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

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 http://www.dictionary30.com/meaning/Premises

Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Writing by Emily McKay http://emilymckay.com/for-writers/everything-i-ever-needed-to-know/

Premise–Foundation of Storytelling (2000) by Bill Johnson:  http://www.storyispromise.com/wpremise.htm

Story Premise (1998) by Kim Kay: http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/novel_writing/12453

Start with a Solid Premise, ScribblePlay.com: http://scribbleplay.com/start-with-a-solid-premise/

Theme and Premise by Jeanne Vincent: http://www.jeannevincent.com/theme-and-premise-whats-the-difference/

Theme vs. Premise by Joel Haber http://funjoel.blogspot.com/2005/09/theme-vs-premise.html

Understanding Theme and Premise by Susan J. Letham http://www.anthologiesonline.com/Articles/theme_and_premise.htm

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 http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081022125536AAzRGHD

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 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/ and  http://dragonscanbebeaten.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/plutchiks-eight-primary-emotions-and-how-to-use-them-part-2-of-2/

9.      Nine Emotions from Sedona Method by Hale Dwoskin http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Sedona+Method+Emotions+What+Are+the+Sedona+Method+Emotions%3F-a01073854886

10.  Nine States of Emotional Empowerment by Swati Chopra

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

13.  Character Helps for Writing with Intense Feelings from SFF.Net, Julie West http://www.sff.net/people/julia.west/CALLIHOO/dtbb/feelings.htm

14.  Feelings Clip Art: http://www.clipartguide.com/_search_terms/feelings.html

15.  Great pictures matched with emotions: http://www.feelingfacescards.com/

16.  Good description and pictures of emotions: http://www.face-and-emotion.com/dataface/emotion/expression.jsp

17.  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 publishing your work.  For more encouragement to submit your work monthly, read Linda Andersen Is Proof That PubSub3rdFri Works.

Pub Subbers
Week 1
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Let me know if Pub Sub helps you get published. I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share a link to my blog with others.Please let me know what you think. Click on comment and scroll down to the bottom of the page.


Never Give Up
Live with Enthusiasm
Celebrate Each Step You Take

Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2011-2016 Joan Y. Edwards

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26 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Joan! Great info. Thanks for sharing.


    • Dear Martha,
      Thanks for saying this was an excellent post. I really learned a lot from studying James N. Frey’s books and the resources in this blog. I appreciate it very much. Do something good for you!
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards


  2. Wow Joan, you really put a lot into this. There are enough references here to check for a month or more. I admire your thoroughness. If I get stuck, I know where to turn. Thank you!

    Linda A.


    • Dear Linda, I’m glad you liked the references. I worked on it for almost a month. I tried to be thorough and clear. You’re very welcome. Thanks for reading it.

      Never Give Up Joan Y. Edwards, Author/Illustrator http://www.joanyedwards.wordpress.com


  3. Absolutely great. I’m going to share the link to this post in my March newsletter.


  4. WOW! Great article and a gold mine of resources. Thank you, Joan.


    • Dear Jeanne,
      You’re very welcome. I’m so glad you stopped by. I’m honored that you thought my article was great and contained a gold mine of resources. Good luck with all your publishing dreams.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards


  5. Joan, A timely post for me as I begin outlining a new WIP. Thanks!


    • Dear Rebecca,
      I believe this post will help you put a good foundation on your new work-in-progress. It’ll be stronger because of your great premise! Good luck with your writing.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards


  6. Tons of information here, Joan. THANKS!



    • Dear Jean, You’re welcome. I hope the information helps you. Good luck with your writing! Good luck with your Write2Ignite Christian Writer’s Conference coming up Feb 18-19th.

      Never Give Up Joan Y. Edwards, Author/Illustrator http://www.joanyedwards.wordpress.com


  7. Thanks for including the blog post I wrote, “Robert Plutchik’s Eight Primary Emotions and How to Use Them.” You’re using his system in an entirely different way than had occurred to me. I find it interesting and I’m glad they were of use to you.

    Two things: First, my name is Daniel, not David. So if you could correct that in the post I’d appreciate it. Second, you linked to the second of my two-part post instead of the first. You might want to change the link to direct your readers to the first part though that is entirely up to you.

    Thanks again and happy writing.


    • Excellent. Thank you!


    • Dear Daniel,
      Thank you for writing. I am honored. Thanks for correcting my errors. I have corrected your name to Daniel and I added a link to part one, and kept the link for part two. I’m glad the way I use Robert Plutchik’s system interesting. I taught a David Smith in elementary school. Sorry about transposing your name. Good luck with your work and thanks for sharing your views of Plutchik’s Eight Primary Emotions with people on the internet. Do something good for you today.

      Joan Y. Edwards


  8. […] What Is Your Story’s Premise? Editors Want to Know (joanyedwards.wordpress.com) […]


  9. I just watched “The Muppets” today and I *loved* it! Jason Segel and Amy Adams did such an incredible job! Then there was the muppets! It made me kinda teary eyed seeing them on the big screen again. Me and my kids laughed so hard through the entire thing! I just wish there was more Animal. 🙂


    • Dear Lynna,
      I’m glad you liked the “Muppets.” What was the premise of the story? What was the problem for the Muppets? What did they do to try to solve their problem? Thanks for writing.
      Submit Your Manuscript Today
      Joan Y. Edwards


  10. Hi Joan,

    I just noticed you’d pinged my article on the Mummy. Thanks!
    This is a fabulous post!!! You cover a ton of ground and explain things really well. Very cool!


    • Dear Emily,
      It’s good to hear from you. You’re welcome for my putting a link to your Mummy article in my post. It was a good one. I like to link to articles that are interesting and explain things well to the readers. I’m glad you liked my post. That’s exciting when writers like my work. Do something good to celebrate you and your gift of writing today.

      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards


  11. […] More on premise: Joan Y Edwards, “What is Your Story’s Premise?” […]


    • Dear Journeyman Bookbuilder,
      Thanks for putting a link to my “What Is Your Story’s Premise” blogpost. I appreciate it very much.

      Celebrate you.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards


  12. […] What Is Your Story’s Premise? Editors Want to Know (joanyedwards.wordpress.com) […]


    • Dear Kim,
      Thanks for putting a link to my blog post on your blog about premise.

      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards


  13. […] explanations of premise can be found here and […]


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