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Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?] : Conversation question • Writing Forum | WritersDigest.com

Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Every month in Writer's Digest's InkWell section, we pose a question related to the writing life. Tell us your thoughts.
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HawkEliz489
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Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby HawkEliz489 » Wed Jun 29, 2016 7:43 am

Hey guys, I've stumbled across this article here, [ http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blo ... iters-make ] but I didn't quite understood what it's all about. Like, what is Premise itself? Something like a hint you make before you start the story? A hook? I don't get it.

Could you guys explain what it is exactly and should I avoid it? And how?
“Do I look like the leader of this merry band of misfits?”

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby shadowwalker » Wed Jun 29, 2016 12:13 pm

A premise is simply a basic "condition" in the story. It's a part of the story, probably an integral part of the story - but it is not the story. It's definitely not something to avoid - that would be like building a house without doors. At the same time, you don't want to make it the dominant feature; that's like putting an Edwardian door on a log cabin when you want the attention on the cabin.
"It seems rather like wanting to be ... a writer, rather than wanting to write. It should be a by-product, not a thing in itself. Otherwise, it's just an ego trip." - Roger Zelazny

It's really not that hard. Just tell me a story.

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby DrG2 » Wed Jun 29, 2016 2:21 pm

For me, premise can be a lot of things, with different levels of details.

All of these things could be a premise for a story I recently published:

It would be good if emotional trauma could be removed from a person and sent back to the person who caused it.

There's a machine that removes emotional trauma.

A woman goes to a psychiatrist to have him remove emotional trauma she has suffered.

A woman goes to a psychiatrist to have him remove emotional trauma she has suffered and the trauma goes back to the person who inflicted it on her and he dies.

The last one is pretty much the plot of the story, though it is complicated beyond that to explore how such a machine could be used as a weapon.

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby HawkEliz489 » Thu Jun 30, 2016 3:38 am

So if I got it correct, is it something like an intriguing sentence which hints some basis of the stories? But you just have to learn to control how much you should reveal.
“Do I look like the leader of this merry band of misfits?”

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby cynicalwanderer » Thu Jun 30, 2016 4:50 am

Yes, you can think of it as akin to the "tag line" often used to describe movies. Such as the infamous one from Alien: "In space, no one can hear you scream."
"I've stopped giving advice. Even when people ask for it, they resent getting it." -Ross Macdonald.

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby HawkEliz489 » Thu Jun 30, 2016 5:33 am

“Do I look like the leader of this merry band of misfits?”

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby cynicalwanderer » Thu Jun 30, 2016 5:41 am

They don't necessarily need to be stated in the actual book or blurb. You might only ever give it out verbally, perhaps, if you're giving an elevator pitch to an agent, for example. Quite often a premise will be stated as a mishmash of other works: "It's like Game of Thrones meets Star Wars" might be how you describe your blockbuster, and right away that sets up certain images in the listener's mind as to what to expect.

Basically, they're usually little more than a helpful way of summarising or selling your work's main theme or high concept. The example you give from Divergent is pretty much a premise being used as a tag line.
"I've stopped giving advice. Even when people ask for it, they resent getting it." -Ross Macdonald.

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby shadowwalker » Thu Jun 30, 2016 8:39 am

Frankly, this is another one of those things that people will write articles about, causing new writers to worry about, and which, in reality, should be forgotten about because you're too busy just writing the story.
"It seems rather like wanting to be ... a writer, rather than wanting to write. It should be a by-product, not a thing in itself. Otherwise, it's just an ego trip." - Roger Zelazny

It's really not that hard. Just tell me a story.

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Re: Premise Vs. Story [WHAT IS IT?]

Postby James A. Ritchie » Mon Jul 11, 2016 12:04 pm

The dictionary definition of "premise" is exactly right. Merriam-Webster gets it exactly right. Premise: a statement or idea that is accepted as being true and that is used as the basis of an argument.

The premise for a novel might be: The planet is overpopulate. This is the statement you make that is accepted as truth, at least by the writer. We need to make birth control mandatory. This is the argument you want to make, and you use the overpopulation statement to do so. You tell a story where you SOW the world as an overpopulated place, where all sorts of problems arise because of this overpopulation, and how much worse it's going to get unless something is done. I repeat, you SHOW this, you don't tell it. Then comes the argument. We must make birth control mandatory. Then comes story, which is how the protagonist goes about doing this, and the obstacles he faces along the way.

Or you reverse things, and the protagonist is trying to prevent birth control from becoming mandatory because he does not believe that the world is overpopulated, despite many others, probably including the government, accepting the premise as truth.

Honestly, though, I've now sold more than one hundred short stories, and two dozen novels, but I've never once even thought about premise. I just don't care. I don't write fiction as an argument for or against anything. I write fiction because I like to show how people get into trouble, and how they get out of that trouble. I want real people, and I want these real people to be dropped into the middle of trouble. Just like we all are from time to time. Their problems will most likely be larger than ours, but it's still the same process. A good person gets dropped into the middle of a very bad situation, and must find the will, the intelligence, the wisdom, and the determination to get himself out of that bad situation.


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