Premise Vs. Story: One Big Mistake Writers Make

Today’s guest post is by Jim Adam. It is part of a series on
storytelling and The Strengths of the Potter Series. Check out Jim’s
book, Motherless.

some cases, novels don’t tell a story, but merely work through a
premise. This is an easy mistake to make, especially when the writer
has a premise such as, “Living alongside us is an entire community of
wizards and other supernatural creatures.” A premise like that
immediately grabs our attention, and readers eagerly snatch up their
reading glasses.

The same is true of other premises inherent in the Potter series:

“Imagine a boarding school full of witches and wizards.”

“A powerful evil wizard is out to take over the world.”

of these premises is a blockbuster, and the Potter series contains all
of them, and more. But even such powerful premises would spell disaster
if they were treated as story descriptions.

The Potter series is successful because Rowling knows the difference between a premise and story, and she keeps all of her premises (however powerful they might be) subservient to the story that she wants to tell.

(The Potter series tells the story of a young wizard who struggles to
fulfill his destiny while also retaining his humanity. You can find our
earlier, more-complete discussion of story here.

a premise into a story isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. The
premise can easily become an end in itself, or at least an excuse for
why the writer hasn’t included a clear protagonist, a meaningful
crisis, or a powerful plotline.

For many struggling writers,
this is a stumbling block they never get past. As a result, no amount
of otherwise sterling writing will save them.

Readers pay to be told a story, and this above all else is what the Potter series delivers.

Next in series: Readability

Looking for more help on the craft of fiction? Check out our Elements of Fiction series:

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Photo credit: poonomo

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0 thoughts on “Premise Vs. Story: One Big Mistake Writers Make

  1. Jim Adam

    Skydaemon: I found The Black Company on amazon, still in print. Will give it a look.

    Alyssa: Good point. When I write these longer pieces, I need to put more thought into how they’ll appear online, and add some cross-links, etc. Anyway, I’ll see if I can get Jane to add a link from the Premise section to the Story/Plot section, which does have a description of both the overall Potter storyline and the plotlines of the first three books….


  2. Skydaemon

    I think perhaps your example of the necessity of an overarching story is more relevant to stories involving a small number of main characters (say 1-3) and a linear premise. I don’t think it’s necessarily useful to have in stories involving large numbers of characters and significant sub-plots (say 20-40 significant characters).

    My favorite book series of all was of the latter kind, a series called The Black Company by Glen Cook. It had an overarching story which for the first 9 or 10 books was cast convincingly as nothing more than unrelated folklore having nothing to do with the current antagonists. The overall story was more to do with the origination and original purpose of the group, which was largely irrelevant for most of the series. If I counted the number of distinct "sides" in the books it would probably be near a dozen or more, which leads to thick plots when multiple sides are marching in various combinations against or with the main characters or against each other.

    IMO the main thing that made it good was having both strongly developed characters from all sides, and strong premises in each book which put them in significant and important encounters. Each book did have it’s own premises/substories, or were organized mostly around one or a couple of campaigns (the main character group was a magic-aided army). A lot of the premises were unusual and deeply involved. It didn’t hurt the originality that the group started out as the vanguard of the bad guys, and many encounters were between 2 kinds of evils rather than good vs evil.

    Of the numerous sides involved, most were very well developed, and the motivations of various groups were very solidly presented. As one commenter above mentions, this was the result of SCENE work. For example, a crazy lover ends up involved in something darker but similar to graverobbing to help her love interest. She gets spurned, betrayed, turned into a lycanthrope, enslaved and driven insane while her boyfriend sells her out to make good his escape. Then of course, she ends up with some burning hatreds of certain people when she gets loose, and she finds herself with the power to do something about it. A peripheral character, but you understood why she was mad and at whom pretty well as she shows up at various times in later books. This was the kind of person who would hunt you across the world to kill you. Not just a werewolf, but a really mad one.

    I actually don’t think the overall story was terribly important to the success of the individual books or the series. It didn’t matter what they did each book, there were so many strongly developed and differentiated groups working towards various purposes that it led to rich interactions no matter what premises the book was exploring. The real main story was more or less a tale of which groups had the best hand at any given moment. In one book the main group associated with the reader basically lost, and were effectively dead throughout the whole book.

    Try to picture Harry Potter with the 3 young main characters all frozen in a block of ice and presumed dead throughout a whole movie. The Black Company series was rich enough that this kind of thing was taken in stride, except they lost more like a dozen characters instead of 3.

  3. Alyssa

    so…what IS the story in the potter series? i mean, explicitly, laid out the same way you did the premise ideas. doesn’t it seem like it would have been more helpful to show us a side-by-side comparison of what a premise looks like vs. what a story looks like?

  4. daylight

    You often see an attempt at turning a premise into a story in amateur writing. Generally it is quite boring too. Of course, the amateur will insist that s/he is "writing contemporary literature that you obviously don’t understand, because you don’t understand art." 🙂

    Yeah, well, a lot of writers need to wake up and find out that
    stories are:
    _People doing things_ and the consequences of them doing those things.

    A lot of writers tend to just talk about the consequences before they ever show anything happening in the story.

    Interesting, because their stories end up being almost entirely:
    and very little
    Scene is the showing and sequel is generally the telling.
    Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham sure does a great job of explaining how this works.