When I tell people that I am a writer, one of the first things they ask is: what is your story about? And I believe it is essential for me to answer that question in one sentence. First of all, if I cannot express what I'm writing about, then what am I doing writing about it? And second, it is far more important to know what I'm writing about than how I go about writing it.
What the story is about, or the premise, involves knowing the moment the story begins, some idea about the main characters, as well as a clue to the outcome of the story. It is essential to begin with a good premise for all the rest of the story builds on it. If the premise fails, then nothing will help the story.
Knowing what the story is about and boiling that knowledge down to a single sentence means we are starting out with almost nothing to go on. This allows us as writers to explore what works and what doesn't work and yet we are guided by that one idea. This idea should be something that may change our lives... that way, no matter what else happens, when we are done writing we've changed our lives.
So, you say... Dan, how do I know what's going to change my life? Ray Bradbury's little book called Zen and the Art of Writing has some very good pointers to this very question. He suggests writing down a wish list of what we would like to see in a movie or in a book... what we are interested in... passionately interested in... what entertains us. We might think of oddball characters, unique plot twists, themes and genres that attract us.
The next step is to make a list of premise lines... every story we have ever thought of telling boiled down to a single sentence. Once we have both lists in front of us, we can look for similarities, patterns concerning what we love... our vision as a writer. Of course, this exercise will not guarantee that we write a story that will change our lives... nothing will do that. But by doing the exercises of learning what we are passionate about we come to know ourselves a little better and to give ourselves a chance to write something truly original and unique.
People are naturally curious and for writers, that's a good thing. Make use of it... and next time someone asks you: what is your story about? Be ready with a good answer!