The premise is your story stated in one sentence. It is the simplest combination of character and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.
– John Truby
Tell me about it? When asked this question about your latest creative project, it should be capable of being summarized as a premise. Premise is defined by screenwriter and author John Truby as the ability to describe your story in a single sentence.
The premise serves two different audiences, you as the creator and the audience as the consumer.
For the creator, a premise allows you to narrow into the general idea of what your story is going to be about. The biggest elements you know your story is and will be, from there you extrapolate further into the details of the designing principle and outline. It allows you to engage with the basic idea of the story and build it up from there.
For the audience, a premise makes your story understandable and digestible, even intriguing. If you need a full paragraph to tell people what your story is about, they’re less likely to actually give it a chance. As people, we like things which are uncomplicated and unchallenging for us to understand. This isn’t to say if your story has several plot twists they won’t be exciting or interesting, just that if you make it too complicated to describe to someone it’ll make it harder to convince someone to read.
The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite book of all time. It’s got numerous subplots and stories which make a twisting narrative which culminates into the revenge plot most people are aware of. If I was to share the premise of the story, I’d summarize it as, “Using a large fortune, a man takes revenge on the people who falsely placed him in prison during Napoleonic France.”
I’ve rewritten that premise three times, but it describes the basic story with the important details which would make someone interested in reading it. There’s no reason to add the romantic subplot with his adopted protege who tries to kill himself, or the illegitimate son of one of his enemies he insinuates into their lives. These are elements of color, but not directly a part of the premise. The moving mechanics of the story are the falsely imprisoned man, the fortune, and the revenge.
When sharing the premise of your story, focus on the mechanics. Try to describe what it’s about in only a single sentence.