The Difference Between Premise and Design



So I have some pretty bad news… I just heard from a friend that my premise, your premise, your friend’s premise, and everybody else’s premise is, unfortunately, not quite as original as we once thought it was.  In fact, I’ve been told that all of these premises are, well, not original at all.  I mean sure, some of the twists and tweaks you’ve added to your story are your own and haven’t been done before, but when you boil it down to simple story and structure, it’s no different from a hundred other books.  If you listen to Christopher Booker, you’ll read that there are only seven story types, and yours has been told a hundred thousand times.

So what makes your book unique?  What makes it stand out?  If your book’s premise, in its basic form, is unoriginal, what’s left to make it great?  Could your book’s story design be the answer you’re looking for?

Story design is one of the most important aspects of a book, and in addition to that it is the best way to differentiate your book from others, be unique, stand out, and give yourself a guide for how to tell your story.  So what do I mean by design?

In his book The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, John Truby calls this important part of a story the “Designing Principle”, though I prefer to refer to it as just the design of your book.  Either way, the definition is the same.  A premise is the base of your story – it is what actually happens.  The design is the way in which you tell your story.

Unfortunately, most people don’t create a design for their book.  They create a premise and move on, thinking that’s all there is to it.  “This is the premise, what my book is about.  Now it’s time to start developing my characters and plotting everything out.”

That’s a big mistake. 

Now, what happens in your story and the way in which you tell it may at first sound like they’re either the same thing or at least overlap in the majority of their consequences, but it is important to understand that they are two independent ideas and need to be articulated as such if you want to have the proper guide to creating the best book possible.  Here are some examples of designing principles from Truby’s book:


Premise: Track a day in the life of a common man in Dublin.

Designing Principle: In a modern odyssey through the city, over the course of a single day, have one man find a father and the other man find a son.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Premise: When a man prepares to commit suicide, an angel shows him what the world would be had he never been born.

Designing Principle: Express the power of the individual by showing what a town, and a nation, would be like if one man had never lived.

Citizen Kane

Premise: Tell the life story of a rich newspaper baron.

Designing Principle: Use a number of storytellers to show that a man’s life can never be known.

The difference between a design and a premise (and the importance of the former) is one of those ideas that is very nuanced, but important enough to at least attempt to convey.  What if Gillian Flynn had told the story of Gone Girl through just Nick’s eyes, rather than alternating through Nick’s POV and Amy’s journal, then later through both Nick’s and Amy’s POV?  Would the twist have been as shocking?  What if, instead of telling Harry Potter’s story in seven books marked by the seven years a wizard spends attending Hogwarts, J.K. Rowling had sent Harry to school for four years and then into the adult world for the next three, or combined two or three years into one book (or took two books to tell the story of a single year)?  What if Mark Haddon, when writing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, had created a regular boy named John and sent him to investigate the death of the neighborhood dog as in a common mystery, instead of telling it through the eyes of a very unique and unconventional literary protagonist?  Do you think it would have been quite as well-received or successful?

My point is that design is important – where you place it on the list depends on your personal view, but I place it in the top five, right there with premise, character, plot, and theme.

Now I may have dramatized a bit at the beginning of this post – most of you do indeed have a designing principle.  But what I haven’t dramatized is that most people haven’t articulated that designing principle clearly, and because of this they sometimes slip and stray from how they originally intended to make their story unique.  And that’s a big loss.  Articulate your design in a sentence or two and remember it when planning, plotting, and writing your story.  It will often tell you what to do when you’re stuck and keep you going down the correct path even when you’re writing at a breakneck 2,000 words an hour (also known as WAH, not to be confused with “waaaaaahhhhh”, which is the noise we make when our WAH pace is too sluggish – Did I just make that joke up?  Because after writing it in my first draft of this post I googled “words an hour WAH” and couldn’t find it anywhere.  I think I need look into getting a trademark).  Back to my point, your design is your friend and can often be the difference between a run of the mill premise and a fresh take on a plot that is so unique, thoughtful, and entertaining that it takes the literary world by storm.  That’s not to say your design can’t change – it probably will as you continue to discover what you’re truly writing about – but at the end of your long journey you should have one design on the book and it should be consistent throughout the story.

What about you?  Do you articulate a design for your book in addition to the premise?  Do you see them as two separate pieces of a puzzle, or do you think they’re really one in the same?  Do you think this post makes any sense?  Did my joke make you laugh?

P.S. – In my next post I’ll be talking about words a minute, otherwise known as WAM (and how it should definitely replace the more popular words per minute, or WPM, which isn’t nearly as cool of a noise when you pronounce it phonetically).

11 comments on “The Difference Between Premise and Design”

  1. Great column, I’ll comment more tomorrow (it’s 12:40AM across the pond and I can hardly keep my eyes open.) Premise: get my ass in bed. Design: fall asleep thinking about how I’ve basically done this kind of planning loads of times but never written it down…

  2. Funny write up, I like your literary style and I have heard about these premises and the seven story structures before but I wish I learned about it in this entertaining way. Ulysses is one of my favorite books, I’ve always wanted to write in a similar style but it seems too challenging lol

  3. Thanks for the post. I’ve been reading Truby’s book and struggling with the difference between Premise and Designing Principle. You’ve helped me grasp the difference, I think. At this moment, subject to change, I believe that Premise is THE WHAT (the idea of the story) and the Designing Principle is THE HOW (how the story idea/premise is presented.)

  4. I have Truby’s book and will definitely have to read it again, but your excellent post certainly clarifies the difference between premise and a designing principle.

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