How to Create a Story Premise that Works

A case study illustrating a premise that tried, but comes up short.

With an extensive tutorial on why, and how to avoid this trap.


When asked how one moves from knowledge to execution… more accurately, the ability to apply storytelling principles to the writing of a draft… I always say this: look for and notice the principles at work in the stories that you read.

You’ll see them in virtually every published novel you read (traditionally published, certainly, and in a significant percentage of self-published work) .  Non-writers don’t notice them, but a writer like you who has recently been immersed in the deep waters of craft, usually will.

That’s when the light bulb goes off.  Sometimes it actually explodes into a supernova of understanding more accurately described as an Epiphany.

But there’s an even more effective way to truly test your understanding.  And it’s not available to most… which is why I run these case studies here on Storyfix.  This window into craft is even clearer… because we’re looking at unpublished (and even unwritten) stories, in which the principles show up in a written story plan (in this case, via my coaching Questionnaire) in ways that are easy to spot.

At least, when you know what to look for.  Which is the point.

This, too, is an Epiphany.  Professionals  with editors to help them make it look easy.  But when a newer writer tries the same things, what’s lacking can be obvious.  Especially when the coach – me, in this instance – is standing there with a laser pointer and a freeze frame to dissect what went, and then model a better response.

This case study takes a very reasonable and promising story idea, and then, when asked to define the concept and premise, basically strips it of its potential.  Not because the writer isn’t talented, but because the writer hadn’t yet grasped the real definitions of concept and premise, as reflected in these answers.

If you can’t describe it one sentence, how can you then nail it on the page from behind the contextual veil of the actual story?  Answer: you almost certainly can’t.

This writer (who remains anonymous here) graciously volunteered his Questionnaire for your benefit.  That benefit comes from seeing what he said, and then seeing an analysis of what works, what doesn’t, and why… and then, what to do with a better answer once a new understanding dawns.

Click here to read it: 2-12 case study .

Feel free to add your own thoughts and feedback in the Comments thread below, which will benefit the writer and other Storyfix readers.

How would you do if asked to define your concept and premise?

If you’d like to see, my Quick Hit Concept Review – which uses this exact Questionnaire – is only $49.  I think it’s the best value in the entire story coaching universe, because if you get this wrong the story will almost certainly suffer for it, perhaps adding months or years of trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

You can find out in a few days at the cost of a night at the movies.

Click HERE to read more about the program, or use the links in the left column (or on the linked page) to enroll.


Filed under Case studies

7 Responses to How to Create a Story Premise that Works

  1. Christine

    Thank you so much for sharing these examples. Your comments about premise and plot here illuminated things for me so much better than some of your earlier posts. It’s like every time I go over and over it, the ideas become more clear. Again, thank you!

  2. I agree with Larry’s insights. The concept and premise are too vague and show no risk. So there was a fire in 1972. Who cares and why? Maybe it was a fire with fatalities, and the wrong man ( perhaps the hero’s father or uncle?) is about to be executed for it. Something as shocking as that would set the stakes and provide a compelling reason for the young man to be investigating the fire in the first place. A strong motive as to WHY the fire was set and what resulted from it (purposely and/or accidentally) could set some intriguing subplots in motion.

    Good luck with the story!

  3. Robert Jones

    I had a different idea concerning the father. What if the illness that induced the coma was from the stress of keeping his family safe from the villain of the piece? What if the father then planned to have the clues come to his wife if anything ever happened to him? However, the wife is devastated by her husband’s illness and the clues fall into the hands of the son. Or maybe the father intended the son to get them because of the fact he is so good with puzzles and all the evidence is encrypted in a way that he knows only his son can figure out. Quite a responsibility to throw upon his son, but I’ll toss it in there since it seems to be indicated in the questionnaire. Maybe the son doesn’t know the information is coming from his father until much later in the story.

    My thoughts on fiction is that everything that can create questions in the readers mind should be left dangling for as long as possible, create suspense on every level you can. If the audience figures the kid might be being guided into a trap, or sent on his quest by the villain to gain the evidence the father may have hidden so it can be disposed of…that certainly adds a whole other level of tension.

    My thinking as far as premise planning went along these lines:

    All families have skeletons rattling in their closets. What if this boy discovered his own family skeleton was that his father may have been responsible for a fire that devastated an entire community? The evidence, once it starts being compiled, makes it look as if the boy’s father knows more than he’s ever mentioned. The boy can’t ask his father for answers because his father is ill and in a coma. Was it guilt that drove him to such a state, or was he driven to protect his family from someone else? Clues mysteriously appear shortly after the boy’s father is hospitalized, leading the boy toward answers. Who is leading him…and at what cost? Because the closer he gets to the answers, the more clear it becomes that his life, and possibly those around him, are in danger–and that someone else has been looking for the same secrets the boy is trying to uncover. And if they are criminals, why didn’t the father turn the evidence over to the police long ago? What sort of hold might they have over the father? Did the father bargain with the villain in order to keep his family safe?

    Lots of questions can (and should) be formed around this plot. The conceptual soil is reasonably fertile. It just lacks specifics. At least in terms of the questionnaire.

    Some thoughts in terms of concept:

    What if a young boy discovered his father had been hiding secrets for years concerning a crime that devastated his entire community?

    What if there was a good reason to withhold evidence of a serious crime? What if the man withholding the evidence became ill, devastating his wife, and this evidence fell into the hands of his son, a young boy, who began putting the pieces together? What if the son inadvertently opens himself and his family up to the wrath of an enemy who who would do anything to prevent the evidence from ever seeing the light of day?

    We’re treading into premise territory again in that last paragraph, but that’s what a compelling concept does–it is the seed that sprouts a tree that forms many branches in the form of continually add details in the form of “What ifs.”

  4. Your questions help tremendously. I’m a fan and have been to two workshops you gave through Writer’s Digest (great conference) last summer. One workshop was on how to identify concept and premise.
    But through reading your feedback in the case study, I understood more clearly how to write the premise. From that exercise, I was able to construct a much better query letter for a manuscript I’m revising.
    Thanks for going in-depth and sharing this post with us.

  5. Melissa

    I saw a reference Larry made to his deconstruction of The Davinci Code – but I can’t find that deconstruction anywhere! Loving this site, learning a lot, the deconstructions are especially helpful – would love to find this one! Does anyone have the link? Thanks much!

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