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06.07.2011 14:20    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Elements  Fiction Writing  Writing Craft  Writing Theme  Writing Tips      Tags: theme  story premise  kim kay  

"The soul that has no established aim loses itself." -- Montaigne

The premise is, quite simply, what is at stake in your story. It is the foundation of your story, upon which your theme, characters, and plot are built. Your premise determines the primary goals of your characters and lays out the path they will take in achieving those goals.

In developing the premise, you must first decide on your characters' objective(s), the thing(s) they desire which is the reason for most of their actions. The primary objective is usually sought by both the protagonist (main character) and the antagonist (villain) but may only be achieved by one of them. In order to achieve thus objective, the characters must follow a certain path which may include some or all of the following: tangible objects, principles of behavior, subgoals, and strategies.

Tangible Objects

Tangible objects are things the characters pursue to help them obtain their primary objective. They are the concrete manifestations of the more abstract objective. For instance, in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, the primary objectives are to seek justice and overcome prejudice. The tangible object, which would allow this to happen is for Atticus Finch, the attorney, to get an acquittal in Tom Robinson's rape trial. The tangible object gives the reader something to "root for" throughout your story. In order to be effective, the object must be something the reader believes is valuable and desirable.

Principles of Behavior

Principles of behavior are abstract values the characters express while pursuing their primary objectives. This is reflected in the choices the characters make on how to achieve their goals which represent basic human values. In many stories, you will see the protagonist "do the right thing" even if it requires personal sacrifice. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch agrees to represent Tom Robinson even though he knows he and his family will be criticized by the rest of the community. He does what he believes is right, regardless of the consequences.


Subgoals are other, minor objectives a character must achieve before obtaining his or her primary objective. They are obstacles in the way of achieving the main objective, which must be overcome. They make the story more interesting and provide tension and conflict. It is particularly effective if each obstacle is progressively more difficult to overcome. To again use To Kill a Mockingbird, a number of obstacles must be overcome. Atticus' children, Scout and Jem, are harassed by other children. Atticus must decide if achieving justice is worth putting his children through this. Another obstacle is when a group of townspeople plot to kill Tom Robinson before the trial. Of course, the trial itself is the primary obstacle.


Strategies are how your characters plan to overcome obstacles and achieve their primary objectives. They try to anticipate possible obstacles and devise plans to overcome them. To make the story unpredictable, unexpected obstacles should occur and/or planned strategies should fail to overcome some of the expected obstacles. This also adds to the tension and conflict of your story. When the townspeople come to try and kill Tom Robinson, Atticus has anticipated this and is there to protect him. This strategy fails, however, as Atticus soon finds himself in danger. The scene is resolved and the obstacle is overcome when Scout, Atticus' daughter, arrives and shames the townspeople into abandoning their plan.

Using the above devices, you can make what is at stake in your story clear and understandable for your readeers. These devices can be presented through the characters' actions as well as their internal thoughts and emotions. It is important that your premise be well laid out and easily recognizable to your readers. In addition, what is at stake must be something the characters are willing to engage in conflict about and which the readers deem worthy of pursuit. In a well written story, the characters are motivated by what is at stake in the story. A strong, clear premise is the first step in creating powerful and dynamic stories which hold your readers' attention from beginning to end.


Author: Kim Kay

Published on: November 10, 1998

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