Premise Vs. Plot

About eleven months ago, I was feeling fed up with the manuscript I’m currently querying. I thought it was already done, and one look from a critique partner was enough to prove I still had a long way to go on it. I didn’t know how I wanted to go about changing it, and I felt overwhelmed.

I was about eight weeks pregnant, and morning sickness was starting to get the better of me. Even working 40 hours a week was getting to be too much, when normally I spend October through January working an average of 60-hour weeks, between my full-time job, freelancing, and writing. I. Just. Didn’t. Want. To. I slept all day on the weekends, took naps on weekdays, and pretended that I didn’t have a WIP hanging around and waiting for me.

Then, something hit me like another wave of morning sickness: a Shiny New Idea. I was thrilled. NaNoWriMo was coming up. I created a cover and a brief idea (we’re talking BRIEF, kids. One sentence. A character name.) and was sure I’d have a large chunk of a rough draft before the end of November.

Turns out, I’m a planner, and I can’t let that go. Also turns out: spending a week on the couch with the Sinus Infection From Hell where anything resembling movement (including moving my eyes to read) was painful and nauseating isn’t conducive to a productive NaNo.

Total word count on that idea on November 30, 2013? Zero.

I rested up, got past morning sickness, and returned to Damaged to keep re-writing. I didn’t even think about my Shiny New Idea again until April. I wrote down a few character names, messed around with some relationship complications, but the story still wasn’t working. I knew the idea was one I LOVED, but I couldn’t translate it to the page.

Finally, I diagnosed my problem: I had a premise, not a plot.

A premise is the what-if of a story, the foundation, the groundwork. What if there was an abused boy who finds out that he is not only a wizard, he’s the most famous wizard in Britain because he defeated a Dark Wizard as a baby?

That has nothing to do with the plot of Philosopher’s/Sorceror’s Stone, and yet it is the essence of Harry Potter. There’s no mention of the stone, the particular struggles Harry would face, Quirrell, Dumbledore… it’s the foundation those plot points (and the plot points of the following six books) stand on.

Premise is definitely not plot. Assuming that’s where JKR started her idea for Harry (it was similar, I think, but not quite that), she was still a long way from a mad, turbaned professor crying “Troll in the dungeon!!”

And that was my problem with the new story. I had a compelling premise that I really wanted to explore. I had a main character I vaguely knew. I didn’t have a plot. I didn’t even know what the main character wanted. (“To live,” I told myself. “Or maybe to die? IDK!!”)

Since revisions are wrapping up with Damaged, and I’m in The Waiting Game with queries and contests, and having a three-month-old is surprisingly easier than being three months pregnant, I got to work on my idea again.

I consolidated two characters I planned on keeping separate, gave the bad guy a motivation, worked on structure, and started writing down ideas for scenes. I even decided between the two options above about what the main character wanted! (No, I’m not telling, not yet.) I’m still a long way from a perfectly complete plot, but that will come with time. At least now I have more than a premise. Maybe I’ll even outline during October and finally complete NaNo with this Shiny New Idea. A year late. But better late than never, right?

And the best part? Since the Shiny New Idea has been fermenting for a year and I still love it, I know it’s a story I’ll be thrilled to tell.


    • Thanks! It’s going well so far. I know it’s still just a newborn as far as ideas go, but the ideas are still coming. And this year, I don’t have morning sickness to combat while I try to write. 🙂

  1. Sometimes its as much about letting the characters wander around in your head as constantly write them, especially in the pre-plot stages. Good luck with NaNo and use your planning instincts to appraise your work as you go, it’s your own in-built motivator some writers don’t have!

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