Edit My Novel

What should I write about?
Tips on developing the premise of your novel.

By Cara Lockwood

What is a premise?
Think of the premise of your novel as the most basic description of your plot. The oldest premise might very well be Boy-Meets-Girl. In those three words, we already know this is a love story, and that we’ll learn how a couple met and fell in love. Instead of just three words, use three paragraphs to describe your novel. Remember that a premise is only a starting point. A story told in a novel is far more nuanced and detailed, but this is a place you want to start.

What should be included in a premise?

  1. The major players: Introduce your major characters. Give brief descriptions such as “twenty-something marketing maven Bridget Jones” or “ten-year-old boy-wizard Harry Potter.”  Characters should be interesting and three-dimensional and people we WANT to read about.
  2. The conflict: First and foremost, you have to introduce the major conflict in your novel. Most stories revolve around the introduction and resolution of conflict. In a mystery novel, the conflict is between the detective and the criminal (your traditional whodunit).  In a romance novel, the conflict is usually between the hero and heroine and it's either other people or their own baggage that keeps them apart.
  3. The resolution: While the back of a book jacket won’t tell you how a book ends, you need to include an ending here so that YOU know where the book is headed.

Organize your premise into three paragraphs.
Think of these three paragraphs as summaries of three acts in a play. The first paragraph is the first act, in which you introduce your main characters and your conflict. The second paragraph deepens the conflict or makes it more complicated and dire, and the third paragraph offers the resolution. Nearly all screenplays and many novels follow the “three-act” structure. While not all do, it’s a good place to start, especially for first-time novelists.

Some other things to keep in mind:

Not all good ideas make good novels.
A novel is far more than a premise, and of all the art forms of storytelling, it offers the most detail. The conflict in your novel has to be nuanced enough that it keeps readers involved for 300 pages. Sometimes, it is best to keep conflict on a general level (boy-meets-girl, but-has-trouble-keeping-girl) which will leave you more room to dial down to specifics later.

Look for side stories to branch off from your main narrative.
The best kind of conflict in a novel spurns other kinds of conflicts in a kind of ripple effect. Think about how a main character might have supporting characters involved, either with their own problems or related problems.

Consider where you want your book to be on a book store shelf or in an online list.
When developing your premise, keep in mind what kind of novel you want to write. Is it a mystery? A romance? Sci fi? General fiction? Genres shouldn’t dictate exactly how you write your novel, but they can help you focus your premise. Is this MOSTLY a love story or a mystery? Prioritize the storyline you want to be most prominent in your book.

Keep in mind the kind of voice you want to use to tell this story.
It’s never too early to think about how you want to tell this story, and from what perspective. Do you want a first-person narrative, which reads like a diary? Or close third-person narrative, where you tell the story mostly from one or two characters, using “he” and “she” and occasionally dipping into their heads? Do you want to choose distant third-person narrative, where the reader NEVER gets inside a character’s head? The voice of your book will also inform your premise.

Get inspired by your favorite novelists.
What about the storyline and basic premise of your favorite novels attracted you the most? Was it the love story? Or the suspense of a whodunit? Get in touch with the nuts and bolts of the stories that you love the most. What kept you turning pages? Think about what drew you into a book AND what made it stick with you long after you stopped reading. Was it the surprise ending? Was it just the happy ending? Was it the humor throughout?

Write what you know (or what you want to read about).
A general rule of thumb in writing a novel is to write about what you know. This means that it’s generally best to write about characters and places you’re familiar with so that your writing sounds authentic. It’s no accident that some of the best legal thrillers are written by John Grisham (a lawyer himself). This doesn’t mean that you have to get a law degree to write thrillers. Do your research and become an expert on what you want to write about. This leads me to my second rule of thumb (or one I made up for me), which is to write about what you WANT to read about. If there’s a story you want to tell that you’d buy at a bookstore if you saw it on the shelf, then there’s a good chance someone else wants to read it, too. Writing about what you want to read about is a good way to gauge whether your topic has appeal.

Use people and places and stories from your real life.
All good writers mine their lives for characters, plots and stories. Most of the characters I’ve created are combinations of people I know in real life. This makes them interesting and real. The stories I write about are often exaggerated examples of what’s happened to me in real life. Writing fiction can be very therapeutic in that you get to explore events from your life in a fictional setting (you can give the characters in your book the happy ending you didn’t get, or, conversely, a not-so-happy ending for the not-nice people in your life). I once killed off an ex-boyfriend in a murder-suspense book I wrote! That was more than a little satisfying.

Don’t be afraid of the drama.
Write this summary in enticing and dramatic language. Think of this summary as something that might even be on the back cover of your book. Use action verbs! Think about ways to describe your story that are inviting and the most interesting.

Have fun with it.
Writing is a labor of love, but it’s also fun. Don’t worry about your premise being absolutely perfect. And don’t second guess yourself too much. The premise is NOT set in stone. After all, sometimes when you dig into a novel, things will change. Writing is a fluid process, which is why your keyboard has “delete” and “cut and paste.” 

Want to read more? Check out these great

quotes from famous authors on what to write about.