In this section of our complete guide to writing a novel, I’ll be discussing how to create a premise. But, it seems that the word “Premise” has multiple understandings (three major ones), all of which we need to get to grips with.
Here are the three understandings of a premise.
1 (the world premise): The world premise describes the universe you’re taking the reader away to. For instance, “A young boy is magicked away to a school for wizards.”
2: (the character premise) A character premise is an argument, stating that some aspect of a character will lead to some outcome. “Bravery leads to power.”
3: (the question premise) A question premise is the thing the reader is waiting to find out. Will Luke Skywalker save the universe from the Galactic Empire? Will Frodo save Middle Earth by destroying the Ring of Power?
We need to understand and use all three of these types of premises to create a great novel. You can start with any one of them, though perhaps one sticks out more than the rest. Perhaps you have a great idea for a fantasy world? Perhaps you know that your novel is similar to Divergent in that it is a “Dystopian world divided into factions based on personalities.” If so, start with the World Premise. On the other hand, if you know that your novel shows that “love leads to bravery” (like in The Hunger Games) then start with the character premise. Or if you know that your novel asks the question “Will Luke Skywalker blow up the Deathstar” (Star Wars) then start with the question premise.
The Premise for The Hunger Games? Love Leads To Bravery
Continuing with our story and its premise…
As per usual I’ll be using my upcoming and currently untitled dystopian romance novel to illustrate the processes used herein. So far we’ve discussed How to come up with ideas for a novel and how to expand on novel ideas. We now have a good understanding of the main idea of our novel (see below).
I’ll be starting with the question premise because that’s the one which is most immediately evident to me with my new novel.
First let’s remind ourselves of what the novel is all about, the bits we’ve worked out so far…
A synopsis of everything we know about the book up to now…
In a dystopian world, love is controlled by the ruling powers, who have created a computer algorithm to determine who should be with whom. But those controlling powers have abused the system, picking whom they want to be with and leaving the “unlovables” to the poor. Our protagonist has fallen in love with a woman “above his station.” Now he must fight for the one he loves. But will he conquer society and achieve his true love, or will society break him down. Will he find true love or die trying?
So, this is what we’ve got so far. From this synopsis I’m not certain about my character premise or my world premise, but I have a pretty good clue about my question premise, so let’s start there.
The Question Premise
My question premise is simple: Can love conquer the laws of society?
Will the protagonist find the freedom to be with the one he loves?
Will the controlling powers kill the protagonist and prevent his love from coming to fruition…
You can probably tell here that I’m working towards my question premise. It isn’t set in stone but I have a good idea of the important points. The important points are:
1) Will the protagonist end up with the one he loves?
2) Will society make the protagonist breakdown and conform?
3) Will society kill the protagonist for his love?
I’m heading somewhere like this…
But let’s be honest, none of the premises above are perfect. We need something more marketable, more exciting, just… more. I know my marketable points, I know that the novel is all about whether this dystopian society will kill true love or whether love will conquer and change the world. Now to just put it in the right words…
Will love lead the world to freedom, or will the powers that be kill love and rule all?
That’s not bad but we need to get rid of the “Or.” The tighter the premise is the stronger it is…
Will love lead our corrupt world to freedom?
Excellent. It’s tight, it’s marketable, it’s easy to understand, you could write it in your book description and it’d be a selling force. Our question premise is done. Just two more types of premise to go.
The World Premise
The world premise is in many ways the thing that sells the book. Its the wrapping on the candy. Fantastic world premises sell themselves. For instance, “What if you were whisked away to a school for wizards?” A school for wizards?! Where?! Let me go, let me go! Marketing brilliance.
Harry Potter is an invitation to Hogwarts School of Wizardry
Premises don’t have to be positive, though. While Harry Potter offers something of a fantasy vacation, many premises offer the complete opposite, working off of fear.
Take George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1984), for example. Here you have somewhere you would never want to go; a dystopian hell where Big Brother controls all and where you have absolutely no freedom. The premise, “A world where every human right has been violated and all life is under the complete control of Big Brother.” Ooooh, that sounds like somewhere I want to go!
Oh wait… no, no it doesn’t. Why did people read George Orwell’s 1984? Why did they want to go to this terrible place where no one is free and where people are tortured for acting against Big Brother’s command?
Because of fear. Fear is a marketing powerhouse (look at the pharmaceutical industry, for instance).
Your world premise should sell your book
The world premise really is, in many ways, pure marketing. You need to create a fantasy world that can be conveyed in a single advertising slogan that will make people want to pick up the book. Think of any famous novel you like and there’ll almost certainly be a killer premise.
“A world where the best superheroes and villains come together in one universe.” That’s the premise for Marvel comics.
“Stunningly beautiful vampires and werewolves walk among regular people, falling in love with some random girl.” That’s my sarcastic take on Twilight’s premise.
“A city where people are divided into factions based on their personality.” That’s Divergent….
You get the idea. The world premise is the summary (and promise) of where your readers are going to go. It doesn’t have to be a world; it could be just a single room or building. Take Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption, for example. Almost the entire story is set in a prison. Or One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, which is mostly set in a hospital. I list these two stories together because they both do the same thing. They both create a world of freedom, which is just outside the walls of the building the characters are locked-up in. The world premise for both could be thought of as “A hell where freedom lies just on the other side of the wall.” Eh, I’m sure Stephen King would write a much better premise than that, but you get the idea.
So, what’s our world premise?
So what’s the world premise for my dystopian romance? If you’ve been reading my previous entries in this series you’ll know that so far ) my novel is about a world where the government is completely in control of who can love and who can copulate with whom, and that my protagonist (currently unnamed—only started this yesterday) falls in love with someone above his “station”—someone he shouldn’t be in love with. What’s the premise for that then?
Well, let’s look at all the important marketing aspects of this book first.
The marketing aspects of the book:
Love / dystopian / Slavery (/ ) / sex / death
Okay, so now that I’ve got down the basic marketing elements I want to try and work that into a killer premise. So far we’ve got a mixture of both positives and negatives / fears and hopes. That’s good. It gives us a double edged sword to work with. We can make our premise both scary and inspiring. It’s similar to three books I’ve already discussed in this article: The Shawshank Redemption, Nineteen Eighty Four (1984) and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest; there’s a sense that freedom (or love, in our instance) is attainable outside of the world the characters are in. We should be able to craft a world premise from this.
How about what I said earlier, “A hell where love and freedom lie just over the wall.”?
It’s not bad; it gives me, as the author, a good idea of where I’m going with the world, but there are aspects of my novel that I haven’t included in this premise. I know, for instance, that my world is set in the future, that it’s dystopian, that the character is in a place full of the poor and downtrodden and that there is another place, a place of freedom and love, which is inhabited by the wealthy elite. Can I work these elements into my world premise? Let me give it a shot.
A dirty prison world where freedom and love lie just beyond the militarised border.
Huh. I didn’t know the “militarised” bit but it came up naturally and felt good, so I’m tempted to leave it in, at least for now. And here I’ve found a world premise, though perhaps I can write it a little bit better. I’m also not 100% sure about the prison bit – didn’t intend to go to a prison with this and it doesn’t feel quite right.
A militarised slum popularised by the downtrodden, where luxury, freedom and love lie just beyond the border.
Hurrah. I’m happy with that. It feels right to me; and that’s all I’ve got to go on, a gut feeling. (How many gut feelings go into writing a novel? One for every word, in my experience).
The Character Premise
The character premise is a summation of what will happen to the character. When I started writing this article I had no clue what my character premise was. But I’ve gone ahead and worked with what I knew (the question premise), that’s helped me to discover the world premise, and those two together should be able to help me to find the character premise.
So let’s recap everything we know…
In a dystopian world, love is controlled by the ruling powers, who have created a computer algorithm to determine who should be with whom. But those controlling powers have abused the system, picking whom they want to be with and leaving the “unlovables” to the poor. Our protagonist has fallen in love with a woman “above his station.” Now he must fight for the one he loves. But will he conquer society and achieve his true love, or will society break his down. Will he live true love, or die trying?
This was my original synopsis, but with the work I’ve done in this article I can rewrite a little to add some details.
[synopsis] In a dystopian universe, where the poor and downtrodden are kept imprisoned in a militarised slum, love is controlled by a computer algorithm that determines who should be with who. But the controlling powers have abused the system, picking whom they want to be with and leaving the “unlovables” to the poor. Our protagonist, a poor and downtrodden man, has fallen in love with a woman “above his station.” Now he must fight to escape his prison, to find freedom and love on the other side of the border.
[question premise] Will love lead our corrupt world to freedom?
[world premise] A militarised slum popularised by the downtrodden, where luxury, freedom and love lie just beyond the border.
So, what is our character premise?
Well, logically we know quite a lot about our protagonist just from what we’ve discovered about our story so far. We know our protagonist is poor and downtrodden, that he’s living in a militarised slum with other poor people, that the government’s algorithm is going to match him, for life, with someone he doesn’t love, that he loves someone above his station, and that he’s going to fight to leave his prison and find true love, and that if he finds his love, he will have created a pathway to freedom for all the other characters.
From that, we can deduce certain character traits about our protagonist.
- He’s tough (he has to be able to fight)
- He’s romantic and believes in love (otherwise he wouldn’t risk his life for love)
- He’s poor
- He’s downtrodden
- He has the potential to be a leader
- He is either going to find love or die trying, so he must be courageous
- He’s a rebel (he’s rebelling against his society)
Surely with that, and with everything else we’ve accomplished in this novel, we should now be able to determine our character premise. Here’s a shot at it…
Some possible character premises
- Love leads even the most downtrodden slave to luxury and freedom
- Bravery / courage leads to love
- Courage / Bravery leads to freedom
- One man’s love can lead a nation to freedom
Okay, so those are a few stabs in the dark. There are two I like; two that feel more powerful to me than the rest. Can you tell which two?
1) Love leads even the most downtrodden slave to luxury and freedom
2) One man’s love leads a nation to freedom
If we put these together I reckon we’ll end up with something good. Let’s give it a shot.
One slave’s love leads his entire nation to freedom.
Cool. Do you like it? I hope so because this is likely to be the premise I’ll be writing the rest of my book around.
So, here’s a look at everything we’ve accomplished so far…
[synopsis] In a dystopian universe, where the poor and downtrodden are kept imprisoned in a militarised slum, love is controlled by a computer algorithm that determines who should be with whom. But the controlling powers have abused the system, picking whom they want to be with and leaving the “unlovables” to the poor. Our protagonist, a poor and downtrodden man, has fallen in love with a woman “above his station.” Now he must fight to escape his prison, to find freedom and love on the other side of the border. But in finding his love, will he lead himself to death and ruin, or will he leads his entire nation to freedom?
[question premise] Will love lead the world to freedom, or will the powers that be kill love and rule all?
[world premise] A militarised slum popularised by the downtrodden, where luxury, freedom and love lie just beyond the border.
[character premise] One slave’s love leads his entire nation to freedom.
These premises are the key to the book. They’re the fuel in the fire carrying us over the tremendous journey we’re about to undertake as we write our novel. That’s why I’m about to print them out and put them in places I’ll see them constantly.
And that’s my look at premises. What did you think? Did I leave anything out? Do you like the premises I’ve created for my book? Would you change them at all? Get in contact via a comment below, and get in touch on Facebook, Twitter and G+ and let’s get writing some awesome novels.