How would you describe your story if you could only describe it in one sentence?
If you’re writing a story, whether a novel or a film, developing the core of your story in one sentence can be the glue that holds your story together from beginning to end. It helps to keep you focused on what fits within the story you’re writing and what doesn’t.
This one-sentence summary of your story is called the premise. It’s what the story is about, stripped down to its most basic elements. In the screenwriting world, the premise is often called a logline.
The premise is what keeps you focused on the story you’re trying to tell, and it’s often the quickest and most efficient way of selling your story to another person.
So how do you develop the premise of your story?
Well, it starts with answering four key questions.
1. Who is Your Main Character?
This is who your story is about. It’s whose journey we’re going to follow from beginning to end.
When you’re developing the main character of your story, you want to make the character complex and interesting to the reader. You may want to sketch the character out by answering several of the following questions.
- What is her name?
- How old is she?
- What is his ethnicity?
- Who are his parents?
- What was his childhood like?
- Who does he care about?
- What does he fight for?
- What is her selfish desire?
- What does she most want?
- What would he do if someone he loved was threatened?
- What does she believe is right?
- What does he believe is wrong?
- How influential is he?
- Is she a leader or a follower in relation to others.
- What does he look like?
When it comes to the premise, you want to focus in on the character trait that is most important to your story. It’s the one that helps drive the entire story.
For our purposes, we’re going to use Christopher Nolan’s excellent film Inception as our guide to building a solid premise. The film’s main character is Dominique Cobb, and although Cobb is a complex character with many characteristics about him that stand out, in the context of the film’s story, his role as a desperate father who misses his children wins out above all.
So for Inception, the main character is a desperate father.
2. What Does the Main Character Want?
This is your main character’s driving motivation. This isn’t just what he wants in general. This is what he wants so desperately he’s willing to fight for it in the context of this story.
Obviously, the driving motivation has to be something the main character doesn’t possess at the beginning of the story, and it can’t be something he can easily get either.
An overarching goal for the main character is vitally important because without it, everything that happens within a story will be random, like an arrow shot into the air that could land anywhere.
You also have to be careful that you focus on the right goal because your character will likely have more than one, but one will override all of the others.
Case in point: What is Cobb’s driving motivation in Inception. Someone might argue that successfully performing inception on Robert Fisher is his primary goal. But although this is important, it’s really a secondary goal to what Cobb truly wants, which is to see his children again. Performing inception successfully is what will provide him the opportunity to return to America a free man to see his children again.
So the desperate father in Inception wants to see his children again.
3. What Does the Main Character Have to Do to Get What He or She Wants?
Your main character is going to perform a series of actions throughout the course of your story in order to get closer to what he most desperately wants.
But what primary action does your main character need to perform in order to get what he wants?
Compare it to a football game. What does a football team want more than anything in a game? To win, of course. And what primary action does the team need to perform in order to achieve their goal? Make touchdowns. Put points on the board. That’s the primary action.
You need to determine the primary action your character needs to take to get what he wants, and this will be intimately connected to the next question of what stands in the character’s way.
In Inception, as we already saw, Cobb has to successfully perform inception on Robert Fisher in order to see his children again. This primary action is broken down into several smaller actions throughout the course of the film that build up to the primary action.
4. Who or What Stands in the Way of the Main Character Getting What He or She Wants?
A story isn’t a story without conflict. Readers and viewers want to experience a journey with a character in which the character has to overcome a significant obstacle. This is probably because it’s reflective of real life, and experiencing these journeys gives us encouragement for our own.
The primary source of conflict in most stories comes in the form of another character often called the antagonist. This is the one person who stands in the way of the main character getting what he or she most desperately wants.
Sometimes the opposition the main character faces is internal, a flaw that the character has to overcome before he or she can do what is necessary to achieve the goal.
In Inception, Cobb faces the mistakes of his past, which come to life in the dreamscape in the form of his dead wife Mal. She is the one who has separated him from his children in the first place by making him look like a murderer, and she continues to complicate an already difficult and complex crime.
Putting It All Together
After you’ve answered those four questions, you’re ready to take those elements and combine them into one clear and concise sentence that perfectly captures the core of your story.
In order to see this clearly, we’ll take the key elements from Inception to develop an example premise.
Premise for Inception: When a desperate father wants to see his children again, he puts a team of the most brilliant minds together to commit the most difficult crime of his life while fighting the haunting mistakes of his past.
We can break the sentence down again to see how the different parts fit together.
Who is the main character? When a desperate father…
What does the main character want? …wants to see his children again…
What does the main character have to do? …he puts a team of the most brilliant minds together to commit the most difficult crime of his life…
Who or what stands in the way? …while fighting the haunting mistakes of his past.
The Premise Takes the Wheel
A solid premise helps determine what goes into your story and what doesn’t. It helps you to know exactly where the story is going so that every story event you choose to include is building toward your inevitable climax.
This is the approach I try to take in planning out every story I write, and it’s incredibly helpful.
Tom Farr is a blogger, storyteller, and screenwriter who teaches English Language Arts to high school students. He loves creating and spending time with his wife and three children. He blogs regularly about writing and storytelling at The Whisper Project.