Premise Vs. Story: One Big Mistake Writers Make

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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.

In
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.”

Each
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.
)

Converting
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

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

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