Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is Your Novel All Premise and No Plot?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Ideas come to me all the time. I have a folder on my computer that’s nothing but ideas, and I add to it every time something hits me—either another new idea or something to flesh out an existing idea. It’s pushing 50 ideas right now, but that doesn’t mean I have 50 books waiting to be written. Most of these ideas are nothing more than premises.

And a premise isn’t a plot.

Without that plot (and the conflict at the core of it) there’s no book. Great ideas can make great books, but only if that idea includes a character with a problem that must be solved or they will suffer the consequences of that failure.


Quite often, a premise lacks at least one if not all three of these. It’s usually a great idea filled with lots of potential, but it’s all setup or setting and there’s no story. For example:
A farm girl gets transported by tornado to a magical world of talking animals, wizards, and witches.
What’s the goal here? Do you see any conflict? Are there any stakes? Is there an indication what the story is going to be about?

If you describe you book by premise only and can’t pinpoint the goal of the story, that’s a big red flag that there’s a problem with the book. If your protagonist isn’t trying to do anything, then what’s the point?

This is where a lot of story ideas fall flat (and why the book hits a wall around page 100 when you try to write it). The premise is good, but there’s nothing actually going on. There’s nothing to drive the plot or the story.

(Here's more on the difference between idea, premise, plot, and story)

Let’s take this premise and add a goal:
A farm girl transported by tornado to a magical world must travel to the capital city to ask a wizard for a way home.
Now the premise has direction. It’s a quest story, where the goal is to get something—the way home. But there’s still no conflict or stakes, so we don’t quite have what we need yet for solid plot. We still don’t know:
  • What’s keeping this girl from this wizard?
  • What will happen if she fails?
  • Why should readers care if she gets home or gets to the wizard?
Just having a goal isn’t enough if there’s nothing standing in the way of that goal. The struggle to overcome obstacles is what keeps readers interested. They want to know how something will turn out. They want that conflict, be it an external obstacle or on internal problem (both is best). Something needs to be in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal.

(Here's more on taking your idea from premise to plot)

Let’s add some conflict:
A local witch swears vengeance on the farm girl who accidentally kills her sister and steals her magic shoes.
It’s a start, but an angry witch bent on revenge is a weak obstacle. Sure, the witch can do all kinds of mean and nasty things, but this problem doesn’t really have anything to do with the goal of getting to the wizard. If the farm girl can avoid the witch, the problem is solved. If she can’t, then what happens? From a plotting standpoint, the witch is going to constantly try to stop the farm girl, so the scenes and situations will likely all be the same—and be a major snoozefest after the second or third scene that goes exactly the same.

When you’re devising your story conflict, look for problems that connect your conflicts with your goals and tie the premise together. For even stronger conflicts, look for things the protagonist did to cause their own trouble.
To appease the wizard who holds the key to her way home, a farm girl must steal the broom of the local witch whose sister she killed.
Now the goal is in direct conflict with the problem. The farm girl did something that hinders what she wants. She has to face that action in order to get what she wants. The witch’s death has meaning that carries over the course of the novel. It’s not just a problem that makes things physically harder, but a problem that must be faced to be resolved, both externally and internally (can you say guilt?).

But it’s still not there yet because nothing happens if she fails. Just having a dilemma isn’t enough if the outcome of that dilemma doesn’t matter to the character or the reader. That’s where your stakes come in.

Let’s add some stakes:
To escape a world ruled by a manipulative wizard, a farm girl must steal the broom of the local witch–a witch who’s sworn vengeance against her for killing her sister and stealing her magic shoes.
Now we’ve got a plot to fit our premise and plenty of conflict and stakes to play with. The goal of the plot is to escape the magical world and the witch who wants the farm girl dead, and the wizard holds the key to that goal. To get it, the farm girl must put herself directly in the path of danger and that forces her to face the consequences of her actions. It’s all interconnected and shows the various aspects of what happens when a farm girl gets transported by tornado into a magical world.

Great ideas are only the first step to a great book. Spend a little extra time to ensure your idea has a defined goal to drive the story, and enough specific conflicts and stakes to keep the plot moving.

Do you have any premise-only ideas waiting for a plot? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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*This article was originally published during Rebecca Belliston’s March Madness.


  1. Great post. Writing a paragraph like that is a real challenge.

    1. Please ignore any signs of poor English:

      To rescue his friend and return their paths to success in Torvale, Jafan must search for help from Consco, a local idol and leader of a powerful organization.

      But as he gets near the supposed hero, he finds disputes for power and a magical artifact that attracts more enemies and troubles than solutions. To keep hope of saving his friend, Jafan gets his hands bloody in relationships that threat his return to tranquil days.

    2. No worries, I speak fluent typo :) That looks like a good start. I can see concrete goals in there to shape the story.

  2. This is so so important. If my computer file for 'ideas' was a physical one, it would be bulging! I also have characters who have come to life, yet still have no story to live in.

    In editing, I run across many authors who have a great premise and have spent 50k words trying to create a story around it, then cannot figure out why the story cannot be structured to fully express the premise.

    Thanks for bringing this very simple issue to the forefront. It just might save some authors from struggling with a novel that cannot be written.

    Great post, as always!

    1. That's why I always write a query first :) Those premises can run for pages and pages before we realize they're not going anywhere.