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If you want to write a great thriller, you are going to need a great premise. A premise will help flesh out what your story is about, and will keep you focused on the conflict and the characters as you write your first draft.

Failing to start with a great premise, or to focus on it while writing, can cause you to lose sight of what your story is all about, and leave your readers behind. Let’s look at story premises, why they’re important. Then we’ll examine how you can craft a compelling premise, and turn it into a memorable thriller.



The Premise Definition

So just what is a premise, anyway? The premise is best understood as the main idea of your story. A story’s main idea is typically expressed in a premise line – a sentence that succinctly describes the entire journey a story will take. Writers use their premise line to develop the rest of their story into a first draft, and then to guide them as they journey towards a final draft. Thus, getting your premise right is critical to the success of your story.

Premise Versus Concept

People discussing story development often confuse premise with concept. However, while the two terms are related, there are considerable differences. A story concept is the bare bones foundation of a story; think of concept as the idea that tiny spark that ignites your creativity to put pen to paper and write. Premise, on the other hand, is the true essence of the story, further fleshed out to include other structures, such as characters, the nature of the story’s conflict, and the direction of the story’s outcome. Writers use the story’s premise to keep them on track as they draft and revise the actual story.

Think of the movie Cowboys and Aliens. The story’s concept is “19th Century Americans fight alien invaders in the American West..” The story’s more detailed premise line is “ An unlikely group of American Western archetypes – an amnesiac outlaw with a strange weapon, a wealthy rancher, a mysterious female gunslinger, scared townspeople, and Native American tribesmen – must band together to fight alien invaders who have kidnapped their family and friends.” While the concept helped get the screenwriters’ creative juices flowing, the premise line would help guide them as they brought the story to fruition.

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Developing a Great Thriller Premise

Writing a story is a creative process, and all writers will pursue story development in their own unique ways. However, following a few simple steps to establish a great premise can help writers get off to a great start with their story, and stay on track to write a terrific thriller.

Start with a Great Concept

If you want to develop a great premise, start with a unique and engaging concept. Your concept should be something that you believe your target audience would be interested in. It should also be something that interests you, and that you are excited to write about.

Jot Down the Details

Once you have what you believe is a great concept, take one more step and flesh it out a bit more. Take some time to think about some of the key structures in the story. Identify your protagonist, and determine what motivates that character, and the factors that limit the protagonist (such as a key deadline, a weakness, etc.).  Flesh out the conflict a bit more, and the characters involved in it; consider who or what the antagonist is in the story, and that character’s motivations. You should also determine what major change will occur in the protagonist by the story’s outcome.

Frame Your Thriller Premise

To frame your premise, look at your original concept statement alongside the other details that you just mapped out. Organize them in a manner that supports the development of a story premise. Determine if you have the sufficient story elements to frame out the following generic premise template:

A  [Protagonist or Group of Main Characters] have to [Nature of the Conflict] against a [Antagonist or Threatening Force] in order to [the Change you Determined the Characters will Go Through].

If you have all of the elements to fill in this generic premise framework, you are ready to develop your story’s premise line. If you don’t, then go ahead and continue developing the additional details required for your story.

Write the Premise Line

Once you have sufficiently developed the elements of your story, go ahead and write a succinct premise line tailored to the nature of your thriller. Strive to capture your story’s essence in one single sentence. However, if you don’t think a single sentence can cut it, two will suffice as well.

Bounce it off Someone

While you may be totally happy with your premise line, don’t go forth and write the story just yet. Find a trusted agent – a fellow writer, editor, or brutally honest friend – and ask for candid feedback. Maybe that thriller premise you thought was unique and compelling is boring and cliché. The feedback may lead you to move forward and write your story, to revise the premise, or scrap it altogether. In any case, an outside set of eyes will definitely help keep you on track.

Parting Thoughts

A great premise is a critical component of a compelling thriller. Writers who take the time to develop and test their premises have a great chance to write the type of thriller that transforms readers into fans, and keeps them turning the pages. So put some serious effort into developing your story’s premise, it will keep you on track from the first word until the final draft.

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