Story Ideas – The Premise

How do you know your story idea is a good one? One of the crucial initial phases is making sure your idea can support a full premise - the core elements of your story. With this in place, you can move on to the outline and scenes list. Watch below for more, including a downloadable example and extra learning resources.

COMING UP WITH a story idea is the first part of writing a great book. But not all ideas are created equal… For an “idea” to support a full book, it needs to have the crucial elements of a compelling narrative – and we can test this by seeing if our idea can be expanded into a “premise”.

A premise is, essentially, a few sentences that describe the core elements of your story. that is:

  • The protagonist, or hero / heroine
  • The antagonist, or villain / opposition
  • The core conflict, or “what are they fighting about”?
  • The stakes, or “why should the reader care about the outcome”?

If you can expand your idea to cover these four aspects, you’ve got the beginnings of a compelling story – that hits all the right emotional notes. From there, it’s time to start planning the outline – or “how does all this happen from start to finish”. And we do this using the Story Engines seven-phase structure, which we’ll cover in the next video.

For now, take a look at the video and think about how you can take a basic idea (like “Jaws in Space”, or “Stay-at-home Mom Recruited as a Spy”, or “Enemies Fall in Love” or whatever your idea might be) and expand it into a full premise. You only need a few sentences, and remember – this premise is just for YOU. You don’t have to show it to anybody! It’s designed to help you focus on the core elements of your story, and help you flesh out the narrative into a full scenes list and outline.


  1. Sherry says:

    For me, writing a story is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The internal journeys of my characters come from life experiences. Plot ideas often come from newspaper or magazine articles, or they seem to pop up out of nowhere. I tend to write down loads of notes so that I won’t lose any ideas. Then, when I least expect it, things start falling into place. It’s usually a surprise, like, Ohhh…so THAT’S where that piece fits! It’s a very inefficient way of writing, but that’s just the way it’s been so far. I’m working on bringing more logic and reason into my writing process. Story Engines helps.

    I’ve been through the Story Engines videos at least twice and gotten a lot out of them, but I will probably need to listen to them another time or two before I get the process locked down so that I can use it efficiently.

    Thanks for the download of your premise and barebones outline. It’s very helpful.

    1. Nick says:

      You’re welcome! And yes, I’m forever jotting down notes on my phone 🙂

  2. Steven Turner says:

    Hi Nic,
    I’m really enjoying this series and it’s come along at a great time. At this moment in fledgling author career I’m in a place of darkness and doubt. I have a new editor who is tearing my short story collection to pieces and making me feel like I can’t write for crap. I know I need to hear the hard truth about my work no matter how good or bad it is in order for me to grow as a write, but damn it’s tough to see all the negative comments on my work.
    Your new videos are reminding me of all the reasons I started writing in the first place. You are taking me back with you to the beginning of the whole writing and publishing process and it feels great.

    In answer to your question, I write into the dark. I just go out for a walk and start talking into the OTTER app on my phone and I tell myself a creepy story. When I get home I edit the text and then set it aside and go out the next day and do it again. When I get enough stories I give them a good clean-up and bit of a rewrite then I send them to my beta readers for feedback.
    Thank you,
    Steven T

    1. Nick says:

      Nice approach, Steven! I usually have my best ideas walking the dogs – I always have to try and remember them by the time I get home 😀

  3. Chris Brooks says:

    Your question: ‘How do I get my ideas?’ It’s a combo:

    I ALWAYS have Evernote on me. It’s loaded onto every device I have, so any comments, idea, snippet of overheard conversation, joke on the TV that leaves me thinking ‘Yeah…’ gets noted down.

    Sometimes I read a newspaper article and think about a fictionalised version.
    Some events in my stores are autobiographical – e.g. my ‘Making Marmalade’ blog post which drew me the most comments and feedback of anything I ever made public.

    FB posts and memes are a great source of ideas.

    And sometimes… simple daydreaming…

    1. Nick says:

      Perfect! I just use the notes app on my phone – I think evernote is probably more “pro” though, for sure

  4. Gary Miller says:

    Simply cannot put together my idea into this structure. The protagonist is myself but I can’t think of a way to add an antagonist – the story in my head doesn’t have one. Therefore there is no conflict.
    Great idea for a series but after two videos I’m getting more disillusioned rather than inspired to carry on.

    1. Nick says:

      Hey Gary! The “opposition” doesn’t necessarily have to be another person or character – think about “what is the goal my protagonist wants to reach?” and then think about what barriers can get in the way of that, what drives him forwards, what pushes him back? Here are some examples of how all this works in famous books: https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/storyenginescourse/Downloads/Story+Engines+Structure+in+Action+NC.pdf

      Don’t get discouraged – sometimes it’s just a 1% tweak that makes all the difference 🙂

  5. Kaye says:

    Wow! 6 Hours? Nick, I wonder how much of your speed is due to experience on writing your previous books.
    When I have to work out plot ideas or character arcs, I have to picture it in my head like a movie. So, I usually keep repeating the scene or ideas in my head asking “what if’s”, “would the character do that?”, or “does that makes sense or would be logical?” Since my most quiet times are when I go to sleep, I start playing out the scene over and over in my head until I fall asleep. Then, the next day I’ll write down what I came up with and what I can remember. I used to do this all the time when I would be working on song lyrics.
    I know it’s unusual. And, I have to develop another skill to plot my stories because this process is too long. I think that’s part of the reason I haven’t finished a project yet.
    I think it’s hard to do so many things at once when structuring a novel. Weaving plot, character, and theme into a piece of art can be demanding to do in a way that will appeal to masses. The more you can complete each of those throughlines independently, the better you’ll be able to support the writing process.

    1. Nick says:

      It definitely helps! But bear in mind this was only putting together the premise, from which all the “who does what and when” will flow later (then you can arrange all that into the seven stages to go from beginning to end). 🙂

  6. April Munday says:

    It’s lovely to see you getting stuck into writing again.

    I write historical romance and many of my ideas come from reading non-fiction about my period. I write all my ideas down in a notebook and flick through it every now and again. Different things stick together in my mind over time and become a premise for a story. I do plan scenes, but things always change once I start writing.

  7. Angelina says:

    Hi Nick, this is very useful. When I first starting writing, I never used to plot, which is probably why I’ve stopped for a little while. Recently, I’ve looked at story engines and now I plot but it’s great to see how you do it. Thank you. My ideas are character driven. I find they start talking to me and if I don’t write them, they start screaming at me. The weird thing I’ve noticed, though, is that my stories tend to be about things that have happened in my past and my settings are all places with which I’m familiar.

  8. Morgan says:

    I’ve always planned things very meticulously – long, long word documents stuffed with paragraphs full of questions (What could so-and-so do now? Why would they do that? What does this mean for everyone else? Could X happen at some point? Who could X happen to? etc.) Last planning document took about 20 hours or so, but I always like having a solid knowledge of what I’m doing and how its supposed to work.

  9. Doug Pruden says:

    Hi again, and welcome back to the trenches. I think I have tried a different plotting method for every one of my novels, searching for the system that works for me. Recently, I came across Jessica Brody and the Save the Cat method for writing a novel. I have sort of adopted it, but am using it as the kernel for a modified Snowflake method to draft up my initial plot for my latest novel. We’ll see how it goes, but so far, I am making good progress.
    Generally, I start with my main character and the situation I want him/her to be in once the story hits its stride after the first 25% of the book (moment of no return or whatever you end up calling it…) I plot up the main beats and outline them briefly before laying them out and seeing how the story flows with just the main beats. Then, if it works, I start to fill in some of the other scene sequences as outlines. They way I describe it sounds much more organized than it actually is, but as I say, my method is evolving.
    In the end, whatever works to get that first draft out is all that matters.

  10. Patricia Finney says:

    Hm. I thought this was going to be the New Generation Stainless Steel Rat (glad it’s not). I’ll message you with my thoughts on the plot itself. One thought on the situation: by the end of this century, all the population graphs will be heading downwards, and Europe is ahead with population growth already below replacement — ie an average of around 1.8 kids per woman, as opposed to 2.1 which is what you need — In other words, there won’t be too many people but too few. By the 24th century the trend will be well set in – or something will have to have changed it. So maybe your London could be a city with fewer citizens, empty offices and houses — and the immigrants are emigrants, people trying to get out to the colonies?

    1. Nick says:

      There are a fair few studies on it with varying predictions – I went with a combination of population growth + mass migration to cities as more and more land was being used to try and repair the atmosphere, reforestation, etc. So you end up with a bunch of people emigrating the planet, and everyone else huddling together where there’s liveable space. I find it best to pick a lane and stick to it LOL (so long as it’s explained somewhere!).

  11. Patricia Finney says:

    By the way, most of my ideas arrive when an Interstellar Idea Bat flaps in from the wastes of space and drops a payload into my head, usually when I’m walking or running or writing something else. It’s usually a complete scene with one or more of the characters actively doing something and then I have to work out what the hell is going on.

  12. Tracy Krauss says:

    Although I have been using you’re plotting advice in the past couple of years since I first saw the story engines videos, I find things still change a lot during the writing process! It makes it difficult to write a premise before the actual book, I think.

    1. Nick says:

      I DEFINITELY had a fair few details change after the first outline (which is why I put up a before vs after) but the main core of the story – eg, “what happens” – remained largely the same. So thankfully it was an easy job to tweak the smaller details, and if I started seeing changes happen on the fly while writing, I could keep them constrained to where I wanted the story to go without going off on a random tangent. Which I’m very grateful for! I’d probably still be stuck on chapter 1 LOL.

    2. Nick says:

      Also the “premise” is really just a couple of sentences – eg “main character is trying to do X, while opposition is trying to do Y, and if X doesn’t succeed, then Y will happen”. So the premise part leaves you plenty of room to work on the details (eg my premise didn’t change at all – but a lot of the specifics did. The premise helped me keep it all in check, and remember the whole point of the story!)

  13. Amy Waeschle says:

    My ideas always start with “what if?” And center around one character and what happens to them. What if a firefighter wants to keep his family together but finds out his stepdaughter is lighting fires? What if a woman who was orphaned as a child loses the only man she’s ever lived? Etc. My BEST idea factory is the woods, though. When we I need to think through a tricky scene or am stuck, I go for a mountain bike ride. Ideas seem to explode in that space where I’m moving my body and letting my mind spin.

  14. Roy says:

    Just starting out on the idea of writing fiction as I have been a business non-fiction writer for many years. I really appreciate you sharing your ideas and journey on the writing of this new novel. Thank you!

  15. Israel says:

    Thanks for sharing something like this! You have a learner from Brazil 🙂

  16. Fran Friel says:

    I love your idea of testing the viability of the story and getting to know it more deeply through short stories. Also, using them as prequel lead magnets. I’ve found folks also love story origin information–how the idea came to us.

    And btw, the lighting is fine. You look mah-velous regardless!

  17. Ariadne says:

    very clever to plot the prequel right after the 1st book (much more time effective, than doing it somewhere in between the series or even later than that) – I adopted the idea right on spot :))

    about my own “idea harvesting” process – I’m a “gatherer”, I store everything – even the most threadbare clichés (newspaper headlines are gold for that) and the more I store of them, the easier it is to come up with a slight twist aka odd combination.
    The twist won’t change the outcome, but it will probably add a “something” so to speak.
    Apart from that I’m a firm believer of the benefits of a strong story structure – the more severe I adhere to the structure, the more freedom I have with the creative twists 😉

    Thankx for sharing!

  18. Jade Campbell says:

    My Fiction work is primarily Urban Fantasy and mostly YA market. At present, it’s immersed in evergreen social commentary, punctuated by fleeting moments of more than magical coincidences which serve as nagging prickles of conscience, reflective times for all characters involved, and the hero is unwittingly the catalyst for community healing.
    The last 3 series have just landed in this lane, it wasn’t planned it just happened. Starting from a place of pain or confusion, the young protagonist is always pre-teen and the series follows them to adulthood. Average 8-12 books.

    Ideas spring from simple experiences like watering the garden, watching a sunset over the sea, watching a toddler tantrum at the supermarket, or like the latest series- taking a ton of photos of local small circuses – 2 – 3 per year come for a few weeks each and move on. In fact, I have to take some of the latest Circus before they move on this week because this series has a minimum of 10 books in the series plotted, and I need all the images I can take. LOL
    ONCE THE IMAGE that SPARKS the IDEA FLOATS IN, – I must record it verbally, do a few scratchy sketches, capture the character’s names and describe appearances, personality, life viewpoint, and their role in the world – then I start writing recording or both.
    That is when I have the best ideas and flow – when it’s fresh and the ideas are hurtling toward me – the major hurdle then is to tame it into a cohesive sequential story. What ideas to use now and what to keep for later ?- if I don’t allow this flood to come in and be recorded – it’s gone – then the characters become boring and I lose interest – so extremely grateful to Nick for these training videos. I did some amazing local workshops with Aust and International writers many years ago, and many plotting ideas were introduced and the thing that has always stayed with me since then, with plot and pace is to keep the story, “On Stage Now”.
    Having been a Fine Arts Educator for decades my treatment of imagery has changed dramatically from the old illustration/painterly styles to an assemblage of handmade characters -articulated- so fully posable and backdrops are made from an initial photo idea, yet constructed from mixed media – yarn crocheted, fabric, felt, paper mache, polyclay, paints, stones, wood chips -you name it, and then the setting is re-photographed as scenes.
    The inhabitants are Rearranged /reposed as required in the next scene. Think creation of a miniature world, where you are using only some of the scenic sets in Book 1, some of the same and then others in Book 2, etc… It’s way less expensive or time consuming than illustration or painting – you make all your creatures & characters once, you create your sets once, you create the movable objects once and rearrange foregrounds and Objects including Abodes as required per scene. In this manner, ONE setting can have multiple scenes throughout the book series. The incredible thing with this approach is that the story becomes more real – more believable, the characters speak to me and tell me who they are and this changes the book dynamic amazingly. I got this idea from Canadian Young Children’s book author and illustrator Salley Mavor, it also allows you to create videos/movies of your story, which is great to include in digital downloads.

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