How To Define Premise in Literature

Learning to define premise in literature is one of the best ways to write strong books and short stories.

A premise is a summary of a story’s main plotline. Learning how to define premise in literature is helpful to writers who use it to guide their writing.

A strong premise helps writers hone in on the main ideas of their books and short stories, so they can better connect with the reader.

The word “premise” comes from the Latin word “praemissa,” based on the past participle of “praemissa.” This was a legal term referring to items mentioned previously.

Today, the term has come to mean many things, and in literature, it is a very short summary of a piece of writing.

So how does your work’s premise guide and direct your writing? Here is a closer look at how to define premise in literature and use it to guide you as you write.

Living Writer
$8 per month

Living Writer contains time-saving templates for authors and novelists. iOS and Android apps available

We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

How to Define Premise in Literature

How to define premise in literature

Before you can look at examples in literature, you must first understand what a premise is. A premise, also sometimes called a premiss, is the basis for something. It is the proposition supporting a conclusion.

So how does this relate to literature? How do you use the idea of a premise in literature?

A premise in literature is the basic idea of the plot. If you can summarize the plot in a one-sentence or two-sentence statement, you have created your premise.

Premise Vs. Synopsis

A premise is similar to a synopsis, but these two words are not synonyms. A synopsis is a longer overview of the story structure designed to get a literary agent or publisher to look at the manuscript.

A premise is simply the most basic idea that forms the plot, without a lot of extra story details.

What Should a Premise Contain?

A premise can’t contain much information if it is going to house it all in one sentence. To make an effective premise, you need to include these three items:

  • Main character: Make sure that you give a basic description of your story’s main character, but you don’t necessarily have to give the name.
  • The main character’s main need or goal: The synopsis needs to show what the main character’s need is that drives the storyline.
  • The problem: Include what keeps the main character from reaching that goal.

If your sentence includes all three of these things, then you have a solid premise.

Every story, whether a full-length novel or a short story, has a premise. Writers who can write a good premise can often transform that that into a well-loved story.

Examples of a Premise in Classic Literature

A better way to define premise in literature is to look at some classic and modern literature and see what is the basis of a good premise. Here are some examples from literary classics:

1. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

A young girl gets swept into a magical world by a tornado and must go on a journey to find a wizard to get home again.

The Wizard of Oz Hardcover: The Classic Edition (by the New York Times Bestseller Illustrator) (Charles Santore Children's Classics)
  • Hardcover Book
  • Baum, L. Frank (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 104 Pages - 05/19/2015 (Publication Date) - Applesauce Press (Publisher)

2. Moby Dick by Herman Melvil

A sailor tells the story of his captain’s obsessive search for a giant white sperm whale who once bit off his leg on a previous voyage.

Moby Dick
  • Melville, Herman (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 284 Pages - 12/21/2020 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A young girl watches as her father defends a black man against false accusations of a crime in the early 1900s, and the family faces danger because of the racial tensions of the town.

To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Harper Lee (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 336 Pages - 09/16/2023 (Publication Date) - Harper Perennial (Publisher)

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Robert Jordan, an American fighting in the Spanish Civil War, goes on a quest to blow up a bridge but finds love along the way.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Hemingway, Ernest (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages - 07/01/1995 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist is a nine-year-old orphan who escapes a workhouse only to fall in with a gang of street urchins and criminals until befriended by a kind man, only to become a potential kidnap victim.

Oliver Twist
  • Dickens, Charles (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 234 Pages - 12/21/2020 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

Examples of a Premise in Modern Literature

Modern literature also can showcase the idea of the premise. Here are some examples:

1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars
  • John Green
  • romance
  • Death & Dying
  • Green, John (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

A teenage girl fighting cancer meets a cancer survivor and amputee named Augustus. As they read each other’s favorite stories, they learn to love and help each other through difficult circumstances.

2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

A 16-year-old girl volunteers to serve as a tribute for her District, which means she must be trained to fight to the death against other teenagers in a televised game.

The Hunger Games
  • The Hunger Games (Book 1)
  • Suzanne Collins (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 384 Pages - 07/03/2010 (Publication Date) - Scholastic Press (Publisher)

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother and in his grief, he discovers a criminal underworld surrounded by the world of art.

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
  • Novel Book
  • Tartt, Donna (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 771 Pages - 04/07/2015 (Publication Date) - Back Bay Books (Publisher)

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

An Indian theologist recounts the story of his childhood as he experiences several adventures culminating in surviving a shipwreck and spending months on a lifeboat with just a Bengal tiger for company.

Life of Pi: A Novel
  • Great product!
  • Martel, Yann (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 326 Pages - 05/01/2003 (Publication Date) - Mariner Books Classics (Publisher)

5. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

An elderly curmudgeon mourning his wife’s death develops an unexpected friendship with the new family next door after they accidentally flatten his mailbox.

A Man Called Ove: A Novel
  • Backman, Fredrik (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 337 Pages - 05/05/2015 (Publication Date) - Washington Square Press (Publisher)

The Final World on the Definition of Premise in Literature

Defining your story’s premise is a key to writing a good, strong story. As you learn how to write, learn how to write a premise, and you will go far.

FAQs on the Definition of Premise in Literature

Is a premise just a summary of the story?

Yes, a premise is a story summary, but it is a short summary of just one sentence or, at most, two sentences.

What is the difference between a story’s premise and the plot of the story?

A premise is the basic concept of the book that includes the main character, the character’s need or situation and the problem they face. The plot tells all the details of the story.

Join over 15,000 writers today

Get a FREE book of writing prompts and learn how to make more money from your writing.

Powered by ConvertKit


  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.