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Writing Tips: Plot VS Premise

In order to go from Joe Schmoe to Stephen King, you’re going to need a lot of time, patience, blood, sweat, tears, and a bit of luck. Before any of that though, you need to build a solid foundation on which your hopes and dreams can be shaped into the beginnings of a career.
The best writers are always looking to expand their knowledge and skill set because their work can only benefit from it. There are writers of all skill levels. There are some who are still struggling to find their identity as writers and there are some who have already found some success with writing in one form or another.

I’m currently editing the manuscript for my first novel, and just getting to this point was a struggle. Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, even more than anything I did in the Army, but it is also the most personally rewarding. My goal for these kinds of posts is to impart some of the knowledge I bled to obtain with those writers still coming into their own.
Whenever I hear someone ask an up and coming writer about the plot of their novel, many times I hear them respond with a premise instead. There is a big distinction between the two words and the ideas they convey. In this post, I will make the distinction between the words and discuss why it is important to know the difference between them. Let’s start with a pop quiz because everyone loves those.

Which of these is the plot?

Two stoners go on an epic journey to devour the holiest of sliders at White Castle.

An idiot private investigator who specializes in finding missing animals solves the case of a lifetime.

The devil possesses the innocent daughter of a Hollywood starlet.

A man dresses like a bat at night in order to fight crime.
The correct answer is: NONE OF THEM. None of these are actually plots, they are premises. So what the heck is a premise? A premise is defined as a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion. In other words, it’s a beginning, a start to a plot. So then what exactly is a plot?
Premise + Complication = Plot
A plot is the premise plus a major complication. Events are set in motion that throws the protagonist’s life out of whack and there is something stopping them from making things right. Let’s use a metaphor cause I hear people like those as well.

Imagine a book as a door. The premise knocks the door open. Life throws our hero a curveball, and this can be internal or external. Our hero really wants to close this door, but guess what? A mountain has moved right in front of it. What a jerk mountain! Now our hero has to get over this mountain in order to close the door and therein lies our plot. Example time!

A young hobbit inherits a magical ring (premise), but the ring is super evil and seeks to reunite with its archvillain master, who will stop at nothing to find it (plot).

A teenager sets out to rescue her little brother from the goblin king (premise), but she must journey through a perilous maze to find him (plot).

A group of battle-hardened space marines are sent to investigate the sudden disappearance of a colony (premise), but must fight for their own survival after a host of hostile alien lifeforms proves to be more than they bargained for (plot).

It’s good to have a solid premise, but without any compelling complications, it will fall flat. The obstacles are everything. They drive both the plot and the narrative. Don’t forget them whenever someone asks you to pitch your story because they are the story.

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[…] Writing can be intimidating, especially when you are just starting out. Experienced writers will have their own processes formulated through rigorous trial and error. If you are new to the world of writing, some input from more experienced writers can be invaluable. I’ve been writing for years now and thought it would be cool to share some of my knowledge with those seeking it. For novelist or short story authors, I’ve already gone over the importance of knowing the difference between a plot versus premise, you can find that article here. […]