When people ask you what your book or script is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the Premise?”
In other words:
What’s the story line in one immediately understandable sentence?
That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch”—it all means the same thing.
The premise sentence really should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre. And –
It should make whoever hears or reads it want to read the book.
Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say–“Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”
Writing a premise sentence is an essential art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights.
You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian—or if you’re an indie author, for that KDP upload screen, the Amazon ad generator, any number of book advertising sites—or if you’re a screenwriter, the executive, producers, director, etc.—ask you for a one-sentence book description. You need it for jacket copy, and ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstore and other appearances (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have less than one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.
And even before all that, like now -
The premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.
The sooner you tackle this, the better. I beg you not to fool yourself that you can figure it out later. You need to be doing it and practicing it, like, yesterday. You need to get so good at it you could do it in your sleep.
I’m not joking.
So let’s go.
What are some examples of premise lines?
Name these books/movies:
- When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.
- A young FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.
- A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.
Are those perfectly stated premises? No. (On the other hand, they’re better than a lot of the loglines I’ve seen describing those movies!) But you do get what each of those stories is, right? And notice how all of these premises contain:
A defined protagonist and what they WANT
A powerful antagonist and what they WANT
A sense of the setting, conflict, and stakes
A sense of how the action will play out
Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.
And okay, they're some pretty bloody examples, as usual for me. So let’s try some lighter ones.
- A commitment-phobic Englishman falls in love with a beautiful, elusive American during a year in which all the people around him seem to be marrying and finding their mates at a round robin of four weddings — and a funeral.
- A lonely widower and a lonely journalist who live on opposite sides of the country fall in love with each other without ever having met.
- A man and a woman debate the theory that a man and a woman can never really be friends, over a period of years in which they become best friends, then fall in love.
A premise also needs to give you a clear sense of the GENRE.
If you’re writing a comedy, that one-line premise should be funny in itself, and also suggest a whole series of comic situations.
If you’re writing suspense, then the danger and fear factor should be clear in the premise, and again, the situation should suggest a whole series of scary situations and danger on multiple levels.
For a lot of premise examples all at once, click through the descriptions of movies on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Those aren’t the best written premises, and some of them are awful— but they usually get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.
But the best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Reading premises is no substitute for actually writing out the premises in your own words, yourself.
So I strongly, strongly urge you to:
Take your Master List of ten films in the same genre as your book or script, and for each story, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.
Once you’ve tried it with some films from your list, it’s time to write yours.
And I understand the temptation to skip this part will be huge. But do it anyway. I’m not asking you to be clever, or catchy. No one has to read it. It doesn’t have to go on the book cover. This is just for you, to start honing your skill AND to make sure you know in essence what happens in the book you’re about to write!
I just want you to bash out a description line that roughly follows this pattern:
Who’s the story about?
What’s the setting?
Who’s the antagonist?
What’s the conflict?
What are the stakes?
Clues to the genre
It can be a lot easier to start by bashing out several sentences or a whole paragraph, first, and then start distilling it down. That's perfectly fine. In fact, the very best thing you can do is start a premise/synopsis file and keep adding descriptions of your story in different lengths to that file—believe me, you'll need all of them later! It’s useful to note the word count of each, because lots of sites will impose strict limits.
Make sure you print all of these versions out and stick them in your Master Lists Notebook, too, so you will always be able to find them somewhere!
And remember: your premise sentence may change as you actually write the book and discover what your story is really about. This is just for you to start with what you think it's about.
Don't sweat it.
But do it.
1. Write a premise sentence for your book.
2. Start a premise/synopsis file right now—and keep adding versions of your premise and story description in different lengths!
If you want feedback, post your Premise sentence in the Comments section!
More on Premise in the next post, and in the workbooks: Chapters 2-3.
Get the workbooks:
Stealing Hollywood ebook, $4.99, also available as print workbook
Writing Love ebook, $2.99
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All material from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff
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Good piece - loglines really are not just hugely important to pitch and get people interested/excited, they are, as you say, also fantastic north stars for the writer. Once you have your logline, you'll likely always find your way back onto the right story track.
BTW - I've also shared some thoughts about this - and added a bunch of actual loglines to peruse. Some of them are actually quite boring - but they paint a clear picture, and that's what counts. > https://danielmartineckhart.substack.com/p/loglines-25-words-that-can-change