If you ever had to write a paper in college, you’re probably familiar with the concept of an abstract. An abstract is a short summary of a paper that precedes the paper itself. This abstract notes the main points of the paper, as well as its conclusion.
Similarly, as K.M. Weiland writes in Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, writing has its premise sentence. A premise sentence pins down such variables as your protagonist’s identity, the nature of the central conflict and plot, and any relevant details, such as setting. However, unlike an elevator pitch or abstract, writers should craft the premise sentence before writing the actual work.
This premise sentence essentially serves as your lighthouse. Clarifying and directing your thoughts, it keeps the overall thrust of the work at the forefront. Additionally, distilling all your thoughts into one sentence can help you glean particulars from your general concept. For example, you may think that your main character’s primary problem lies in her rootlessness, so you might write the following:
Nixie Morrison is a rootless young woman who searches for a home.
Doesn’t exactly grab you, does it? So make it specific:
Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for her home colony of Ressad.
Much more specific. Still, I haven’t indicated the conflict. So, what about this:
Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for Ressad, her home colony – but the man who slaughtered half of Ressad, including her parents, is determined that she never find it.
There you have the protagonist, her situation and a character trait, the plot, her backstory, and a conflict, all in one sentence. Now, if I write Nixie’s story, I can refer to it as I go, making sure that all my threads weave into this one, central idea.
What do you do with your premise sentence once you’ve worked it out? I suggest posting it in a location where you can see it while you write. This keeps the premise in your mind and can potentially prevent your plot from wandering off-course. It’ll save you time and the disappointment of realizing that you’ve spent the last fifty pages chasing a plot that doesn’t add up in the end.