Every story begins with an idea, and nearly every idea begins with “What if?”
What if the toys in a child’s bedroom came to life when humans weren’t around?
What if dinosaurs and humans were trapped on the same island?
What if machines could transform into anthropomorphic alien robots?
No doubt, you’ve had a few ideas of your own, a lightning strike of inspiration. For most of us, this is how the writing process begins. The idea for my first novel came to me while I was sitting in class one day back in college. Another student’s cell phone rang and I thought, “What if a person could overhear someone else’s phone calls with their mind?” It was a what-if idea that would later become a story. What lies between is called a premise.
A premise is your story stated in one sentence. You can think of it as a sort of equation: Character + plot + action or event = outcome. It is the very simplest version of your story that an audience or reader can understand.
For example, let’s look at the premise of Toy Story: “A favorite toy receives some competition, and his jealous actions force both toys to work together to find their way back home.” This is the entire film of Toy Story stated in one sentence. An audience can read this and get the general idea what the story is about; they can also decide whether or not this is a story they want to pay to see.
Note: This is not the same thing as a blurb or a tagline, or what you’d read on the back of a cover in a bookstore. Think of it more as a pitch; it’s your story condensed into its simplest form possible. For more examples of a premise, see my post Aquaman and Knowing What Story You’re Telling.
Your premise is your story. It is your inspiration, and it should guide every decision you make during your months or years of writing as you design scenes and build your world. Now, let’s discuss how to make one. You may have noticed that the what-if idea for Toy Story stated above is very different from the premise, and it should be; the two are fundamentally different things. Many writers never make it past the idea stage because they don’t know how to develop their idea into a premise. Everybody and their dog has ideas, but there is a reason we’re not all bestselling authors. Nobody has a clue how to take a what-if question and pull from it a plot, cast of characters, event, and outcome. These things don’t just come out of a hat. This why having a premise is so crucial, as is taking the time to properly develop one. Your story isn’t a story without it.
So, let us begin. Take your idea, jot it down, and then put it away. I would give it two weeks. Let it stew in your mind, rolling around in your head while you go about your life. Don’t write any scenes, and don’t say anything to anyone. I do recommend speaking your idea out loud, but only alone, in your car or shower. Then, when the two weeks is up and your idea is still burning in your head, begin to explore possibilities.
Open yourself up to every possibility that could evolve from your idea. And I mean every possibility. Nothing is too stupid or outlandish here. I recommend taking a notebook and jotting down every single possibility that pops into your head concerning your idea. Many writers begin with a plot or actions, so expand on that. Do a bit of self-exploration. What interests you? What would you like to see a character do? What kind of events would you like them to face? Imagine some dialogue, lines they might say. If you begin with characters, flesh them out. What sorts of characters do you want to see? What kind of behaviors might they have? Build a personality. How would a character like yours respond to the events you envision happening to them? Write these all down, and then build a wish list. Order your possibilities in order of importance, with what you would most like to see at the top. This stage matters because this is how you avoid writing something generic, a knockoff of something that is already been done before. More importantly, it is how you build a story that is unique and will matter to you. You will want to write it and make it the best that it can be because it is your story.
From here, you construct your premise. You have a character, one who fits you and the idea you developed. You have an event, something that will change your character, and the basic bones of a plot. You have a logical outcome that results from your chosen event. Piece them together, and form a premise that captures it all. This may take a few drafts, or more than a few, but make it matter and make it change the way you feel.
Again, I’ll use my own novel as an example. I began with an idea: “What if a person could overhear someone else’s phone calls with their mind?” From there, I brainstormed possibilities. Could this person read texts, too, in their mind? Or emails? The government would probably take an interest in them. What would the government want them to do? How old is this person? Their age would certainly affect their reaction to the government’s interference. How would they use their powers? What is their race? What if they were a minority?
I consolidated all the possibilities into a wishlist that mattered to me, and then constructed a plot and a main character. I made the character a 12-13 year old male, because I wanted him to be relatable to my nephew. I decided that he would become a kind of superhero, because my nephew loved superheroes, and I then I made him Latino because I have Latin heritage. My main character was bullied in school for being strange and different, and I wanted to see him and one of the bullies forced to work together later in the story.
From all of these possibilities (and many, many more), I designed a premise: “When an accident gives a young boy superpowers, the government forces him to help fight a secret terrorist organization.” This became the first novel in my series, Spark. It was a story that could be familiar and outlandish at the same time, and excited me because it was something I was interested in. It was me, things deep within me that I wanted to see fleshed out on paper.
Now, you try it. You may already have an idea burning in the back of your mind. Jot it down, brainstorm the possibilities, and see if a story arises!