Story concept and story premise are two of the most critical steps on the road to writing a great thriller. They are also two of the most commonly misunderstood writing concepts out there. Authors, especially new ones, often use concept and premise interchangeably when referring to story development. However, failing to understand what these two terms mean may limit your ability to develop an effective thriller.
In the past, we have looked at story concept and premise in isolation. However, these two story development tools, while separate and distinct, are also linked together. Getting one right while falling short on the other will lead to serious problems as you write your story. Let’s briefly review these two concepts, and then discuss why understanding how they are different, yet linked, is important to your writing.
Returning to the Concept
A story concept is best defined as “an intriguing story idea that can be stated in a few words and is easily understood by all.” A story concept is the absolute bare bones foundation of the story. A story concept for a thriller will normally be a single sentence, and will note the protagonist, the antagonistic forces, and their conflict.
Here are a few story concepts from popular thrillers: an unstable former cop leads a group of pregnant women on a fast-paced escape across a dystopian desert wasteland, with a warlord and his minions in hot pursuit (Mad Max: Fury Road); an amnesiac with unmatched martial arts and weapons skills searches for his identity, while unknown strangers inexplicably try to kill him (The Bourne Identity); a seasoned detective races to rescue his abducted niece from the clutches of a sadistic killer (Kiss the Girls).
A Second Look at Story Premise
If concept is the bones of the story, then premise is the story’s combined skeletal and muscular structure. More succinctly, story premise is the main idea of the story. A premise is normally described in a premise line, a succinct sentence or two that describe the entire journey a story will take.
Premise lines are normally designed after a story concept is established, and build upon them. They will typically add more information about the protagonist and antagonist and the direction the conflict will take; many premise lines also include a pithy description of the setting as well.
Here is an example of a premise line: the hero Wolverine is sent back in time from an apocalyptic future, to the fashion-challenged world of 1973. While there, he must stop a mutant-hating scientist from developing a deadly technology that will lead to the end of mutants and humankind alike (X-Men: Days of Future Past).
Why Words Matter
So, why should the nuanced differences between story concept and story premise matter to you? There are several important reasons.
No Story Without a Premise
You may have what you believe is an incredible concept. However, if you cannot develop the concept out further into a premise line, then you probably won’t be able to turn your concept into a workable thriller. And if you realize that moving on from the concept is a dead end, you’ll be able to revise your concept or abandon it altogether and work on something else.
The recent Netflix action thriller Bright is illustrative of why the difference between concept and premise is important. Bright had a, well, brilliant concept: a seasoned cop and his orc partner battle magic using criminal elves and prejudice in contemporary Los Angeles. However, when writers endeavored to expand this concept into a premise they fell way short of the mark; the film was universally panned by critics for a convoluted, nonsensical plot. Moving effectively from concept to premise could have helped this thriller considerably.
They Complement One Another
If you understand the differences between story concept and story premise, you’ll be able to use them more effectively to develop your thriller. The story concept gives you the barebones idea for a story. Once you have that, you’ll be able to consider other crucial elements of the story, like the setting, and other main characters, and develop an effective premise. If you are trying to bring a kernel of an idea to life as a writer, moving methodically from concept to premise can be extremely helpful.
Words Matter to OTHER People
While you may get concept and premise confused, other people for whom writing is a livelihood – editors, publishers, agents, and fellow novelists – will almost certainly know the difference. If you are dealing with other writing professionals, you need to understand the terminology of your chosen line of work. Describing something incorrectly in a phone call or email could be confusing, and could potentially cost you an opportunity to get your story published. So learn the terms!
Story concept and story premise are two very important elements of writing an effective thriller. If you’re a writer, you should understand what they are, and how to use them. Developing a workable premise line from an initial concept may make the difference between writing an effective thriller, and coming to an abrupt dead-end midway through the first draft of your novel. So take the time to get your concept and premise right.