Girish Joshi

What is the Premise?

5 min read

This work is based on John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story.

The shortest expression of the story as a whole is the premise line. It’s your story stated in one sentence. It is the simplest combination of character and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.


Step 1: Write Something That May Change Your Life

If the story is important to you, then it will be important to a lot of people in your audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changes your life.

Sounds cool, but how to actually do that?

Do some self-exploration.

First, write down your wish list, a list of everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theatre. You can jot down the characters you have imagined, cool plot twists, or great lines of dialogue that have popped into your head. You can list themes you care about or certain genres that always attract you.

Second, write down your premise list, a list of every premise you’ve ever thought of. Express each premise in one sentence.

Now study these two lists and patterns will emerge about what you love. This, in the rawest form possible, is your vision. It’s who you are as a writer and as a human being, on a paper in front of you. Go back to it often.

Step 2: Look for What’s Possible

Let your ideas and stories blossom, don’t just jump on a single possibility right away, even if it looks really good. Explore your options. Brainstorm different paths the idea can take and then choose the best one. See if anything is promised by the idea. These “promises” can lead you to the best option for developing the idea. Ask yourself “What if . . . ?” for seeing what’s possible in the idea.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

You have to identify inherent problems right at the premise line. There are particular problems embedded in every idea, and these problems are signposts for finding your true story. For example in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald’s challenge is to show the American dream corrupted and reduced to competition for fame and money.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle

Your overall story strategy stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story. It organizes your story as a whole. Being the internal logic of the story, it makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than sum of its parts. Premise is concrete; it’s what actually happens. The designing principle is abstract; it is the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Step 5: Determine Your Best Character in the Idea

Best character is the one that’s most fascinating, challenging, and complex. It need not be likable. You want this character driving the action.

Step 6: Get a Sense of the Central Conflict

Find out: “who fights whom over what?” and answer the question in one succinct line.

Step 7: Get a Sense of the Single Cause-and-Effect Pathway 

A leads to B, which leads to C, and so on all the way to Z. This is spine of the story, and if you don’t have a spine or you have too many spines, your story will fall apart. Ask yourself: “What is my hero’s basic actions?” Your hero make take many actions over the course of the story. But there should be one action that is most important, that unifies every other action the hero takes. That action is the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine Your Hero’s Possible Character Change

Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle. The change can be represented as:

W x A = C

where W stands for weakness, both psychological and moral; A represents the struggle to accomplish the basic action in the middle of the story; and C stand for the changes person.

Basic Logic of a Story: How does the act of struggling to do the basic action (A) lead the character to change from W to C?

Notice that A, the basic action, is the fulcrum. The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

  1. Write your simple premise line. (Be open to modifying this premise line once you discover the character change.)
  2. Determine the basic action of your hero over the course of the story.
  3. Come up with the opposites of A (the basic action) for both W (the hero’s weakness) and C (changed person).

If your hero’s weakness are similar to the basic action he will take during the story, he will simply deepen those weaknesses and remain who he is.

Step 9: Figure Out the Hero’s Possible Moral Choice

Your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes. A classic example of choice between two positives is between love and honour.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Ask yourself: Is this single story line unique enough to interest a lot of people beside me?

A Checklist for Creating Your Premise

  • Premise
  • Wish List and Premise List
  • Possibilities
  • Story Challenges and Problems
  • Designing Principle
  • Best Character
  • Conflict
  • Basic Action
  • Character Change
  • Moral Choice
  • Audience Appeal


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