Hello, fellow readers and writers! It’s amazing how time slips away so quickly during the holidays. But today I’ve managed to snag a few minutes to talk about a Fiction Writing 101 topic – plot versus premise.
Every story starts with an idea. It could be a new twist on an old concept, or a character that you can’t get out of your head, or a setting so real in your mind that you wish you could visit it. Whatever that little gold nugget is, it’s your premise – the idea behind your story.
But, it’s not a story. Because to be a story, there has to be a plot. Something has to happen. This sounds pretty obvious, right? You might be wondering why I’m even telling you this. It’s because writers are pretty good at coming up with ideas, but it’s amazing how often we confuse the idea (the premise) with the story (the plot), and wind up with a long manuscript in which nothing really happens.
Here are some examples of premises you might recognize:
- On a remote island, scientists create a theme park in which visitors see real, live dinosaurs.
- A comfort-loving hobbit has to leave his home and venture out into the wider world.
- Children born with magic attend a special, secret school to learn how to use it.
- A group of siblings enter a magical world through a wardrobe.
You absolutely need the premise, but once you’ve got it, you still need a plot. What happens at the dinosaur theme park? Why does the hobbit leave, and what happens to him? Magic school is interesting…. but what happens?
So how do you create a plot from the premise? Start with the basics. A story must have a PROTAGONIST working to achieve a GOAL in a SETTING opposed by an ANTAGONIST. That opposition gives you CONFLICT. Without conflict, there’s no story. Nobody wants to read about a hobbit sitting at home drinking tea for 400 pages. (I love tea, by the way, but you probably don’t want to read about me drinking tea either.) And, for your story to be uniquely yours, it needs a TWIST – that’s where your premise usually comes in. Whatever your brilliant initial idea was that inspired you to write your story in the first place.
So let’s turn those premises into plots:
- A small group of visitors (PROTAGONIST) fight for survival (GOAL) on an island of dinosaurs (SETTING) when one of the park personnel (ANTAGONIST) sabotages the security system.
- A hobbit (PROTAGONIST) helps a band of dwarves (GOAL) reclaim their mountain home (SETTING) from a dragon (ANTAGONIST).
- A boy (PROTAGONIST) attending a wizarding school (SETTING) tries to stop an evil wizard (ANTAGONIST) from regaining power (GOAL).
- A group of siblings (PROTAGONIST) struggle to free a magical world (GOAL, SETTING) from the control of a wicked queen (ANTAGONIST).
Do you see the difference between the premise statements and plot sentences? The plot sentences keep the premise concept, but expand it to include a protagonist with a goal in a setting against an antagonist.
Here are some simple questions to help you turn your own premise into a plot:
- Who is the hero/ heroine?
- What does he/ she want more than anything?
- Who is trying to stop him/ her?
That’s just the beginning – we can get a lot more complicated, talking about story structure, character arcs, raising the stakes, etc. – but it will get you on the way to turning your great idea into a story others don’t want to put down.