Monday, April 20, 2015

P is for Premise

Ana studies how to write a premise line, which can be defined as:  [When] some event sparks a character to action, that [character acts] with deliberate purpose [until] that action is opposed by an external force, [leading to] some conclusion.
Clause #1: When Clause
Take your sense of the first two components of the core structure and try to combine them into a “when” clause.
When … some event provokes the protagonist to act (not react)
You have a sense of a character. Now is the time for dimension. Who is the character? What sparks him or her to action? Some call this the inciting incident; maybe you don’t have that clearly in your head yet. That’s OK. What else might push the character forward (or backward)? What happens to this person that gets him or her to act and begin an adventure? The when clause is asking, “When something happens …” – what’s the “something”?
We’ll use the novel Jaws, by Peter Benchley, as an illustration how this might play out in execution:
When: … a doubt-filled, fearful, big-city cop moves to a small coastal town dependent on tourism …
Here the character is clear: He is constricted with fear and doubt, and there is a sense of the spark that broke his inertia, i.e., he moved from the city to the coast.
Clause #2: Character Acts Clause
Take the next two components of the core structure and combine them to give you the next clause in the premise line.
Character Acts … the protagonist joins with one or more people acting on some desire with purposeful intention
This clause captures the sense of a tangible want and defines the relationships involved, especially the core relationship (if any) that drives the middle of the story. Now is the time to give a clearer idea of what the character wants and who is moving through the story with him or her. This should also give a sense of the motivation for the desire, not just the thing that is desired (i.e., “with purpose”). Using Jaws, once again, we get the following:
Character Acts: … he teams with an oceanographer and a crusty sailor to Convince the doubting, money-grubbing Chamber of Commerce to close the beaches because a giant man-eating shark is lurking just offshore…
The protagonist wants to catch the shark and he’s doing it with his buddies (later the oceanographer becomes more defined as the key buddy). There is deliberate purpose in this and a clear, tangible desire.
Clause #3: Until Clause
The next two components of the core structure combine to give a clear statement about the opposing force acting to upset the story’s trajectory.
Until … the protagonist’s actions are met by some external force that generates disorder and/or chaos – the adventure
This is the big-picture jeopardy of the adventure and the central opposing force acting against the character’s action. For Jaws we have:
Until: … the shark terrorizes swimmers, threatening the survival of the town …
The writer identifies the nature of the “serious pushback” and the chaos that will ensue, including the final outcome if the pushback wins. Here is the force defined, as well as the tendency toward disorder, in a clear and dramatic statement that fits perfectly with the idea as a whole.
Clause #4: Leading to Clause
Leading to … the dénouement – an evolutionary change for the protagonist
The chaos component of the adventure crosses the third and fourth clauses due to the nature of crisis: It spreads and is messy and is often indistinguishable from the resistance it creates and the change it generates. In this final combination, we see how chaos leads to resolution, the order implicit in all chaos. This finds its expression in Jaws as:
Leading to: … forcing them [the town] to allow the cop and his buddies to take on the monster mano-a-mano, during which encounter the cop faces his fear and saves the day.
Finally, the writer expresses the change that is at the end of all disorder and chaos, as well as the change that is personal to the character from the “when” clause. There is a coming full circle in a sense; the beginning, middle and end all tie back to the first and most fundamental step of sensing a protagonist and a personal story.
This is how the final premise line would look:
Final Premise Line: When a fish-out-of-water, big-city cop moves to a small, coastal town dependent on tourism, he must team with an oceanographer and a crusty sailor to convince the doubting, money-grubbing townsfolk to close their beaches because a giant, man-eating shark is lurking just offshore, until the shark strikes, forcing the townsfolk to allow the cop and his buddies to take on the shark mano-a-mano.
Here you can see the entire structure of the story in a single sentence. As stated earlier, two sentences are fine, but shoot for one – brevity forces cutting the fluff. In Jaws you know the protagonist, the focal relationship (in this case made up of three men) driving the middle of the story, you get a sense of the adventure itself and see the opposition structure that feeds into the final ending. It all fits, it all flows and it is a metaphor for a human experience resulting in evolutionary change; it is a story. Armed with this premise line, you can confidently move forward to writing, knowing your story’s armature is strong.
Jeff Lyons is the founder of, a professional services company offering story development and consulting services to authors and screenwriters.


  1. This is a great thing to keep in mind once the story is complete--it would help me make sure everything was fully developed. I can also see it being helpful in writing the synopsis.

  2. I agree with Jen, although it seems a complicated method to get to the eventual description of a story!

  3. This reminds me a lot of the pattern/formula I use to write the opening character arcs for a synopsis. Also it works as a great elevator pitch!