ReeseRyan~ By Reese Ryan

You’ve completed your novel. You’re thrilled and you’re telling everyone you know about it. You happily relate this to a friend at a party. She, of course, asks that inevitable question.

“What’s your book about?”

If your response was a series of ramblings, an excuse about how it’s hard to sum up 400 pages, or a series of rapid blinks, you’re in the right place.

It’s an ugly and slightly demoralizing situation, my friend. I know because I’ve been there.

A million thoughts hit my brain. I start mentally scrolling through every character, plot, and scene, wondering which ones should make the cut. By this time, of course, the person who asked is sorry she did and is now wondering if that book , like my description of it, is all in my head.

So, how do we avoid this embarrassing scene? Write the premise BEFORE you write your book. Here are three reasons you’ll be glad you did.

Writing the Premise First Gives Your Story Direction

Following a map. Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Kanaka Menehune.
Photo courtesy of Kanaka Menehune. Some rights reserved.

The premise is the heart of your novel boiled down into a single sentence, typically consisting of 25 words or less. The premise should describe your heroine, the situation she’s up against, and what she proceeds to do about it.

In K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, she walks writers through crafting a premise for their novels. She approaches the process with an idea of the storyline and the characters in mind. Then she boils it down to a single sentence that conveys the essence of the story.

Why is developing the premise for your story so important?

Your goal is to create a sentence that conveys the characters, setting, and central conflict…in the most specific way possible. [B]eing able to focus your story into such a compact package will help you stay on track throughout your outline and first draft. ~ K.M. Weiland.

Be clear on what the story is about from the outset. The premise serves as a guidepost that keeps us focused as we write. Starting out with a rock-solid premise will reduce the tendency to wander off on irrelevant, dead-end plot lines.

You’ll Be Glad You Did When It’s Time to Write Your Synopsis

There are few things that make authors crazier than writing the dreaded synopsis. The truth is, with a simplified method like the one Nicola Morgan outlines in Write A Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide, it isn’t such a dreaded task after all. She provides two methods for creating a well-crafted synopsis. The first is to slash and burn your novel down to it’s key elements. The other is to start with the heart of your story (i.e. the premise) and build up.

Like Nicola, I find the second method easier. But guess what makes that process even easier? You guessed it. Writing the premise before you write the book.

Approaching the synopsis with a clear, definitive premise in mind prevents us from tearing out our hair banging our heads against the wall sifting through the entire story in an attempt to sum it up in twenty-five words or less.

Whether we plan to secure an agent, or approach a publisher directly, we will eventually need a synopsis to sell our story. Crafting the premise before writing the story makes writing the synopsis easier.

No More Deer-in-the-Headlights Reactions

Remember that fear-inducing exchange in the beginning? Now imagine you’re at a writing conference, or in your local cafe, and you run into your dream agent. You strike up a conversation and eventually she says…

“Tell me about your book.”

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. But rather than giving her a well-prepared pitch that has her salivating for more, your response is the one we described in the outset.

Don’t let this happen to you.

Write your premise before you write your book and you’ll eliminate that deer-in-the-headlights moment from EVER HAPPENING AGAIN. That alone makes it totally worth it.

Screenwriter and novelist, Alexandra Sokoloff, makes the importance of developing a succinct, effective premise from the outset abundantly clear in her post, Nanowrimo Prep: What’s Your Premise?. She also offers some fantastic examples of well-written premises, based on popular movies and books. As soon as you’re done here, go read that post. Seriously.

Drafting the premise before we start writing the story keeps the story focused as we write; helps us draft an effective synopsis; and enables us to talk to an agent or potential readers intelligently about our book.

Have you developed the premise for your book? Did you write it before you started, or after the book was written? What advantages might there be to writing the premise after you’ve written the story? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Reese Ryan is the author of the Bad Boys Gone Good series (Making the First Move and December 2013 release, Love Me Not). She writes sexy, contemporary fiction filled with colorful characters and sinfully-sweet romance. Reese secretly enjoys torturing her heroines with family and career drama, reformed bad boys, revealed secrets, and the occasional identity crisis, but always rewards them with a happily ever after.

A native Ohioan, Reese now resides in North Carolina. She’s an avid reader with a serious 1-click addiction and a music lover with a thing for brilliant singer/songwriters and quirky musicals. Visit her at ReeseRyan.com.

7 comments to “Three Reasons to Write the Premise BEFORE You Write the Book”

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  1. Julie Luek - November 20, 2013 Reply

    I’ve read pros and cons to this and it might depend on how you best write. But I do find at least having a direction in mind gets me started. I have a tough time with the blank page, otherwise. Great article!

  2. Reese Ryan - November 20, 2013 Reply

    Hey Julie! I hadn’t thought about there being a possible downside of writing the premise first. I could imagine that it might seem limiting to some writers. One of the things (I think) K.M. Weiland mentioned is that there may be a need to tweak the premise as you write.

  3. Jennifer Tanner - November 20, 2013 Reply

    Hi Reese,

    It’s a simple but daunting question. I took a synopsis class a few years ago and the instructor pointed out that many writers don’t know what their story is about. Eeep! I have to nail down the premise before I start writing. This usually include pages of notes, outlines, and character sketches. I prefer character driven stories, so the premise is usually based on a character’s internal conflict.

    • Reese Ryan - November 20, 2013 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Jennifer! I write character-driven stories, too. I think for us it ends to be harder to boil the story down to a few words, particularly if we didn’t begin with a premise in mind. Reading Nicola Morgan’s info on writing a synopsis changed everything for me. Now I understand the importance of starting with the premise in mind. I also like to write the synopsis before I get too far into the story. Sometimes I have to go back and change it, but it gives me a good road map to follow.

  4. Carol A. Strickland - November 21, 2013 Reply

    This reminds me that one of the first writing workshops I ever took, given by the Plot Doctor, contained pages and pages that needed to be filled out before/during the writing of the book, to make sure one kept on track. But the thing I though was really important was the space that asked, “Why do you want to write this book? What excites you about the prospect? What is it within the plot you have in mind that drives you to pursue this particular book?” It’s always nice to be able to refresh one’s motives when the going gets tough.

  5. Andrea J. Wenger - November 21, 2013 Reply

    Great post, Reese. Regardless of whether you write from an outline, or the story springs from your unconscious mind, having a premise as a starting point will get the story moving. The premise can evolve as the story does–but if your characters don’t have a goal and an obstacle to achieving it, they’ll just end up wandering around in the mud.

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