• develop idea further and produce a premise with all the main elements

The Promise of the Premise

So now you have an idea or hopefully many ideas!

But do all ideas make a great story? Unfortunately, not.

Now, this is the stage of writing where I feel I’ve improved the most over the last decade. My very first story idea was underdeveloped, but I went ahead and wrote the book anyway. 

104,000 words of it! And an MG, no less! 

Hopefully that word count is sending alarm bells to you all. But even more alarming is the fact that I spent well over a year on that novel. Based on a very weak and undeveloped premise. 

I had an idea, but I didn’t have a story and I learned the hard way that if I’d only spent just a little more time on developing that idea at the start, I could have saved myself a year of wasted (well not, wasted as no writing is ever a waste, but you know…)

So, how do we know if an idea will make a great story?

This is where developing a premise will tell you. 

Donald Maass, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, names 4 elements to a strong premise: 

  • plausibility
  • inherent conflict
  • originality
  • gut emotional appeal

Your premise is your story idea, succinctly described in a few sentences. 

A very basic premise would be:

  • boy meets girl
  • good takes on evil
  • hero goes on journey

These are VERY generic and not really premises at all. They could be a million stories that we know.

Let’s get more specific:

  • youth meets mentor who trains them
  • hero must defeat epic enemy to end terror to a people
  • boy time travels to different times in girl’s life

A little more specific, perhaps but each could still describe a million stories.

So, let’s get MUCH more specific – this is where we see an idea developing to a premise. I’ll use an example from one of my WIPs.


The first girl born on Mars must save her Dad when he is trapped in a mine.


MG Sci-Fi. The Martian meets Sword in the Stone.

Mars. 2045. 13-year-old Eva is the first Martianborn Human and a type 1 diabetic. All she wants to do is go to Earth, where she’s the most famous person in the world, a poster girl for the New World. But when she gets told she’ll never be able to leave Mars (as she can’t survive on Earth) and then pulls a Sword from Martian rock, the act nearly kills her and destroys her artificial pancreas.

With no means control her condition, she turns to the sword to give her the power to stay alive. So, when her father gets lost in a far-off mine on Mars, Eva steals a rover to rescue him and must overcome the harsh Martian elements and work out how to control the power of the sword before it kills her, and her father is lost forever.

Not perfect but it’s certainly a development on the original idea.

When I worked with Kate Brauning on this, she suggested the following criteria, extended from the Maass 4:

  • Plausibility
  • Inherent conflict
  • Originality
  • Gut emotional appeal
  • Immersive setting
  • Imaginative hook

I like addition of the last two, as it gives you license to have fun with your setting and set-up. They are the flashy things to your premise, probably what you’d put in a blurb or pitch.

Anyway, now it’s your turn!

It’s time to write!

Can you describe your story in a few sentences? Try it.

Once you’ve finished, look at the list of elements above. Does your premise have any/some/all of these?

Post your premise (if you wish) on the Slack group chat and ask others what they think?

Now look at other peoples – do they contain the 4 elements? If you’re still struggling with this, and even if you’re not, I’d really recommend reading the chapter in the Donald Maass book on developing your premise. I promise it will save you heartache and a LOT of work in the long run by getting this right now.