That One Thing


 City Slickers, Starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance, is a funny movie with an interesting premise. Palance plays Curly, a tough old cowpoke who is tasked with leading a band of city men, including Billy Crystal, on a cattle roundup. Curly not only scares the men with his toughness, he tries at the same time to give them some sound advice for their lives, especially Billy Crystal’s character.  At a critical point in the movie Curly decides to share with Crystal the secret of life. He holds up his right forefinger and says, “One.” When Crystal looks confused, Curly explains, “Just do one thing at a time.”

I like Curly’s advice because it reminds us to stay focused on one thing. This focus is especially critical for people who want to write. We need to begin our work with a focus—a purpose or a premise.

Writing any kind of book, story or piece without a premise is like rowing a boat without oars.  The premise or purpose is the reason for the book. Author James Frey says it this way:

  • Think of a premise as the love in a marriage.
  • Think of a premise as the abracadabra that puts the rabbit into the hat.
  • Think of the premise as the steel in reinforced concrete.
  • Think of the premise as the E=mc2 of novel writing.
  • It is the reason you are writing what you are writing.
  • It is the point you have to prove
  • It is the raison d’être of your novel or work.
  • It is the core, the heart, the center, the soul of your expression.[1]

Having that “one thing,” a premise, is critical to both fiction and non-fiction writing. While many people may think they can just sit and write, the reader will easily give up if they don’t see the point. Trust me. As a publisher, many times I’ve abandoned well-intentioned projects that simply didn’t have a point, a focus, and a premise.

So, what is a premise? It’s the conclusion that will be reached when someone reads your book. It’s the point you are trying to make.

Think of any good book you’ve read, fiction or non-fiction and try to determine the author’s premise. There is one in there.

Notice also that I said “one.” It’s extremely difficult to have multiple premises. You can certainly have multiple points or plots within your book, but it’s rare that a writer can pull off several premises. My best advice for you is to stick to one and only one. Focus on it. Lay it out several times and defend it with story, references, humor and facts.

You can discover your premise by asking yourself several questions:

  • What am I trying to prove?
  • What is the “universal truth” that needs defending?
  • What holds me to my subject?
  • What is the main theme, root idea, of my book?
  • What am I trying to show in my story?
  • What’s the point?

If what you are writing doesn’t have a premise, I urge you to find one. Don’t row the boat without the oars and don’t have a car without an engine. What is the purpose of your book? What’s that one thing that the reader will enjoy learning about or knowing about or simply reading about?

[1] James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling, (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 49,50


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