Plot and Premise – An Epiphany

At the recent RWA national conference in San Antonio, one very simple tip from best-selling YA author Ally Carter almost tipped me out of my chair. I noticed other workshop attendees’ faces lighting up at the same time. (They were reacting to what Ally said, not to me falling out of my chair. Just thought I’d clarify that…)

What did Ally say that was so profound to me? When it comes to plot and premise “Don’t start a book till you have both.”

It makes perfect sense, right? Without a plot to drive your premise, your story will limp around in circles. At that moment, I realized I’d started most of my books with only the premise in mind and let the plot “magically” work itself out later. This is why I often get to a certain point in a manuscript and think:


I also realized I’d been using the terms plot and premise interchangeably. What’s the difference? I’ll fall back on Back to the Future, one of my favourite movies, to illustrate this.

Premise – The basic idea or hook. Think of it as the tagline you’d give if someone asked you what your story is about. Back to the Future’s premise? A teenager accidentally travels back to the year 1955 in a time machine built out of a DeLorean.

Plot – The plot is what happens in the story, a sequence of events and problems your main character faces. A book can have a main plot plus one or more subplots that intersect the main plot. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly must return to 1985, but his DeLorean is out of fuel and only 1.21 gigawatts of power can send it back to the future. In a subplot, Marty encounters his parents as high school seniors. He has to make sure they fall in love, otherwise he and his siblings may not be born in the future.

Want to know more about plotting? Go back in time and check out these excellent posts from the Sisterhood’s past:

Ruby readers, what’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve received at a conference? Light-bulb moments? Do you know what a gigawatt is?


46 responses to “Plot and Premise – An Epiphany”

  1. Vanessa, what a great post – and how lucky you were to be there to get your epiphany! I’ve received lots of great advice at writing conferences. One piece just became more and more profound as I got closer to publication, still without crossing that line. Robyn Donald, New Zealand romance writing legend, said years ago that the people who are certain to fail are the people who give up. When the road seems impossibly long, giving up starts to seem like an option. I remembered that advice often as I worked toward publication that I thought might never come.

    • Hi, Anna! Ally’s advice has helped me cement my transformation from pantser to plotter. No more faffing around for me!

      What a great piece advice from Robyn Donald. You and I both racked up the miles on our individual roads to publication. I’m so glad you took that advice to heart. Now you have fans the world over! 🙂

      Thanks so much for coming by!

  2. Annie West says:

    Hi Vanessa,

    Great post! I tend to use plot and premise interchangeably too. Must stop!

    Robyn Donald’s advice, quoted by Anna C struck a chord with me. The other was from Stephanie Bond. She asked if we had plans to succeed at our writing – you know, a business plan with achievable, measurable goals and time frames, or whether we just liked to think of ourselves as writers. Committing to specific goals really helped me along my journey to becoming a full time author.

    • Hi, Annie! Eeep — I’m glad I’m not alone in mixing up plot and premise! Plotting your career as well as your book? I like this idea!

      I saw Stephanie Bond at a conference years ago. She changed a lot of time-poor writers’ lives when she suggested setting a kitchen timer to, say, 15 minutes and use that time to write as much as you can. It’s a method I use to this day.

      I dream of becoming a full-time author. Oh, wait — I’m going to mark that down as a goal, not just a dream. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Annie!

  3. Hi Vanessa, thanks for the clarification between plot and premise–very useful! I can’t say I’ve ever heard it spelled out like that. No wonder you nearly fell off your chair.
    The best advice I’ve received at a writing conference has been garnered from several speakers regarding creating not “characters” but “people” who inhabit your book and who seem like real people readers can believe in (even when they are part of a highly dramatised plot!)

    • I’m glad you found that distinction useful, too, Kandy! And that’s great advice. I know many of us like to think of our heroes and heroines as real people. Friends, even!

      I don’t know about you, but I often miss my “people” once I finish a manuscript. It makes me want to start a series so I can hang out with them for a few more months. #thingsonlywritersunderstand 😉

      Thanks for popping around to share!

  4. Okay, Vanessa. Sorry but I have two great pieces of advice, and (unfortunately) I don’t remember who said the first one (and actually, it’s been said by a lot of authors at a lot of conferences 🙂 )

    Your best marketing tool is writing good books. Promo means nothing unless the book is great.

    The second is about self-publishing versus trad/small press. When I asked Jenn Armentrout (who’s done both) which is better, she said, “It depends on the book. Know your market.” Some genres sell better as e-books than others. If your target market prefers print books, that’s a major data point in your decision-making process.

    • No need to apologise for sharing *two* great pieces of advice, Elizabeth! 🙂 It’s so true about a great writing being the best advertisement for a book. It’s all too easy to get caught up in promo, but without a book you wouldn’t have anything to promote in the first place. 🙂 I hadn’t heard Jennifer Armentrout’s tip before — thanks for passing it on!

  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great post, Vanessa! Two pieces of advice that struck me from this year’s RWA National:

    When she notices something wacky or illogical when writing first drafts, Sarah MacLean says to herself, “That’s a problem for FUTURE Sarah!” rather than slowing down and solving the issue then and there. I need to tattoo this on my brain.

    Hugh Howey, musing on how the lifecycle of popular culture seems so accelerated these days: “You can have a career at this. It might take 5-10 books, but you can have a career.”

    Both of these comments made me feel less like a loser.

    • Oh, wow, let’s get that brain tattoo together! I will also add a “Tammy Hogan is not a loser” tatt. 🙂 We’re allowed to have wacky first drafts. There’s nothing more important than getting the words down first and iron the kinks out later. I love that tip from Hugh Howey to keep plugging away. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Kim Law says:

    Don’t you just love when those little nuggets hit?

    I’ve gotten so much great advice over the years…and if I wasn’t wrangling a 3 yr old and an 18 month old today, maybe I could remember a couple of them. 🙂

    Great post. I’ll just read others’ nuggets of info instead of hurting my brain trying to remember more.

  7. Pintip says:

    Fabulous post, Vanessa. I admit, I felt a little panic at the beginning of this post, and I immediately thought: does my WIP have a premise? Does it have plot? Thanks for the definitions of the two terms! (and yes, I think it does. Whew.)

    The best piece of writing advice I got was from Story, by Robert McKee. Paraphrasing: the best way to reveal true character is by having your protagonist make difficult choices.

    • You know, I had that moment of panic, too. But I know for a fact you are a master plotter and you know how to come up with an arresting premise! Robert McKee’s advice is terrific. Without those hard choices, it’d be a rather dull story! Still, sometimes I hate putting my characters through the wringer, but it must be done.

      Still grinning here over your two-book hardcover sale to Entangled — congratulations, Pintip!!!!

  8. Vanessa,
    What a great post. I think we almost fell out of our chairs at the same time. I loved so much of what Ally Carter had to say that day at YARWA. Sadly, I muddle through sometimes without either plot or premise. Lol.
    Great example, using BACK TO THE FUTURE.
    I receive so much fantastic writing advice. The key is putting it into practice. 🙂

    • I adore Back to the Future — it’s one of those movies I can watch over and over, and find something new in it every time. I hear you on the muddling, Kim. Sometimes I just start with a book title and/or the first line of the book! We all have our quirks. But Ally’s advice makes a lot of sense. If you’re writing to a deadline, getting the plot and premise sorted from the get-go can save you time and muddling!

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  9. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great post, Vanessa! That’s a great distinction to focus on…and, like you, I’ve been struggling to become more of a plotter so I don’t hit that “lost in the forest” feeling halfway through.

    For me, Hope Ramsay’s advice to come up with a big transformative midway event and then “write to the middle” is a valuable one. I’m good with the first hundred pages and then the black moment, climax and resolution, but that “flagpole” in the center is one I have to deliberately work out before I get too far.

    • Ah, yes, that irksome middle. As much as it pained me at first, I’ve come to realise you have to do a certain amount of plotting. I like Hope’s advice about writing to the middle. In fact, I like all of Hope’s advice. 🙂

      I recently bought a craft book about *starting* at the middle. I’m really curious as to how this works, so I’ll launch into it as soon as I get my wip out of the way.

      Thanks for throwing a fantastic blog birthday bash yesterday.

  10. Love this post! And I love hearing what other people have learned.

    For me, one of the most memorable bits of advice were from the very first workshop I attended at a local conference in 2006. It was about first chapters and I was a newbie writer, so I was soaking up everything.

    The presenter pointed out that the reader has to relate to (and care about) the hero/heroine in order to want to keep reading. She listed several ways to create this empathy (I wish I could remember them all and put them here, but it was kind of a “save the cat” idea – make the hero/heroine do something heroic or help someone, appear vulnerable, be funny, etc.) and do at least two of those things in the first scene/chapter.

    It’s something I’ve kept in mind over the years and it comes in handy!

    • Hi, Anne Marie! Isn’t it great when a good piece of advice like that sticks with you for years? One thing I learned from my earliest contest feedback is that it’s important to create a likable heroine. She may be flawed, but she still has to be someone your readers will cheer for.

  11. Great advice, Vanessa!
    I had a similar light bulb moment listening to a workshop using Blake Snyder’s SAVE the CAT Screenwriting book.

    An author must have an end goal in mind to keep the plot moving forward to the end. Otherwise, like you beautifully said, the plot will limp along. And the simpler your goal is, the better. The example Snyder gives is for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The whole external plot goal can be summed up in three words – Ring to Mountain.

    As a writer who tends to wander off on tangents, I now try to come up with my Ring to Mountain phrase and tape it before me as I write. This helps my pacing and keeps me headed to my ultimate goal.

    • Heather, I hear you on those tangents! I’m guilty of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at my books, so it’s good to hear Blake Snyder’s tip about keeping goals simple. Thanks for sharing it! I’ve actually owned that book for years, but it’s been on loan to a friend for just as long — he can’t get enough of it. I think it’s time for me to get another copy.

  12. Liz Talley says:

    Fab post, Vanessa!

    I think the best advice I got was “If you don’t write it, you can’t sell it.” Well, that’s simple but hard to do. Still, I tell myself when I want to be a slacker that particular phrase given to me by Connie Cox. She told me that over and over when I first started writing.

    I used to start with a premise and I still do. But after three chapters, I write my plot. Sometimes I have to know my characters better before I know what hurdles they will face. Just my weird process 🙂

    • Thanks, Liz! I don’t think that’s a weird process — that’s exactly how I wrote my last book and it turned out okay! 🙂
      Excellent advice from Connie. Only you can sit down and get those words down. Books don’t write themselves. Although…sometimes I wish that would happen.

  13. Vanessa, I LOVE this advice. Sometimes I start writing before I have either a plot or a premise–I just have a first line that intrigues me. Maybe that’s why I so often feel clueless partway through the book. 😉

    I think I’m going to use this as a screensaver to remind myself to get that plot nailed down before I start writing. I could save myself some headaches if I do this!

    • Thank *you* for giving me a new idea — put your best advice on a screensaver! That’s genius, Tina. I think it’s fine to get those first few lines or even chapters down so you can get a feel for the story and characters. But I say as a reformed pantser, there are many advantages to plotting. It keeps you from feeling clueless and directionless. 🙂

  14. June Love says:

    Vanessa, I love this post! I’ve gone around the world and back with my current WIP all because I don’t have a firm handle on my plot.

    The light bulb moments are the best and I’ve had a lot of them. Unfortunately, the bulb doesn’t always stay lit and I forget them. I remember thinking when I left San Antonio this year that what stood out as a theme in most of the workshops I attended was: Forget what you’ve learned about the rules, because they have changed. In some ways, I found that liberating because until that moment, I hadn’t realized I was still trying to stick to all those things I’d been told I HAD to do when I first began writing.

    • Hi, June! I’m so glad this post is useful to you. 🙂 The advice shared by everyone today is really helpful, too! I also heard that there are no rules. Guidelines, maybe. It really comes down to what works for you.

  15. Gwyn says:

    Good stuff, Vanessa. Gotta admit, I rarely know what I’m going to write until it shows up on the page. Even now, if you ask for a premise to my stories, I have to think about it. Plot? That I can give you from the get-go, although the details may be vague until I’m actually writing.

    Best advice? Just write the damned book!

    • Oh, Gwyn, I feel this way about themes — I often can’t articulate what book’s theme is until I finish it.

      And, yes, the best advice is to write the damn book! Do whatever you have to reach to The End.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Vivi Andrews says:

    Great post, Vanessa! I’m terrible at distinguishing between plot and premise. And don’t get me started on high concept. Oy.

    This last conference I saw an amazing workshop by Virginia Kantra. I wish I could remember exactly how she said it, but there was this one bit about self-preservation as internal conflict that I loved. e.g. “I am an honorable man and loving you would make me less honorable.” It just popped my eyes wide open. Like we attempt to save our ideas of ourselves at the expense of our future selves… It still wows me.

    • Wow, Vivi, Virginia Kantra’s advice is mind-boggling. You could apply it to real life as well as your characters’ lives.

      High concept is another area of concern to me. I remember the term being discussed feverishly at past conferences. I’ve come to think a “quiet” book can be just as interesting as, say, The Hunger Games.

  17. Kate Parker says:

    I like Kris Kennedy’s advice about how your hero needs to be dealing with a problem that is really important to him and moving toward a solution and encountering problems on nearly every page. Keeps up the tension.

  18. Vanessa, isn’t it great when a gem like this drops into your hands and “speaks” to you – whether it’s from a conference or from a book or somewhere completely unrelated to writing.

    I’ve heard some wonderful speakers and learned so many fabulous things at conferences over the years. But I think my biggest writing epiphany came when I read Stephen King’s On Writing. I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it but it was essentially “just get on and write it”. Which helped me get over the (for me) hurdle of needing to know absolutely every minute character/setting detail before I could start. I finished my first full length manuscript after that – it’s gathering dust on the shelf now but it was a big step forward for me.

    • Hi, Sharon!

      Brilliant advice from Mr. King there! Finishing that first ms is a huge milestone. If anything, it helps you prove to yourself that you *can* just get on and write and complete a project.

      I’ve come to semi-enjoy plotting. 🙂 But I don’t always nut out every little detail. Sometimes the best ideas reveal themselves during the actual writing and you have to just go with it. Only thing is you may have to rejig your outline/plot, just like your GPS recalculates when you make a wrong turn. (This happens to me all too often…)

      Thanks for stopping by!

  19. Julie Mulhern says:

    What a superb post! I’ve learned so much from listening to Michael Hague, I’d be hard-pressed to narrow down the most valuable nuggets. Plot structure made simple? I’ll go with that.

    • Hi, Julie!

      I agree with you on Michael Hague. I’m not a natural plotter, but I came away from one of his workshops feeling like I could really do it effectively.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for tweeting!

  20. Hope ramsay says:

    Crawling out of my writing cave (a day late) because the plot of my latest book got so involved that it took pages and pages to resolve …. to say thanks for the shout out for my old blog pieces on my favorite topic. The book I will finish today was completely plotted in a 13 page outline. The finished book is slightly different, because I got to know my characters a little bit better, but the basic events haven’t changed since I wrote them down 8 months ago. I’m so glad, otherwise I really would have lost my way in this gigantic story. 🙂


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