Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Premise Palooza! Generating Great Story Ideas

by Julie Phend

What’s a Premise Palooza?

Premise Palooza is a fun idea for creating unique story concepts invented by my critique group: authors Kara Laughlin, Joyana McMahon, Amy Thernstrom, and myself, Julie Phend.  

Last December, we were all completing long-term projects. This can be a discouraging time for a writer—after years of commitment to a novel-in-progress, your heart can sink if you’re not sure what to tackle next. So we decided to skip traditional critiques that month and concentrate on creating memorable story premises. Our quest became Premise Palooza.

How Does Premise Palooza Work?

In fiction, a premise is defined as a one-sentence story concept that includes a protagonist, a goal, and a situation. For our challenge, we agreed to do the following:

  • Spend 15 minutes each day brainstorming premises. 
  • Not censor any ideas.
  • At the end of the month, choose our 10 most promising ideas and write a pitch paragraph for each.

To keep ourselves accountable and bolster morale, we emailed weekly to report our progress. We had some good laughs as we shared a few of our zanier ideas.

Each week, we took turns being in charge of prompts to stimulate creative thinking. We found three techniques to be particularly useful. Here’s how they worked:

Daily Prompts: 

Each night, the prompter sent three random prompts, which could be used together, separately, or not at all.

  • A gummy advent calendar, A cross-country train car, Mardi Gras
  •  A secret underwater laboratory, Enemies forced to work together,    National Pun-off
  •  New Year’s Eve, An abandoned mine shaft, A secret

Prompts became especially helpful as the month went on and our personal idea wells began to dry up. We discovered that a prompt generated by someone else often sends you in a direction you would never have gone on your own.

A Page from Julie's Notebook

Borrowed Premises: 

Here, the challenge was to take classic premises from books or movies and retell or update them. This strategy yielded some great story ideas.   

  • An update of the Scarlet Letter where a kid is forced to wear a C for cheating
  • A Christmas picture book based on Elf in which the family dog (instead of the baby) climbs into Santa’s sack. 

Chain Premises:  

This technique involved taking an existing premise—either our own or someone else’s—and changing one element at a time, resulting in a long list of permutations.

 We all liked this exercise and were often surprised at where we ended up. We felt it really pushed us to be creative—and it was fun because it produced new ideas quickly.

Amy shared a chain sequence that began with a borrowed premise. She said, “My 11-year-old son helped me brainstorm. We wrote down absolutely anything that came to our heads, no matter how silly, as you can see by the examples below.”  
(The premises marked with an asterisk * were generated by Amy’s son.) The original idea comes from “Robbie,” a short story by Isaac Asimov.

1.     Asimov’s premise: Busy parents hire a robot babysitter—but worry when the child gets too attached.
2.     Busy parents hire a robot bodyguard, but worry when the bodyguard turns out to be a coward.
3.     Busy parents hire a robot bodyguard, but worry when the child destroys him during a temper tantrum.*
4.     Busy parents hire a dragon babysitter, but worry when the child gets scared.*
5.     Busy parents hire a dragon babysitter, but worry when the child starts breathing fire.
6.     Busy parents hire an alien babysitter, but worry when the child starts growing a third eye.*
7.     Busy parents hire an alien cook, but worry about the ingredients of the food.
8.     Busy parents hire a dragon cook, but worry when the food is charred.
9.     A kid and his parents are kidnapped by a dragon and forced to babysit a dragonet.*
10.  A kid and his parents are hired by Santa Claus to babysit the elves.*

Testing our Ideas:

At the end of the month, we each wrote pitches for our most promising ideas and gave each other feedback. We also shared them with the children in our lives and asked which stories they’d most like to read. It was fascinating to learn which premises children of different ages liked and why.

Was it Successful?

Amy Thernstrom
I asked the group to comment on their Premise Palooza experience.

Amy: There was something magical about putting all other writing aside and focusing exclusively on generating premises for a solid month. I wrote more than I ever thought possible. 
Kara Laughlin

Kara: It kept me writing during a time of year that typically sees me away from my desk.

Joyana: It was fun to focus on exercising the idea-generating part of my brain without inhibitions. No idea was a bad one during the process.

Joyana Peters McMahon
Julie: I’ve always been a writer who grabbed the first idea that came into my head. This challenge pushed me to stretch my thinking and become more creative.   

Brainstorming premises is clearly a lot of fun. But does it yield valid story ideas?

We all felt that it did. Two of us are currently writing stories based on the challenge, and we’re all excited to have to have a well of story ideas to draw from when we need them.

Julie Phend
Overall, Premise Palooza was great fun, freed our creativity, bonded our group, and generated a ton of ideas—all during the usually less-productive month of December.

Try It!  

So, if you’re looking for a way to spark your creativity, grab a group of friendly writers and organize your own Premise Palooza. Maybe a Pandemic Premise Palooza is in your future.



  1. Julie, this is a perfect craft post. Examples, step-by-step how-to, and a darn fun thing to do. Thank you.

  2. This sounds like fun! Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a fun activity for the dry spells. I especially liked a child’s take on the exercise.

    1. Getting the kids' feedback was great. Definitely eye-opening. (And they love being asked!)

  4. Thank you, Julie, for Premise Palooka! What a creative idea to touch base with those idle writing juices. Keeping this exercise close :)

  5. Great ideas to try! Thank you for sharing :)

  6. Thank you all. This really was a fun and worthwhile activity.

  7. What a great post which is bound to spark many ideas. Thanks!

  8. Julie and critique group buddies - what a fabulous idea to get the creative juices flowing! I can't wait to try this, too. Wonderful step-by-step instructions for all.

  9. This is a really fun idea, Julie -- thanks for sharing it!