A premise can be interesting, but the execution is everything. Romeo and Juliet is just a story of two people in love. Star Wars is just a space opera. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is just a story about revolution. But as important as a premise may be to inspire the author or hook the reader, the real magic is in how well the story unfolds.
Today I’d like to take you on a journey in a space in between a premise and a fully-fledged story: the brainstorming and imaginative play that goes on while you’re moving from idea to an early draft. Take a premise like “Snakes on a Plane” as an example. We know there are snakes. We know they’re on a plane. So? What boundaries and parameters are we going to put around it? Will there be a hero? What is the conflict? Why can’t they just land the plane? This is where all the good stuff comes out, and it’s a lot of fun to dream up.
Today’s premise is “a world where people can only go one mile from their birthplace.” Let me explain why.
My friend and I were discussing how science fiction often treats the vastness of space the way seafarers in the 1600s might. In these stories, everything, no matter how far away, is reachable given enough time. So you have stories where a trip from India to England is technically possible, even if it’s dangerous and slow. And shows like Star Trek have the same back of the envelope calculation. It might be super far, and it might take some time, but everything is possible. The laws of physics don’t support this, of course. If we wrote science fiction to strictly align with what we think is physically possible, journeys would rarely go out of a single solar system. Which is sort of boring. Or is it just different? And that’s where I hatched up the idea of a world where everyone has to stay within a mile of their birthplace.
Brainstorm #1: time frame
Would the story illustrate modern life with this limitation, or go back to prehistoric times? Both could be interesting, but gosh, modern life would be so much harder to explain. Maybe the story actually explores civilisation over time? How epic.
Brainstorm #2: have things always been this way?
Overnight switches are dramatic. Imagine describing life in 2023 where all of the sudden everyone further than a mile from their original birthplace was affected. Gosh, that would probably be 99% of the planet, right? Or at least 80%? I have no idea. But you could write the story as if things have always been this way, which would be simpler.
Brainstorm #3: how does it affect people?
Severity matters. A situation where everyone gets a tummy-ache is quite different to one where people erupt in flames. Maybe you get more and more blind the further you go from your birthplace? Maybe you drop dead after a day?
Brainstorm #4: are there any exceptions?
If 10% of the population can move freely but 90% can’t, that’s an angle. Or if the split is 50/50, that’s a completely different story. Or maybe it’s 100%, and then our hero is, for some reason, the only person known to be immune? How would they discover they had the power? Is that too trope-y and obvious? Or is a “chosen one” angle strong because it’s so common in literature?
Brainstorm #5: what causes it?
Maybe the story never addresses what causes this strange world to exist. Or maybe it does? Maybe once the characters learn what’s causing the problem, they can fix it? Maybe that would be in a book two?
Putting it all together
I threw out a lot of variables there. Isn’t it cool to imagine that you could write 50 different stories off this one world-building premise just by tweaking variables one way or another? I think that’s super inspiring. But let me pluck out my favourite approaches from each of these and see what we’ve got.
- I want to go back to prehistoric times
- Things have always been this way
- People feel worse, physically and emotionally, the further they go
- It happens to everyone
- The story doesn’t address why
And I’d also add that I don’t have characters in mind. I don’t have a moral to the story. I don’t have an ending. I don’t have a plan other than wanting to discover how this world feels to live in. And that’s more than enough to get started with.