I. What is a Premise?
In literature and writing, a premise is the main idea behind a story or other writing project. It is the most basic foundation of a writer’s work—in fiction, it supports the plot; in non fiction, its role is to support the information and/or research that will be presented.
A premise is just like a movie poster or an illustrated cover of a book—it paints a simple image of what’s inside, but not much more.
It’s important to clarify that a premise is not an introduction, foreword, detailed plot summary, or synopsis, which all introduce or thoroughly describe a work. While an introduction or foreword may occupy an actual section of a book (like the foreword to a novel), a premise doesn’t actually get printed as part of a final work. Rather, it is just a device to help you establish the important ideas behind your project, and so it is really just for your personal own use.
II. Examples of Premises
Here are some examples of premises that you might come up with for some different works:
Jane is a young girl growing up in a rural Southern town. Though her friends and family think she should settle for a life in the country, following the ways of life around her, she dreams of escaping and making it in the big city.
An Opinion Essay
As technology becomes more and more accessible and popular, millennials are beginning to lose touch with the real world around them. If society continues with this pattern, we may soon live in a world where interpersonal contact and connection no longer has a place in our lives.
It’s the year 2050, and all natural resources have been used up. As mankind faces extinction, two scientists battle to save both the planet and the human race.
As you can see, the premises provide the foundation for these works, giving only the main idea with very few details. The authors will build upon these premises to create the actual finished product.
III. Importance of Premises
For writers, a premise is incredibly important because it is generally the first step in bringing an idea to life. It is the foundation of any writing project and something that an author can always look back to when developing their work.
IV. Examples in Popular Culture
Premises don’t appear as parts of popular culture; rather, each film, TV series, or other form of media initially began based on a premise. Here are some examples of premises that things were built upon:
TV Series: How I Met Your Mother
A man relays a series of stories to his children related to how he met their mother. Throughout the series, it is unclear who their mother is, and the audience will keep coming back to find out more about who she is and how the couple met.
Boyhood follows the life of the fictional Mason from age 6 to 18, serving as a coming of age story about conflict, love, self-discovery, and growing up. Filmed over the course of 12 years, it features the same four actors playing the main characters—Mason, his sister, his mother, and his father—in order to truly capture the idea of coming of age.
V. Examples in Literature
Like in popular culture examples, premises are not a defined section of a novel, story, essay, or other form of writing. Rather, a premise is within each work; the base upon which each work is built on.
Novel: The Fault in Our Stars
A teenage girl named Hazel is in a long-term battle with cancer when she meets 17 year old Augustus, a cancer survivor and amputee. When they agree to read each other’s favorite novels, together, they begin a journey of love and discovery that helps them cope with their situations.
Short Story: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea
An old and simple fisherman struggles to stay in touch with the times and reality as the world progresses around him. He sets out alone for a normal day on the sea, with modest hope for a catch, and soon finds himself in a struggle of wills between man and beast.
VI. Related Terms
An introduction introduces a work without outlining or giving away plot details. Usually it just gives some background information about the work and/ or the author.
A synopsis is a summary of a work or story that gives an overview of major characters, plot points, conflicts, and themes. A synopsis may be very brief, or can be very detailed, depending on its purpose.
An outline is an overview or plan for a work. It is organized by sections, which will then include headings or titles followed by bullet points. Creating an outline is generally a popular prewriting exercise.
To conclude, a premise is the starting point for every work, whether you actually write it down or just see it in your mind. All works, whether fiction or nonfiction, begin with a premise, making it an essential part of every author’s writing process.