The Premise in Fiction

I recently got my manuscript The Egyptian Enigma back from developmental editor Kathryn Craft. Her 20-page evaluation highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Luckily, much of it was good!

The main problem with the manuscript was that it lacked enough focus to really pull everything together. The plot wandered into odd places, and the characters didn’t always seem to have purpose behind their actions. As soon as I read this, I agreed—it was something that had bothered me but I couldn’t explain it.

Kathryn’s solution was 2-part:

1) clarify my protagonist’s goal so I could trim away the scenes that did not directly forward or obstruct his reaching that goal

I can do that!

2) stay true to the underlying premise of the book.

Excuse me, the what?

The Premise.

Now I’m in trouble, because I have no clue what that is.

Luckily, Kathryn is awesome, and she explains in great detail in her evaluation what a premise is and why it’s important: “A premise is kind of like a moral but not as didactic—it is your story’s raison d’etre. The structure of your premise will suggest story movement. That structure is typically:____________ leads to ___________.”

I have two co-authors whom I will have to talk to before crafting a final premise, but for the purposes of this post I will state the premise as: “Digging up information from the past leads to solutions for a better future.”

Having an underlying premise will help guide what plot points are needed to move the story forward. All plot points will show the protagonist “digging” into things, all of which will lead him into deeper trouble. But since we have a premise in place, we will be able to identify any scenes or plot points that are irrelevant and therefore can be cut.

Having an underlying premise also allows you to use your characters to deepen or to refute that premise, thus giving the characters more purpose and stronger arcs. My protag believes the past holds the key to a better future, and so digs at things perhaps best left buried. His brother believes that digging into the past is fruitless and painful and therefore should be avoided. You can also have characters with related premises, such as a woman digging into the past to try to understand and come to terms with her husband’s murder, or a girl digging in the past to gain the attention and favor of her mother in the present.

So having a strong underlying premise helps bring your plot into focus and helps you find new and deeper emotional roles for your supporting characters. A premise is, as Kathryn stated, a moral, but it is also a worldview held by the main character. This will shape the main character’s actions (and thus the plot) and bring him into conflict with people who do not hold the same worldview.

Now that we know what a premise is, and what the function is, my co-authors and I can hammer out a premise to act as the underpinning of our novel. Once we have that and our character’s goal, knowing what to cut or rearrange or rewrite should become much clearer.

Kathryn said that the character’s goal should be like a strung arrow pointing the way to the climactic ending.

If that is the case, then the premise is the bow holding the arrow up.


  1. Kerry, glad Kathryn helped you! She also helped direct me with my premise too, for my paranormal suspense novel. Its great to have a professional, objective opinion to shed light on the problems we cant see or are stuck on how to fix. Good luck!

    • Yes, it is a huge help. And of course, the moment they tell you what’s wrong, you say, “That’s so obvious! Why didn’t I see that?” But best of all, they can tell you how to fix it because just knowing what the problem is doesn’t always provide the way to fix it.

  2. What fun to read this post, Kerry! I’ll bet it’s all clearer to you now, just for having written it—writing is always a process of discovery and deeper understanding. I like the premise you came up with and think it will work for you.

    I laughed out loud at your reaction to the notion of a premise, though! I had to learn my own lesson about cohesion the hard way—I fear I threw everything into my first novel but the kitchen sink. No wait, what am I talking about? There was a kitchen sink. 😉

  3. Nancy Keim Comley says

    Good luck!

  4. Kathryn knows her stuff! She gave a nice presentation to the Brandywine Valley Writers Group a few months ago.

  5. neptune1021 says

    I’ve been reading your posts and they have a new meaning to me now because I just sent my manuscript off to an editor (different one than yours) for content, line, and copyright editing. It’s so hard to see the problems when you’re so close to your work. I’ll let you know how mine works out.
    Barbara of the Balloons

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