There’s a difference between the premise of a book and the plot and it’s important to be aware of the distinctions between the two. The premise is the general idea — the one line summary you give to someone who asks, “Oh, you’re writing a book? What’s it about?” Plot is the series of events that create the arc of the book — the actual steps the characters take to reach their goal, etc.
So, for example, the premise of the Hunger Games might be summarized as “In a future totalitarian society a group of teens representing various districts must fight to the death in a televised event where the outcome determines the fate of their districts.” The plot would be how Katniss’s sister is chosen to be one of these tributes sent to fight and Katniss takes her place which leads to her to the Capital where she learns to train, meets the other tributes, must determine who are allies and foes, etc.
The premise is your elevator pitch, the plot is your synopsis.
The reason I think it’s important to be aware of this distinction is because sometimes it can be easy to come up with a premise that you fall in love with and forget that you have to come up with a plot as well. And sometimes even the best premises fall apart when you begin to plot them out. It’s very important to examine your ideas to see whether they’re merely premises without plots because otherwise you might get halfway through writing your book and realize… there’s really nothing happening.
In fact, I was just discussing this issue with a friend the other day. She’d sold a series of books based on a premise but when it came down to the details of the plotting it was more difficult to get the story to work than she’d realized. Her idea was very solid and very high concept, but it didn’t immediately suggest a necessary plot and therefore she was struggling to figure that out.
I think it can be easy to confuse premise with plot where the premise is your New Exciting World and the plot is what actually *happens* in that world. Sometimes authors don’t recognize that they’ve conflated plot and premise until they reach the second book in a series when they can no longer rely on grabbing the reader’s attention by showing off this Shiny New World and instead have to hold the reader with what happens in that world. You can’t rely on your premise to sustain action through a series of books — there always has to be plot.
One way to look at this is through a comparison to TV shows where the premise if often the hook for the show and the plots are the individual episodes. It even works with reality TV: the premise of Amazing Race is couples competing against each other in a race around the world. The individual episodes are plot based: where are they, what tasks do they have to do, how do they get in trouble, etc.
An example of a book series that really works in combining plot and premise well is Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series. The premise of the series: an all girl’s boarding school for spies. The premise of the first book: a girl falls for a boy in town who can’t know she’s a spy. The plot revolves around how the girl meets the boy, how she decides to use her spy skills to learn more about him by gathering her friends for a night mission to his house, what happens when she’s caught, etc.
I think it’s important that when you come up with a premise you sit down and ask, “Ok, how am I going to execute this in a series of events that creates compelling character and story arcs?” Because sometimes a premise may sound fantastic and strong and easy to execute but when you really examine it you realize that the actual story won’t work or might be boring.
So next time you think up a really great idea, ask yourself whether what you have is a premise or a plot. If it’s a premise, make sure you also have just as exciting of a plot to go with it 🙂