Friday, May 31

The Difference Between Idea, Premise, and Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Ideas come to us every day, from big bolt-from-the-blue inspiration to smaller “what if” musings. What's sneaky about ideas is that they're easy--it’s figuring out the story behind the idea that can be the hard part. I’ve had many a premise get me excited, only to discover later that I didn’t have a story, much less a plot, that would go with it.

This is one of the reasons some novels stall after fifty or a hundred pages. The writer gets an idea, dives in too soon, and then the story go splat.

Same with a premise (and I've talked about the trouble with premise novels before). These can be even sneakier because they often feel more like a finished book idea. You can even write an entire novel off one of them and them find yourself yanking out your hair trying to figure out why the book's not working--or worse--not selling.

Idea, premise, and plot are often used interchangeably, but they each serve a specific function and have subtly different meanings.

The Idea


Ideas are those moments of inspiration that first excite or interest us. They can be broad or specific, but something about them hits us and sets our creative wheels in motion. We think, “wow, that would make a cool book.”
  • A story set in an alternate-history China
  • A story about a girl named Lila who can heal by touch
  • A story about an estranged couple in a zombie apocalypse
Ideas are liberating. Anything can happen and there are no restraints or restrictions to an idea. You can rift off a favorite book or movie, invent something new, or mash together elements of genres you like. The sky is the limit, and that freedom allows you to be as creative and as crazy as you want to be.

(More on brainstorming and ideas here)

The Premise


A premise is the next step to developing that idea. After you’ve let the idea churn in your head for a while, you’ll probably see a larger framework for it to exist in. The first hints of what kind of story this idea could turn into. The premise is a general description of the story you plan to tell, and what the story is about. A key factor in a good premise is a hint of the conflict that will drive the plot. This is the story problem the book will explore over the course of the novel.
  • An undercaste member in an alternate-history China fights for freedom against his tyrannical masters
  • A girl who can heal by touch is forced to use her gift to help the people who murdered her family
  • A man considering divorce is thrown into a zombie apocalypse with his estranged wife and the woman he wants to leave her for
A premise forces you to shape an idea into a workable story. It helps you narrow the focus down to a problem (a conflict) you can work with within the standard parameters of a novel. It provides the first layer of structure for you to build on. The conflict guides you to the larger story problem the protagonist will have to overcome to resolve the plot. In essence, it tells you what your hero is going to do for 400 pages.

(More on going from idea to plot here)

The Plot


Plots are all about the specific conflicts that illustrate the novel’s premise (that focused idea). The plot provides concrete and external problems to be solved. Plots have the classic story structure elements that drive every scene: goals-conflicts-stakes. A plot tells you what the novel is about—what the protagonist has to do to win, who or what he’s up against, and what will happen if he loses. The plot is what makes your novel unique.
  • An undercaste member in an alternate-history China fights to overthrow his tyrannical masters to save his wife from an unjust execution
  • A girl who can heal by touch is forced to use her gift to help the people who murdered her family seize control in a civil war, but works from within to bring about the demise of their house.
  • A man in an unhappy marriage tries to get rid of his wife during a zombie apocalypse so he can be with the woman he loves, unaware that the two women are secretly plotting against him.
The plot gives the story direction and clearly states what constitutes a win for the protagonist. It tells you the ending and how the story will be resolved. It shows the specific elements and problems to your story and your protagonist that makes your novel unique. The plot encompasses the core conflict.

(More on internal and external core conflicts here)

The Story

Story is the reason for the book. It's the journey of the characters and the core conflict driving them. The theme and the emotional connection to the readers. Stories show the motivation and why someone is doing all this.
  • An undercaste member in an alternate-history China must overcome his lack of self-confidence to overthrow his tyrannical masters to save his wife from an unjust execution
  • A girl who can heal by touch is forced to use her gift to help the people who murdered her family seize control in a civil war, and must learn to put her past behind her in order to work from within to bring about the demise of their house.
  • A gullible man in an unhappy marriage must learn to think for himself when he tries to get rid of his wife during a zombie apocalypse so he can be with the woman he loves, unaware that the two women are secretly plotting against him.

The easiest way to look at story is that it's the internal struggle the character goes thorough to resolve a personal issue. The plot is how they accomplish that struggle. (Special thanks to Lisa Maxey for her comment, and her examples)

All three (now four) play useful roles in developing a story, but skipping a step in the process can lead to frustration. So next time inspiration hits you, take a moment to consider if it's just an idea, a premise, or if you have a fully formed plot.What makes up your story?

And if you have a novel that's stalled at page fifty or languishing in a drawer, take a peek and see if it just never made it to the plot stage before you started writing.

Do you have any stalled or languishing stories? Where do you think the problem might lie?

21 comments:

  1. This is fantastic! Your bullets under Plot could also be great one-line pitches for the final book.

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  2. Yay! I struggle so often with these, it's wonderful to have some clear definition.

    One thing I've been musing about is that line between premise and plot. For example, a story about a girl trying to find herself after she's turned into a werewolf. If the idea is still vague enough to be "girl struggles to find herself after being turned into a werewolf", that's still a premise, right? Or still an idea?

    I was just wondering about those books whose plots are more literary. Obviously plot is still plot, no matter if it's genre or literary, but I seem to have a much easier time with defining conflict and stakes of a more action packed plot.

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  3. Elizabeth D, whoohoo!

    Nicole, exactly. That's a good goal to work toward, since that'll save you time in the long run. If you get a great pitch, odds are the book will go together fairly easily since the conflicts are so clear.

    Elizabeth P, the "struggles to find herself" suggests conflict, which would make this a premise. The details of that struggle and what antagonist she has to overcome will be the elements and obstacles that make up the eventual plot.

    Stronger external conflicts are easier to spot. Literary works tend to be more internal and character driven, and the antagonist is often a symbol or representative of the inner problem. Kristin Lamb actually just did a post about this and she uses the movie 28 Days as an example. The protag's problem is alcoholism. She's in rehab, and the antag is really "herself" as she decides if she wants to get clean or not. The boyfriend who wants her to party is the "stay a drunk" option and another person is the "get sober" option. She has to choose, which is symbolic of her decided what she wants from her life. (it's a great post)

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  4. incredible post. How do you come up with all these good ideas? color me impressed.

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  5. Very good clarification. The premise, in particular, has been an obscure term to me >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  6. I've got to admit, this clarification can be very helpful. I really appreciate your examples as the layers are applied to see the difference in a sort of 3 D effect.
    Most excellent. Thank you :-)

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  7. I've got to admit, this clarification can be very helpful. I really appreciate your examples as the layers are applied to see the difference in a sort of 3 D effect.
    Most excellent. Thank you :-)

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  8. Great post! I read somewhere that it's good to have down: Character-Conflict-Conclusion, which looks like the components of the one-sentence bullets you have under Plot. I've also seen the version Object-Obstacle-Outcome too. (I don't remember the reference!) Anyways, I will keep your post in my notes! Thank you :-)

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  9. Dang, you're good. Thanks, Janice!

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  10. I'm a new reader of your blog, and I think it's hands-down the best blog for writing tips I've ever read. Your examples really lift the fog off writing concepts.

    This list and its examples are great. I think it's also important to add "Story" to this list, which I think is the answer to Elizabeth Poole's question about literary novels. While plot is what happens, story is how what happens causes characters to change or grow. Literary novels are heavy story, light plot. As Stephen King says (I'm paraphrasing), genre fiction is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, while literary fiction is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

    Here's my crack at adding story to your examples:

    An undercaste member in an alternate-history China must overcome his lack of self-confidence to overthrow his tyrannical masters to save his wife from an unjust execution

    A girl who can heal by touch is forced to use her gift to help the people who murdered her family seize control in a civil war, and must learn to put her past behind her in order to work from within to bring about the demise of their house.


    A gullible man in an unhappy marriage must learn to think for himself when he tries to get rid of his wife during a zombie apocalypse so he can be with the woman he loves, unaware that the two women are secretly plotting against him.

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  11. My problem is linking the scene's to smooth my story over. Loved this advice thankyou I often start one story than start another.

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  12. Carol, thanks! I usually see them in stuff I'm working on, or I get asked a question from a reader. Or I look to see where I have holes in the blog :)

    CA Heaven, it's a tough one since the meaning can change depending on context.

    Angela, glad they helped. I love doing examples :)

    Eisen, there are a ton of different versions, but it all comes down to goal-conflict-resolution. Use whatever terms click for you :)

    Julie, lol thanks!

    Lisa, LOVE the additions to the examples. I actually almost added story to this post, but thought it might get confusing. I'll have to add these to the post!

    Kathunsworth, transitions and connections can be rough. You might try thinking of your scenes as steps to the larger story problem. Each scene will accomplish something that moves the characters toward resolving that larger goal. (or moves them away from it) If you can't identify that main story problem/goal, then that's a red flag you're missing a key piece and probably why the story isn't getting past the start stage.

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  13. Hi All, I'm glad that I've found this inspiring blog. Thanks for the informative posts and excellent comments. Alison

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  14. I loved this post. The "internal struggle to resolve a personal issue." Thank you. That's the one I never remember!

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  15. Nice, as always! I did a post a while back on "How Do You Turn Your Idea into a Story?" http://chriseboch.blogspot.com/2012/01/how-do-you-turn-your-idea-into-story.html

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  16. Wow I certainly didn't expect you to add my examples to the post. That's awesome!

    You really have a way of making your readers feel welcome, Janice. Thanks!

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  17. Alison, most welcome, and welcome to the blog :) I'm glad you found it , too.

    Rachel6, it's not a bad phrase to keep on a post-it on your monitor :) If you're like me and like to keep reminders there, lol.

    Chris, nice! Thanks for the link.

    Lisa, they were great examples. :) You guys are the whole reason I blog. It's all about writers helping fellow writers.

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  18. Seriously wondering why I've only just heard about your blog!~ This is helping me so much, thank you!

    - Esther

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  19. This may be a drastic oversimplification, but it sounds like the idea is the "what", the plot adds "who", the premise adds "why", and the story adds "how"

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  20. This may be a drastic oversimplification, but it sounds like the idea is the "what", the plot adds "who", the premise adds "why", and the story adds "how"

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