Defining the Premise of Your Story

Banner image of open books with text that reads what is your premise?

Does your story have a premise? To answer that you not only need to know what your story is about, you need to know what you are trying to say with your story. In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, playwright Lajos Egri states that a premise is your key statement that describes the dramatic conflict of your story. This premise is the foundation of your story and should be a concise statement that provides a clear direction for your story and your characters. This statement will guide you as you craft your plot, characters, and narrative themes. 

Webster’s Dictionary defines a “premise” as follows, “a proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument. A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion.” For our purposes let’s focus on a premise representing a basis of argument which leads to a conclusion. Consequently, you may determine the premise of your story by asking yourself what idea/concept are you trying to express with these characters in this setting under these circumstances? Or find the central conflict of your story and look at what your characters are trying to achieve? Your premise is likely hiding inside that conflict. We will look at a couple examples Egri uses at the end of this article.

Whatever you determine to be your premise, it should be specific, unique, and, perhaps more importantly, thought-provoking. Egri believes that staying focused on a single premise is a foundational pillar of creating a memorable and well-told story. Moreover, having a clear premise will allow you to focus on the primary story you are trying to tell. Failing to find your premise or having multiple premises means you are more likely to get lost in the irrelevant details or minutiae of your story. The result will either be a confused or bored audience. 

Related: Understanding The Unity of Opposites in Screenwriting

Additionally, Egri believes that your premise is proven by your completed work. Meaning, every action your character takes should be in alignment with the belief you are expressing in your story. We will look at a couple examples Egri uses at the end of this article. The important part to remember for now is that knowing and understanding your premise will allow you to create the perfect characters with which to tell your story. The same goes for your plot and even your setting. Consider your premise to be your “north star” and never lose sight of it. 

In the end this premise will be the driving force of your plot and should help elicit an emotional response from your audience. The best type of premise is one that represents a universal statement of truth that you believe to be true. It helps ensure that the story is interesting and relevant to any audience. In the examples below you’ll see that this is likely the reason modern audiences are still receptive to the works of Shakespeare and other long-deceased authors. Societies may change, but human nature does not.

On a final note, having a clear and concise premise is also a great tool to have when it comes to pitching your screenplay. Incorporate it into your logline or elevator pitch. It will give your listener or reader something simple to remember. They may not walk away remembering every detail of your story, but a memorable premise will ensure they don’t forget your pitch. 

Premise Examples - (These examples appear in The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri)

  • Romeo and Juliet: “Great love defies even death.”
  • King Lear: “Blind trust leads to destruction.”
  • Macbeth: “Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.”

More Examples - (Courtesy of Your Screenplay Guy)

  • The Dark Knight: Hopelessness leads to chaos.
  • Star Wars: Bravery leads to renewed hope.
  • Goodfellas: Greed destroys others and then itself.
More: Your Guide to Three-Act Structure
Back to blog