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What Is Your Story’s Premise? Editors Want to Know

“What Is Your Story’s Premise? Editors Want to Know” by Joan Y. Edwards

Editors ask: What is your story about? They want to know your emotional premise, your simple three to six word premise
Before you write your story, while you are writing your story, or after your story is finished you must know what your premise is. You must know what your story is about. You must know what it is you prove with the characters and the situations in your story. Are you proving that poverty plus distrust leads to crime? Are you proving that faith versus fear leads to success? Are you proving that ambition plus jealousy leads to failure?
Bill Johnson said a good story revolves around human needs in his article: Premise — Foundation of Storytelling (2000) http://www.storyispromise.com/wpremise.htm
William Foster-Harris says premise is a solved illustration of a problem of moral arithmetic, such as pride + love = happiness in his book: The Basic Formulas of Fiction (1944).
According to James N. Frey, author of How to Write Damn Good Novel,  “to find your premise, you start with a character or a situation, give the protagonist a dilemma, and then say what if such and such happened.” In his book, The Key, Frey adds that premise has to have character, conflict, conclusion, and conviction of the author.
James N. Frey, Emily McKay, and Debra Dixon agree that every character in your story must have a (GMC) goal, motivation, and conflict. However, the goal, motivation, and conflict of your protagonist is the one upon which the proof of your story’s premise should be based.
A premise is what you, the author, set out to prove in your story. With your premise, you are saying to your readers, given these characters and this situation, human nature is such that it will end up this way. It is a very short emotional summary of your story that says this human emotion, quality, or condition struggling against an extremely negative emotion, quality, or human condition leads to a final changed human condition at the end of your story. It doesn’t always have to happen that way in real life. However, it’s that way in your story.
Your premise is a message for your readers that when two particular human emotions, qualities, or conditions are pitted together, you come up with a concluding emotion, quality, or condition.
The same premise can be used for different stories. A premise is universal.
Joan’s Emotional Premises for Movies
Blind Side (2009) Premise: trust plus compassion leads to family.
Saying, proverb, cliche: One person can make a difference.
Love Story (1970) Premise: courage versus illness leads to unselfish love
Saying: Perfect love means unselfishness.
Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) Premise: addiction plus respect leads to love.
Saying: Practice What You Preach
Fatal Attraction (1987) Premise: love versus obsessive jealousy leads to death
Saying: What Goes Around, Comes Around
Liar Liar (1997) Premise: lies plus love leads to divorce; truth plus forgiveness leads to reunification
Saying: Lies Catch Up with You in the End
Make your main character with one of these, struggle for or against one of these, and end up with one of these emotions, traits, vices, virtues, qualities, or conditions of his/her body, soul, and mind.
Emotions, Traits, Vices, Virtues, Qualities, and/or Conditions of the Body, Soul, or Mind
abundance, acceptance, accusation, addiction, admiration, affection, alienation, ambition, anger, annihilation, anxiety, apathy, approval, attention, authority, awareness, awe, beauty, belief, belonging, betrayal, blame, brutality, challenge, chaos, cheerfulness, choices, coming of age, competition, compassion, commitment, confidence, contempt, cooperation, corruption, courage, cowardice, creativity, crime, curiosity, death, debt, deception, dedication, desire, despair, destitution, destruction, dignity, disillusionment, disapproval, disaster, disbelief, discomfort, disgust, dishonesty, disrespect, distress, distrust, divorce, doubt, dream, education, enlightenment, enthusiasm, envy, equality, experience, etiquette, evil, excitement, failure, faith, faithfulness, fate, fear, forbidden, forgiveness, freedom, friendship, fun, fury, future, gain, generosity, genius, good, gratitude, greed, grief, guilt, handicap, happiness, hatred, honesty, honor, hope, humility, humor, hunger, identity, independence, indignation, individuality, initiation, injustice, innocence, insanity, intelligence, interest, isolation, jealousy, joy, justice, judgment, kindness, knowledge, lack, legal, lies, life, loneliness, loyalty, marriage, materialism, money, morality, murder, nature, nobility, order, obsession, oppression, pain, panic, passion, past, patience, peace, pity, power, peace, persecution, perseverance, pleasure, possibilities, poverty, principles, prejudice, pride, problems, protection, punishment, rage, rebelling, rebirth, redemption, rejection, relationship, religion, respect, responsibility, revenge, reverence, reward, romance, ruin, rules, sacrifice, sadness, satisfaction, security, selfishness, self-doubt, sex,  shame, shelter, sickness, sinfulness, sorrow, spirit, starvation, stinginess, stubborn, success, suffering, suicide, surprise, survival, talent, taxes, tenderness, terror, thankfulness, thirst, time, tragedy, trapped, triumph, trust, truth, understanding, unfairness, ungratefulness, valor, vengeance, violence, vulnerability, war, wisdom, wealth, wonder, work, and wrongdoing.
Use the Practice Chart below and put what you think would happen with the two traits I’ve chosen. Make your own chart listing the premise for each of the stories you have written. Write a premise for ten of your favorite movies. Write a premise for ten of your favorite novels.
Joan’s Practice Chart for Writing a Premise
Your Character with what trait?
+ Dilemma Conflict Struggle
Has to Fight Against What Trait?
Leads to What Result?
Extreme Positive or Negative  Emotion, Quality, or Condition
Conflict with, struggle against or fight for powerful, emotion, quality, or condition
Leads to Different Extreme Positive or Negative Emotion, Quality or Condition
1. extreme love
extreme disgust
leads to what?
2. extreme respect
extreme fear
leads to what?
3. extreme peace
extreme hate
leads to what?
4. extreme perseverance
extreme greed
leads to what?
5. extreme loyalty
extreme envy
leads to what?
6. extreme curiosity
extreme cowardice
leads to what?
7. extreme humility
extreme grief
leads to what?
8. extreme courage
extreme lust
leads to what?
9. extreme faith
extreme suffering
leads to what?
10. extreme hope
extreme hunger
leads to what?
I have heard people call this a theme, rather than a premise. Regardless, you have to have it, you have to know it, you have to believe it 100%. After you have your premise, you can write your pitch and the events of your story from the beginning, middle, and the end. Your premise will be proved by your story. Universal emotions and conditions that are understood by all human beings is transferred to your reader, and you will have a best seller.
Books That Discuss Premise
Art Of Dramatic Writing (1946,1960) by Lajos Egri free download of Chapter 1 http://www.writerswrite.com/fiction/egri.htm
How to Write a Damn Good Novel (1987) by James N. Frey http://www.amazon.com/Write-Damn-Novel-Step—Step/dp/0312010443
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II (1994) by James N. Frey http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Damn-Good-Novel/dp/0312104782
How to Write a Damn Good Mystery (2004) by James N. Frey http://www.amazon.com/Key-Write-Fiction-Using-Power/dp/0312300522
Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon http://www.amazon.com/Goal-Motivation-Conflict-Building-Fiction/dp/0965437108
The Key: How to Write a Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth (2000) by James N. Frey http://www.amazon.com/Key-Write-Fiction-Using-Power/dp/0312300522
Online Articles That Discuss Premise
Basics of Screenwriting, Session I, one of the contributors is Amy Dunkleberger
Definition of Premises
Premise–Foundation of Storytelling (2000) by Bill Johnson:  http://www.storyispromise.com/wpremise.htm
Theme vs. Premise by Joel Haber http://funjoel.blogspot.com/2005/09/theme-vs-premise.html
Online Articles That Discuss Emotions and Human Needs
1.      Fundamental Human Needs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_human_needs.
2.      What Are the Universal Themes
3.      List of feeling words: http://www.eqi.org/fw.htm
4.      List of negative feeling words: http://www.eqi.org/cnfs.htm
5.      List of general emotions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emotions
6.      Basic Emotions by ChangingMinds.org http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/basic%20emotions.htm
7.      Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions
8.      Robert Plutchik’s Eight changingminds.org/…ons/basic emotions.htm
9. Primary Emotions and How to Use Them, Part 1 and Part 2 by Daniel Benjamin Smith http://dragonscanbebeaten.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/plutchiks-eight-primary-emotions-and-how-to-use-them-part-1/
11.  Paul Ekman’s Big Six Emotions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ekman
12.  Character Helps for Writing from SFF.Net, Julie West http://www.sff.net/people/julia.west/CALLIHOO/dtbb/emotions.htm
14.   Great pictures matched with emotions: http://www.feelingfacescards.com/
15.  Lists of emotions: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emotions
To those of you who are reading this. Thank you. I am honored. I hope my explanation of premise to help you latch onto that and make your stories stronger, more meaningful, and highly  marketable.
A story with no premise has no meaning and will not be sold. If you want to read more about premise, choose one of the books or online articles listed above.  James N. Frey gave me the best explanation.  I appreciate James N. Frey’s reading over this article for my blog to make sure I didn’t lead you astray.  I appreciate his allowing me to review his books on my blog.

Good luck in getting your work published.
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Joan Y. Edwards
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