Distinguishing between Plot and Premise

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
Share

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 :)

Share

19 comments to Distinguishing between Plot and Premise

  • Nice distinction, and one that gets me thinking a bit about how I’ve been presenting stories in query letters, and in my own head. Will have to apply this idea to current works and see if I’ve got both plot and premise. :) Thanks!

  • Megan B.

    This made me think of the type of series where each installment tries to up the excitement factor and outdo what’s happened previously, until it becomes rather silly. I always blamed that on the series (be it book, movie, TV show, whatever) being dragged on longer than it should. But maybe it can also be a sign of a writer having a strong premise, but not enough plot to keep it going. The premise carried the first installment, so they need a new, flashier premise to keep people reading/watching.

    I just sort of typed that out as I thought of it, so hopefully it made sense!

  • This is a really helpful distinction for writers at every level, Carrie, and I particularly like this point: “The premise is your elevator pitch, the plot is your synopsis.”

    Simple, elegant, to the point. Great stuff. Thanks!

  • sagablessed

    It took me a while to get this concept. I wish I had been on MW and you had made this post years ealier, lol. :^D It would have saved me oodle of re-writes. But I like how succinct you are in describing the difference. It helps clarify the points a bit, which I sometimes goof-up, even to this day.

  • Hey Scribe — good point about how plot and premise work in query letters. I hadn’t thought about it like that but you’re right. I think that you can hook someone with a good premise but an agent or editor is always going to want to know if the plot does the premise justice.

    Megan — I think you’re exactly right when it comes to TV series. The issue is stakes — you always have to raise the stakes but at a certain point it just gets crazy.

  • Saga and David — thanks! I must admit that I’d never considered the difference until I read a post by Jennifer Lynn Barnes where she pointed it out. Since then I feel like I’m much better able to look at an idea and recognize if it’s just a premise but there’s really no substance (important to know before spending a year writing!)

  • Carrie, what David said. Exactly. (I have to start getting here before he does.)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Ah Hah! So that explains it. All of my ideas are premises. Actually I’ve known I struggle with plot for a long time, but, as others have commented, this post puts it nice and succinctly. This was, in fact, a huge stumbling block with my WIP (my first attempt to write a book), which actually follows three separate story-lines. Two of those seemed pretty plot-ish so it’s taken me a long time to figure out where the weaknesses are. The third I struggled with pretty much from the start and have revamped the most extensively. Now that one actually seems to have the best “things are happening” of the three.

    I keep wanting to ask you Magical Words folks “How do you come up with interesting plots?” but that seems just about as evil as “Where do your ideas come from?”…

  • Very helpful, Carrie, thanks. Would you agree that premise also suggests INITIAL core idea? I don’t mean ‘hook’ but I have always assumed that premise implies the starting point of the narrative: the key elements of the protagonist, world, its logic and the core conflict as they are laid out in, say, the first 100 pages. Perhaps we’re saying the same thing?

  • OOOO-a little light bulb just pinged to life over my head! Great premises may very well lead to unworkable plots…explains alot actually.

    Thanks!

  • JJerome

    And that is exactly the struggle I have with my sequel. All premise, no plot. Muscle car looks, but you open the hood and what do you see? Not a killer plot, that’s for sure.

  • AJ — that’s a great question and one I’ve debated with some writing friends. I think some people might come up with characters before they even have a premise or a plot but I think for a lot of people the premise can be the initial core idea, but not always. I think for a lot of writers — maybe particularly SFF — the premise may simply be the idea for new world but doesn’t necessarily suggest a protagonist or core conflict. In fact, that’s where I am right now on a project — I have the premise… I just need characters and a plot :)

  • It’s interesting you say that Jerome — I first started thinking about these distinctions when I was writing my first sequel. I realized then how easy it is to rely on premise in a first book because you get to introduce the new world, etc. But in the sequel, you don’t get to indulge in that as much (unless you’ve moved to a new world) and suddenly you have to focus more on other aspects of the story. I’m someone who has definitely struggled with turning a promising premise into a workable plot.

  • Marie — glad this helped!

    Hepseba — I’ve spent a lot of time studying plots and I tend to revert to focusing on structure when I’m feeling lost. I really like Michael Hague’s thoughts on the three act structure (www.storymastery.com) but every author finds their own structure that works for them. He tends to boil plot down to its essential essence: character, desire, conflict. Then he walks through how those interplay off each other and how to build the tension, etc. The key for me is to remember that happy people make for short books and you have to create strong internal and external goals for each character and then throw every obstacle imaginable in their way. Sometimes these obstacles are easy to figure out and a plot will flow naturally… other times it’s not so easy. When in doubt, ask yourself “what’s the worst that can happen to this character at this moment?”

  • Cue the reference to Lost. Great premise but then what? A lot of sci fi and fantasy shows suffer from all premise and no plot.
    My two half finished projects were premise free from the confines of plot.
    eg: A dark near future of an alternate history sees a young man wake up in a body bag on a pile of bodies being transported for destruction. He’s changed but is it for the better?
    OK, so that was my premise. I thought it was pretty cool but once I’d written my way to just after him waking up and getting home I ran out of premise.

  • […] Carrie Ryan on Distinguishing between Plot and Premise. […]

  • JJerome

    sjohn – I totally agree that the genres of SF and fantasy suffer from noplotitis. Quite frequently, I feel the need to read outside those genres, for something more. I may have been focusing too much on premise and world-building and not enough on plot and character.

  • Megan B.

    I actually really liked Lost. The characters were well developed, each with their own story. With that said, the plot did get rather wonky in later seasons. (Spoiler alert) I think if the characters hadn’t been so well developed, I would have stopped watching around when people started returning to the island. I think that show may actually have suffered from too much plot at times.

  • […] Author Carrie Ryan talks about Distinguishing Between Plot and Premise. […]