Three Aspects of Your Book’s “Aboutness”: Goal, Question, and Premise

Today’s guest post is by Barbara Linn Probst

 So what’s your book about?

We’ve all had that question put to us by friends, relatives, agents, or other writers.  It’s a reasonable question for them to ask.

“Well, it’s the story of a woman who . . .”

“It tells what happens when . . .”

Nope. That’s the setup. It’s not what the book is about.

Coined by R. A. Fairthorne in 1969, “aboutness” is a term used in linguistics, philosophy of language, and the informational sciences to convey both intention and content—that is, the aim and subject of a text.

So what’s your book about?

The question can be surprisingly difficult to answer. That’s because we aren’t used to thinking conceptually about our writing. We’re taught how to create stakes, wounds, obstacles, turning points, dark moments—but they’re simply landmarks, coordinates, and strategies in the service of the book’s aboutness.

How, then, can I find my book’s aboutness?

There are three ways to approach this question. Three perspectives, from concrete to abstract, interlocking yet distinct.

First, there’s the story your protagonist or POV character is enacting. It’s driven by her goal (inner or outer) and what she has to do to achieve that goal. When she achieves that goal, the story is over.

Next, there’s the story your reader is experiencing. It’s driven by the question the reader is yearning to resolve as he turns the pages. When he’s answered that question, the story is over.

And finally, there’s the story that you, as author, are creating, driven by what you want to say about how life works or what it means to be human. When your premise has been fully illustrated, the story is over.

Determine Your Story Premise

While there are no rules for which comes first, it can be helpful to begin by identifying your premise, since premise underlies both question and goal. A premise is an adage, a concise generalization about the way life works. Forgiveness is always possible. Courage takes many forms. You can’t step twice in the same river.

The story question—a question that’s large enough to span the entire narrative—asks whether the story will demonstrate that the premise is true. If the book’s premise is that it’s never too late to change, then the story question is “Will the outcome verify or disprove the assertion that it’s never too late to change?”  In spite of everything, will Lucy be able to let go of her anger toward her father?

The protagonist’s goal takes the story question and turns it back into a statement. Lucy’s goal is to let go of her anger and reunite with her father.  

The premise need not be stated overtly; often, it’s better if it’s not. But you, as author, need to know what it is. Without it, your book has no coherence.

In a “simple” story, the goal, question, and premise line up neatly. The protagonist’s goal is usually to find or acquire something; it might be something that’s been taken or lost, such as a kidnapped child or an achievement that represents excellence and recognition.

The Reader’s Question

The reader’s question is whether the protagonist will reach her goal. The author’s premise is that the protagonist’s core feature (determination, resourcefulness, courage) will lead to success. For example, if the protagonist’s goal is to find her missing child, in a simple story their eventual reunion demonstrates the premise that parental love will overcome all obstacles.

There are many examples of stories in which the protagonist’s goal, the reader’s question, and the author’s premise align well.  In Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example, Henry and Clare share the goal of being together. The reader’s question is whether they will ever be able to do so in a lasting way, and the book’s premise is that true lovers will seek each other across time and space. (Note: These aren’t necessarily stories with simple plots. It’s the conceptual structure that’s simpler.)

In a more complex story that contains irony, misdirection, secrets, or surprises, the three elements don’t necessarily line up so neatly. That’s fine, as long as the author intended it that way.

In Gone with the Wind, for example, Scarlett O’Hara’s goal is to marry Ashley Wilkes. The reader, however, wants to find out if Scarlett will come to her senses and realize that Rhett is the one she really wants; the reader doesn’t share Scarlett’s goal. This discrepancy (misalignment) adds to the book’s tension and points to its premise: Never give up.

Other stories are complex because the protagonist’s goal changes. Perhaps the first goal turns out to be false, a mask for the true goal, or perhaps circumstances require a new goal. In Lisa Genova’s Every Note Played, Richard’s initial goal is to preserve as much of his identity as a musician as he can. As his disease progresses, however, he must abandon this goal in favor of a neglected desire: to connect with his family.

In Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Vianne’s initial goal is to protect her daughter. As the story develops, her goal shifts to the aim of saving as many Jewish children as possible—not a reversal of her earlier goal, as in Genova’s book, but an expansion.

Sometimes the protagonist’s failure to achieve her goal—or the reader’s realization that the story question wasn’t the right question to have been asking—is the way the book’s premise is ultimately demonstrated. For example, the premise that the thing you’re seeking may have been right in front of you all along might not be apparent until the end of the book.

In each of these instances, there’s a clear relationship between goal, story question, and premise. It’s another matter when the three elements have no intrinsic relationship or slip, inexplicably, out of alignment.

In Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Anna’s goal is agency, the ability to make her own decisions about her body. She has a secondary goal to help her sister, whom she loves. The two goals appear incompatible, raising the story tension. The reader’s question is thus: “How can Anna achieve the agency she seeks without causing her sister’s death?” Five-star stakes! But what’s the premise? The book’s unexpected ending seems to proclaim the goals are meaningless in a world governed by random events.

Certainly there are novels in which the story question is never fully answered, leaving the reader with a sense of mystery or open-ended possibility. That can be quite effective, as in Chris Bohjalian’s The Law of Similars. We want Leland and Carissa to reconnect, but Bohjalian’s ending is intentionally ambivalent. We don’t know if Leland achieves his goal, yet the book’s premise is intact: We must try our best and sustain hope.

What about your own book? It can be easiest to begin with the most concrete of the three elements: the protagonist’s goal. Often, the concrete or external goal is a stand-in for a deeper goal, although that varies by genre.

Next, ask yourself: What is the reader dying to know? Is there a central question strong enough to sustain a reader’s interest through the ups and downs of the plot?

And finally: What are you trying to express about what it means to be human?

If one of these questions seems difficult to answer, it may indicate that additional thinking is needed; asking beta readers how they’d answer can also be helpful.  Pondering these questions, however you do it, can only lead to a more coherent and satisfying narrative.

Have you worked out your story’s “aboutness”? Share it in the comments.

Barbara Linn Probst, author of When the Labels Don’t Fit, is a writer, teacher, researcher, and clinician living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. She holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a dedicated amateur pianist.  Learn more about Barbara at her website.

15 Responses to “Three Aspects of Your Book’s “Aboutness”: Goal, Question, and Premise”

  1. Maggie Smith July 30, 2018 at 8:11 am #

    Such a central question – everything flows from this or else the book meanders all over the place. Not enough writers take the time to nail down their “aboutness” or worse, they aren’t even sure it’s needed. But it is. It separates the pedestrian from the great.

  2. Rita Bailey July 30, 2018 at 9:45 am #

    Thank you Barbara. Your post is one of the best I’ve ever read. Now if I can just craft one perfect sentence to sum up my novel’s “aboutness”!

    • Barbara July 30, 2018 at 10:57 am #

      Hi Rita. Glad you found the post so useful!

      To find your “one perfect summary sentence,” try some fill-in-the-blank exercises. We’re taught, appropriately, to focus on particulars when we write. But a novel’s subject is inherently more abstract. So don’t be afraid to use abstract terms, even cliches, when you try this exercise. For instance:

      My book is about the ways that AAA can lead to BBB.
      My book is about what happens when a person wants/believes/trusts/refuses/hides from AAA.
      My book is about the danger/cost/yearning/loss of AAA and how that can lead to BBB.

      Or create your own fill-in-the-blank sentences!

      • Victoria Marie Lees July 30, 2018 at 12:01 pm #

        I love the fill-in-the-blank exercises, Barbara, to help writers understand your concepts.

    • Barbara July 30, 2018 at 11:10 am #

      Hi Rita. So glad you found the post so helpful!

      To come up with a few “perfect summary sentences,” try some fill-in-the-blanks that illustrate a cause-and-effect relationship. These cause-and-effect statements are capsule versions of the protagonist’s journey.

      Don’t be afraid to use abstract terms, even cliches! We’re taught, appropriately, to focus on particulars when we write, yet our novel’s theme is inherently more abstract. For example:

      My book is about how the longing/drive/pursuit of AAA can lead to BBB.

      My book is about how the absence/loss/rejection/ AAA can lead to BBB.

      My book is about what happens when AAA propels someone into BBB.

      See if you can come up with your own sentences, or try rearranging the order of the items you’ve put into the blanks!

  3. Victoria Marie Lees July 30, 2018 at 10:18 am #

    The goal of my memoir’s protagonist is: Victoria’s goal is to find the courage or believe in herself/her abilities enough to complete a college degree as a nontraditional student, a mother of 5.

    The reader’s question is whether Victoria will have the smarts and ability and time to be able to reach her goal of an undergrad degree.
    And the premise of the story/memoir [I hope] is that determination will overcome all obstacles.

    Any comments on this are greatly appreciated. Thanks for sharing your insight with Live Write Thrive readers.

    • Barbara July 31, 2018 at 2:03 pm #

      You’re right on point, Victoria! You can also try identifying the goal, question, and premise for other characters who are foils or contrasts to the protagonist! The book as a whole has a premise, but each character can have/embody a premise too

      • Victoria Marie Lees August 1, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

        Thank you so much for this, Barbara. You are absolutely right. Secondary characters need a premise or reason to be, too. This is what I need to work on in the memoir for my family regarding their help or hinder in my college journey.

  4. Jay July 30, 2018 at 3:02 pm #

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s GOLD.
    I’d pretty much finished my novel before I even worked out gmc’s, theme, heart, aboutness. What really surprised me is that the magic dust is all there within my story, and I’d have to say, quite accidentally.
    It must come from being an avid reader and a dedicated learner of all things writing since I began the book over three years ago. That said, if I had this article put in front of me then, I would have saved a lot of time and worry about how I’d piece my multigenerational/timeline novel together, as I wrote in scenes rather than from A to Z with a structure. Now the work begins! But there’s power in that, I could make a number of aboutness statements and I’m loving how it’s all lining up as I get those aha moments. I’ve nailed it down now, so all good.
    Book two will be different – I have a fair idea where it’s going, so will start with this golden advice. It makes a brilliant synopsis map too. Thank you.

    • Barbara July 31, 2018 at 2:07 pm #

      So glad my blog was useful, Jay! As you imply, one can experiment with various aboutness statements or premises, and then see what each would indicate about key plot turns. Does my plot illustrate or illuminate the premise? If not, then one or the other needs to be adjusted!

  5. scott smith July 30, 2018 at 4:04 pm #

    This is a great article with much food for thought. I definitely struggled with this with my first major writing effort — I was all over the place. It has become a bit easier with time to get more organized at the outset of a project. With a short story it’s possible to just write and get to the end and then you see what you’ve done, but with longer projects you have to spend nearly as much time thinking as writing!

    • Barbara July 31, 2018 at 1:59 pm #

      Hi Scott. It’s so true that thinking is part of writing well! We’re taught to identify scene goals, conflict, turning points, and so on – which is one kind of thinking – but there’s a deeper level of thinking needed too, one that takes place at a “higher altitude,” so to speak. I’d also say that it’s not something one does once, and then checks off. Rather, your book’s aboutness has to be revisited periodically to see if you’ve veered from its essence (which is okay, as long as you know how and why)and whether goals or questions need to be reconsidered. Hard work, but so worthwhile!

  6. Meghan Weyerbacher July 30, 2018 at 6:35 pm #

    This was wonderful! I am leaving your blog pulled up in my tab. I want to read more!

    • Barbara July 31, 2018 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks, Meghan! Try identifying the goal, question, and premise for books and movies you love – that’s a great way to get more out of these ideas!

  7. Carolyn Davis September 12, 2018 at 12:19 pm #

    Thanks for informative blog on premises. I am a first time author. Below is my working premise for a nonfiction book:

    Everybody has pain. Outside of God, we run to things that are unfulfilling or that enslave us as we try to deal with that pain. In The Squeeze to Please, a middle aged woman lived for approval from people to be accepted by them and to deal with her pain taking her to a place of destruction and bondage. Only when she looked to God and realized that she was accepted by Him did He heal her pain by changing her excitement to Him. Now she lives life excited and free.

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