1. Writing a Premise for Your Novel

The Novel Formula - A Novel Writing Method: Step One

The Backbone Sentence - aka. The Premise

Note: You may wish to read the Novel Formula Introduction if you haven't already.

This sentence is a bit like the question on an essay exam paper - you should keep referring back to it to make sure you're not wandering off the point. It will help keep you anchored and moving forward at the same time, helping to avoid meandering, wasteful scenes and chapters (and time!).

It will also help you work out if you actually have a story idea to begin with - or only a kernel. And if it turns out you do only have a kernel, it will help you turn it into something you can work with.

So, let's get started...

Every story should contain all five of the major story elements, which are:
  • Character
  • Situation
  • Objective
  • Opponent
  • Disaster
Let's take a quick look at each of these story elements:

(If you're totally sure you already know what all of these things are, you can skip forward to Creating Your Premise - but you'd better be sure...)

The Major Story Elements


Many people believe that every story is an attempt to understand the human condition. That counts for stories with animals as their leads too. Whether that's strictly true or not, your story isn't going to get anywhere without characters. If you're George RR Martin you can have 30 leads, each with fully fleshed out histories, characteristics and idiosyncrasies, but for now let's just stick with a single lead character. That doesn't mean there won't be more later, but it's early days. Pick one, and note the following about them:
  • Name
  • Age
  • Nationality (this can be fictional)
  • Profession
Character examples: John the Plumber (36, American), King Edvard Bearheart (52, English), Candy Collins (19, French, wannabe actress), Patches the Guinea Pig (2, Brazilian, pet)


This includes setting and external forces. Is your story set in a futuristic factory or a giant-bee infested rainforest? Or perhaps everything happens in a restrictive manor-house in the British countryside. What kind of world does your lead live in? Note the following (don't get too hung up on what each thing means - interpret it however you wish):
  • Date
  • Place
Situation examples: New York in 2050, Medieval England, Hollywood (current day), A terrible pet shop (current day)


Your lead must have an objective. People in real life don't always have clear objectives, but many people in real life would make boring stories. Good fictional leads always have desires and goals. What's yours'? Is it to become rich and famous? To save a family member? Perhaps they need to win that critical contract or want to wed Johnny Depp? Figure out what your character's story objective is - here are a few prompts to help:
  • Selfish
  • Benevolent
  • Money
  • Love
  • Principle
Objective examples: save earth and the people from alien attack, bring peace to warring lands, become a star, find a good home


Conflict. Imprint the word conflict on your brain. If you want to write a page-turner that's going to fly off the shelves, then your story must be jam-packed with conflict. Conflict builds tension, excitement interest. A lack of conflict is a big fat bore. There may be multiple opponents; note down at least one. Here are some examples of types of opponents:
  • Person / people
  • Organisation
  • Force of nature
Opponent examples: aliens, ambitious, greedy Lords, disapproving family, the pet store owner


You want your readers to care, right? You want them to be gripped, eyes racing across the sentences to find out if the lead makes it? What you need is a potential disaster hanging over their heads. This must be something unspeakably awful (relatively speaking is fine) that will happen if they don't avert disaster. What is the worst possible thing that could happen to your lead?
  • Loss of something
  • Threat to family
  • Threat to the human race
Disaster examples: being made a scapegoat by the government and thrown in jail, declared incompetent by younger brother and deposed, has a disfiguring accident, gets lost in the city street.

Creating your premise

Hopefully now you will have some idea of each of the major elements of your story. Now we're going to bind them together into a single sentence which summarises the premise of your story.

(Remember that word and use it when telling people about your story in order to feel clever)

You're bright, so you'll have noticed that our examples knit together nicely to create four story backbones. Observe:

When aliens attack New York in the year 2050, can John the plumber save the human race before the traitorous government manage to turn him into a scapegoat for the whole disaster?

Deep in medieval England, can King Edvard Bearheart bring peace to warring, greedy Lords, while his jealous younger brother is plotting to have him declared incompetent and overthrown?

The bright lights of Hollywood find Candy Collins seeking her way to stardom, but will she be defeated by her meddling disapproving family and a disastrous accident that threatens to leave her disfigured?

Trapped in a horrible petshop, Patches the Guinea Pig plots his escape, but the pet store owner isn't going to let him go easily - and how will he find a good home when he ends up lost on the city streets?

Note that each of these is a question, and that each roughly follows this pattern:

Situation > Character > Goal > Opponent > Disaster

Now write your backbone sentence using your major story elements and this format.

Ready for Step Two? Click here!



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