

In the spectrum of a novel where there are dozens of scenes, the premise needs to unite them all. See how the example above links the scenes together in a different way? We should consider this whenever we are writing.


  1. Patty-chan

    Perhaps I’m confusing what you wrote but what I took away from this is that the premise is the moral of the story. But can the premise be a situation?

    Let’s take a movie I know we’ve both seen as an example: Terminator: Salvation. I would think the premise is the situation, man vs. robots in a dystopian future. But, if I had to give a moral for the story, it would be that even robots can be humane, given the actions and eventual sacrifice of Sam Worthington’s character.

    Can a story have an open-ended premise and still be effective?

    1. William Stadler Post author

      Patty, thanks for the insight. You are right in that premise is commonly understood as: what’s the situation. But the premise of novel, according to Frey, is the theme. So yes, the terms can be confusing, but all stories must have a moral such as Salvation’s: Robots can be humane.
      Frey says that stories with open-ended premises canot be effective since there is no destination. It’s a series of events with no purpose. But, if you have written a story already, analyze and see if there is a theme lurking in there somewhere. Then you can accentuate that theme more vividly. Let me know if you have any other thoughts.

    2. William Stadler Post author

      So Wow, that was a lot to digest, but it was so rich with content. I will try to answer your question as best as possible.

      Think of a premise as a thesis. Whenever you were in English, you wrote an essay with 3 main points and a conclusion. But all of your paragraphs rested solely on your thesis. No thesis, no essay. It’s as simple as that.

      Novels are a way to fictionally write an essay. There’s still a point to prove, but the way that it is proved is different. “Drugs are bad.” Why? Show me. Let me see how drugs are bad through a character. “Drugs are good.” Show me for the same reason.
      When you think about minor themes, those themes are not necessary, but they can support and should ONLY support your premise (or your thesis). If they don’t support your thesis, then those themes are detrimental side tracks that can derail your story.

      The minor themes (which Frey doesn’t talk about at all), should not be forced, in my opinion. I have minor themes in my novels, BUT they do not take away from the main theme, and the minor themes are not themes that I am trying to prove. They simply prove my main theme (or premise). I hope this helps. I have more premise topics coming up this week. I hope you’ll check them out.

      1. Patty-chan

        I understand what you mean by thesis. I got sidetracked from homework developing an example of a story that argues the thesis: “drugs can be good and bad, but and it’s up to the reader to choose for themselves”. I have to finish the work, so I’ll post it here tomorrow.

        In the mean time, thanks for your feed back, and the post. And Ill definitely continuing checking out the topics.

  2. Patty-chan

    Yeah. When I really dissect it, there’s a premise (theme) that sticks out above the others in the story I’m currently working on.

    I guess I get tripped up because I try to leave the premise (theme) open-ended but use smaller themes to hint at it. There is a CENTRAL premise (main theme) to what I’m writing. But I focus more on writing a complicated, yet intriguing situation because I want there to be other themes for readers to pick up on.

    For example, I’m currently reading the Great Gastby. I would say that the premise (situation) is, hands down, Gatsby’s ambitious pursuit of his one true love. The central premise/main theme/moral isn’t so clear cut. Some would argue that his ambitions resulted in his death (therefore, don’t give into selfish ambitious). I myself, being the romantic I am, say that Gatsby lived his life to the fullest (therefore, fight on for love until you die).

    While simple stories like the ones in your original post (Rabbit vs. Hare & Green Eggs and Ham) are good, I think better stories (and longer stories, requiring the length of a novel) allow for an open-ended debate for what the final message is.

    Even better stories/novels have other themes along the way. Nick, the narrator in the Great Gatsby, very very briefly explores his own mortality. He randomly realizes (literally random, it hits him later in the evening, right after a big fight between Gatsby and Tom) that it’s his 30th birthday. He first thoughts are anxiety over aging, such as his hair thinning.

    But the best novels have smaller themes that boost the central theme. Nick’s mortality–> make the most of your time by ambitiously going after whatever it is you desire –> Gatsby going to extremes to be with daisy.

    Phew! If I had put all of that on my high school English term paper, I would have aced it!

    I realize now that, for the sake of the blog, you used examples on a micro-level. Green Eggs and Ham is quite a few meals away from a novel and it’s aimed towards children anyway, where simple is better. Does Frey say anything about having major and minor themes in a novel?

  3. Pingback: WABBIT SEE-ZON « Stadler Style

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