What Comes Before You Start Writing: Premise, Execution, World

Hello again! Because I’ve been in the planning stages of a new project for a little while now, I thought I’d talk about What Comes Before You Start Writing. I know we’ve all read a million posts from various sources about outlining, but I’d like to talk about something a little different, and that’s giving yourself the tools to outline well, or perhaps work without an outline entirely (if you’re more of a pantser).

I’ve read a lot of books on writing. Everyone has his or her favorite – Stephen King’s On Writing, Save the Cat, The Writer’s Journey, etc – but mine is called the Anatomy of Story by John Truby. And the reason for this is that the book goes into lots of great detail about how to know your characters and your story so well before you ever begin writing, that you will always know what your character would do in a given situation. This is particularly helpful if you do like to outline, but end up straying.

Based on this book, I created a sort of cheat sheet for myself – something I could fill out for each new project without having to go back and re-read the entire book (though I do that from time to time). I’d like to break down this sheet into a short series of posts to keep everything brief and organized, so today I’ll go over creating your premise, with my next post concerning digging into character a bit, and finally a sequence of steps to help you structure the book around your character and your premise.

The first thing any story needs is a premise. A short, concise description of your book in a sentence or two that describes the overarching idea – like a logline. Example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s premise is, One girl is chosen and imbued with supernatural strength to fight the forces of darkness (yes, I basically stole the opening from season one, but it works!). Or Harry Potter: A young boy finds out he’s a wizard and enrolls in a school for magic, then learns he might be the only one who can stop He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named from taking over the wizarding world.

The TV show and the books hinge on these basic ideas. At the very core of each episode or novel is the idea that this girl must fight evil because it’s her calling as the Chosen One, or that this boy must learn magic not only because he’s a wizard, but so he can stand a chance against the Dark Lord only he has ever faced and lived.

Once you have your premise, you’ll want to think about your story execution at its most basic level. As in, what method you’ll employ to tell the story. Is your story a fantasy? Then you might be using a Journey method, where your characters are sent on a quest to find something/retrieve something/achieve something. Or perhaps your story is a mystery, in which case you’ll be using a Procedural method, and so on. Identifying early on exactly how you plan to execute and design your story will help if you ever get stuck and don’t know where to go from that point.

Another thing I like to consider in depth at this stage is my story world. I write a lot of fantasy, so this is a huge step for me. I can spend months building my story world, putting boundaries around it, and determining exactly where within the vast setting I’ve created the story will actually take place. But this is also important for contemporary stories. If your book is a contemporary YA, what is the main setting? The local high school? The coffee shop where your main character works? The basement living room? Determine all the different spaces your characters will definitely use and the various reasons they will.

The last thing I try to sort out before going into more depth about my character are the possible story challenges that await me with the premise I’ve chosen. If I were writing Buffy, I’d say one of the challenges would be making Buffy relatable. As a super girl with super strength and powers, my job would be to keep her from falling into the trap of the “Strong Female Character” and make her a relatable character who is also strong.

I know some of this might feel “remedial” or basic, but until I started actively writing all of these things down, I didn’t realize just how little I actually thought about these things. I’d reason I had them in my head, and that was good enough.

So now that we’ve outlined some of the basics of our premise, our world, and our challenges, we’ll start thinking about character, and finally the structural steps that will help you build a solid story that you can take anywhere it needs to go.

I hope this is useful! Once we’re able to put all the pieces together, I think you’ll find yourself with a handy tool for future projects!


7 Responses to What Comes Before You Start Writing: Premise, Execution, World

  1. Nick Mar 4 2016 at 10:50 am #

    I really like John Truby’s book also.

    But, to my mind, it is best to distinguish between at least two primary ‘meanings’ of ‘premise:

    1) there is the Truby/logline meaning of premise, which emphasizes the basic plot-line of the novel (hence why the Truby/logline premise relates so well to Truby’s ‘basic action’ and plot spine of the novel); and

    2) the more thematic meaning of premise such as was first utilized by Lajos Egri and more recently picked up by James N. Frey (“How to Write a Damn Good Novel”) [along the lines of “pride and hubris leads to destruction”] and developed even more by Stanley D. Williams in his “The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success” [along the lines of “Justice without mercy leads to dread, death, and annihilation (UGLY); but
    Justice with mercy leads to hope, life, and a new creation (BEAUTY)”

    I think developing both the plot-oriented premise and the theme-oriented premise really helps to keep a writer on track, or at the very least, a better editor when that time comes!

    • Hannah Mar 4 2016 at 11:20 am #

      Don’t worry, Nick – a discussion of the Theme-line is coming with the next post 🙂

  2. Chris Bailey Mar 4 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your sort-of-cheat-sheet! I have used a similar method, and I always like adding new nuggets to make it stronger. What you’ve written makes me think story execution is an area I’d like to reinforce in the planning phase. In some other post, I hope you’ll expand what you said about fantasy and mystery to include your thoughts on the development of other genres. Happy planning!

  3. Michelle Willms Mar 4 2016 at 4:31 pm #

    This is very helpful. I’m definitely NOT an outline person – I’ve always hated them with a passion and found them extremely limiting. What you’ve described here is much more useful to my writing process. I like something that would help me keep my information straight, organized, and flexible. You’ve managed to describe exactly what I need – much better than my fly-by-the seat of my pants and try to keep it in my head method, or organize it all later method (neither is particularly effective).

  4. Renee-Ann Apr 4 2016 at 8:12 am #

    Thanks for a great post.

    I’m a pantser, 100%. I know the Logline, ie: Child disappears from local playground and her mother’s struggle to find her. Period. The only thing I know is whether she’s found. Dead or alive. But I have no idea what happens, when, where, or how. It just ‘happens’ as I develop the story. I have no idea where the scene is going let alone how the chapter will end… although someone argued I HAVE to know. No, I don’t. That’s how I write. It’s like taking a drive on a scenic route. I write/describe what I ‘see’ but I have no idea what awaits once I turn the corner. When I wrote the novel with the above logline, I didn’t even know who the kidnapper was. She was “The Young Woman” until nearly halfway through the book. Then a light bulb went on.

    I will use your idea for my third novel, which I just started. I can’t wait to put that in to practice and see how it goes. Thank you.

    • Hannah Apr 4 2016 at 9:59 am #

      I think pantsing works for a lot of people! Stephen King is a pretty famous pantser. I’ve always been in the firm “know your ending” camp, but that’s also because much of my background is in screenwriting, where knowing your ending is sort of imperative to writing a cohesive script.

      I’m excited that you’re going to try this! I think much of it could be very useful for pantsers 🙂

      • Renee-Ann Apr 4 2016 at 3:07 pm #

        I do know the ending but not in details. It’s what happens from the beginning to the end that’s a total mystery to me as well as for my readers. I love that my characters tell me what’s happening. All I have to do is write it down. That’s the fun part. If/when I get it wrong they have a way of letting me know. I didn’t understand what people meant when they said their characters spoke to them. I certainly do now. 😀

        I’m going to the next two posts to this series. Thanks, Hannah.

        Renee-Ann <

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