Where Story Begins – Premise, by Michael Tabb
THE CONCEPT OF PREMISE
In the beginning, there was darkness. A void. Most writers spend an endless amount of time staring at a blank page, waiting for ideas to come to them. There’s this great line from the movie Real Genius, “You can’t dictate innovation.” Yet that’s how most writers work. They wait for an idea/concept to dawn on them, or they go looking for it like a set of keys they misplaced. Those writers try to design a story from the outside, and then they work their way inside. Well, at least the better ones do. They try to reverse engineer a soul into an idea. Don’t get me wrong, a writer can reverse engineer a premise and theme into an idea that already exists… But what happens when you don’t have that big idea?
You don’t have to start with an external search for a story idea and backtrack inward on a search for meaning. Instead, you can start with the heart of the story, which is right inside of you.
Well, instead of waiting for an idea to come to you, I am going to share with you a routine to bring you to the idea. Over the next few articles, I will break down how a series of steps taken in a specific order will lead to creating story ideas, so stick with me. This is a method I have used for years, and, because of this process, I have never had writer’s block a day in my life. You never have to stare at a blank page waiting for inspiration. Why? Because you actually have everything you need to start writing inside you already… In your heart.
Wow. That sounded incredibly cheesy. Nothing like trying to swallow a giant chunk of sharp cheddar. Let me wash that down with an explanation that isn’t quite so hard to digest.
I rarely start writing with a whole story idea in mind unless it’s a writing job based on a pre-existing property or an idea from a studio that’s paying me. Do you want to know why? What makes every truly great story striking is the unique voice from deep inside the DNA of the person writing it. The only thing nobody else can bring to a script when they write it is YOU. That is what makes each written work one-of-a-kind and totally original. Only you can write from your perspective. We all have things that truly bother us, hurt us, scare us, and affect us deep and strong. That’s the place from which your truth, your ideas, and your artist’s voice will come. Tap into it.
I always figure if my story comes from the heart first, the soul of the movie will be strong. That is a foundation worth building upon for any script. Unlike those who start with story, working from the outside in, I am going to teach you to build from the inside out. So that’s where I want you to start.
Concept expansion can originate from a single point, much like the scientific concept of The Big Bang Theory.
Everything has to start with something, somewhere. I start every script with premise, the core of a strong idea in all visual mediums. It should be presented as a single statement; no more than that. It must be an incredibly clear and succinct point of view that the writer intends to explore. Story and characters come later. First comes the creative spark.
My article on protagonists dipped its toe into my theory that the act of narrative creation is an exceptional metaphor found in the origin stories of our universe. Whether you believe in Biblical creationism or the Big Bang Theory and Darwinism, which are not mutually exclusive, it remains an uncanny parallel to concept conception. If the protagonist is the Earth and the other characters are the moons all around it… Premise is the Big Bang itself… Day one… And then there was light. Premise is the origin of all the ideas hurdling through space.
What exactly is a premise?
You’re going to laugh, but my take on this all stems back to my mother. Every single time she took us kids to a movie, without fail, she would ask us tikes, “What was the moral of that story?” What I didn’t realize at the time is that she was asking us what the writer was trying to say. She had no idea that she was training me for my future career. She’d have us boil it down to one thing. Every good movie had a single answer to that question. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” A writer needs one clear statement. So my mother had me doing story analysis, figuring out the core value behind every single movie I saw, from the age of five. By the age of seven, after every movie, no question was being asked. We’d just start talking about it before we walked out the theater doors. Looking back, it’s no surprise that I started creative writing for the fun of it when I was six.
The most important question for a writer to ask about his story is, “Why?” Unless there is a reason, a story is just a series of meaningless events and circumstances. A mother kills her child, but that’s not a story. It’s a situation. The story is why she did it. Can you imagine a writer not knowing the answer to why? There’s this great, classic cliché of an actor constantly asking the director for his character’s motivation. Motivation grounds a story in reality and truth; it gives a character perspective. Writers spend so much time making sure they know why everything happens in the script because that is what writers have to be able to make clear on the page. Everyone in the story process of development is always asking one of two simple questions, why or how. The enormous irony of that is the writer figures out why every character makes every choice, yet forgets to ask the biggest why of all…
Why write the story?
Have you ever watched a show or film that had all the right things that a good story is supposed have… Characters, conflict, high stakes, love, great action, even cool effects… But somehow it still manages to feel empty? That’s because the writer didn’t figure out what it was all trying to say. Some writers think cool ideas and characters are enough. It’s not. How can a writer expect an audience to follow a story if the writer doesn’t know why he or she is writing it?
Yes, the writer needs to learn from the actor here and ask, “What’s my motivation?” I think this is why so many actors find it totally natural to try their hand at writing; writers ask the same questions actors do. A writer needs the story to have a motive. Without that core, there’s nothing binding all those elements together to feel like it’s one story with purpose. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea remains meaningful to readers to this day because it’s about so much more than an old man that likes to fish. The same goes for all great stories, from the plays of Shakespeare to modern cinema.
You can call it a lot of things. A premise is the core belief system of the script and lifeblood of the story. The best and most logical way to think about this was something another, former USC student, screenwriter, and film school educator once said to me… If you see the screenplay as a creative term paper, premise is the hypothesis of that the paper. Garrick Dowhen was right, and it’s the perfect analogy. Now, it’s important to note that there can only be one premise per script from which all the ideas it contains serve, otherwise the script loses focus and its sense of purpose. Premise is hypothesis. It is the story’s purpose for existing at all.
I like to think of a premise in terms of how I would answer one very specific question. The answer to that question changes based on where I am in my life. So, when looking for yours, maybe you’ll ask yourself the question I always ask myself:
“If you could convey just one truth to the entire world from your deathbed, and all the world will hear it with your final breath, what would you say?”
An analogy to explain this is that the writer is the power source, the story is the vehicle, and the premise serves as the power cables. Every script should have a premise in which to ground it. That’s the electrical current that keeps the engine running no matter what note any executive gives you… As long as you can keep the proverbial battery charged, the writer has the grounding wire for powering the story, allowing him or her to march forward with whatever the studio throws at you.
The premise and how important it is to you is why you won’t give up on this script after ten rewrites for the studio. It’s why I can keep rewriting for as long as they pay me. An executive or producer can ask a writer to change the characters, story, relationships, everything… But the premise stays the same. It gives the writer something to fight for and keep working toward. The soul of your movie is on the line with every draft. You will be trying to crystalize this statement with each edit. A premise is the writer’s entire reason for telling the story and the main reason he or she does not get sick of writing it.
It is not a word, theme, feeling, story, question, plot, or tone. It’s not about a person; it’s about the world in which we really live (even if your story is not set here). It is a strong statement with a point to make; it’s the theory the writer is trying to prove or disprove. This defines the author’s perspective. It helps readers and script analysts understand you as an artist and the kinds of things about which you were born to write. Whether the scribe is an optimist or a nihilist comes across in what the writer says with his or her story.
The use of a premise applies to all storytelling in all mediums, including: comic books, television shows and films.
Premise is the writer’s personal opinion. This is a general-life statement. It doesn’t have to be nice; it needs to be what the writer believes. A writer will spend the entire script proving it.
To make a long diatribe short, the best screenwriters know how important subtext is in dialogue. Your premise is the subtext of the overall story.
The Very Brief History of Dramatic Premise
For the original master of defining a strong, dramatic premise, we look to Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, published in 1946. While Aristotle’s Poetics originally analyzed and taught the mechanics of plotting at the core of storytelling, Egri took a new angle. He felt the best stories were character driven, and premise is at the core of any character driven tale. It’s the premise that inspires the protagonist’s two journeys and defines his or her character arc.
Egri’s mathematical equation for premise contains three things: protagonist, conflict, and resolution. His phrasing is a simple formula with either a positive or negative result. The positive is traditionally worded as this defies/leads to that. The negative is that conquers/destroys this. I equate this to one of those simple, math equations where something is either equal to, greater than, or less than the other side of the conflict. Some of his examples include Shakespeare’s classics, including Othello (jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love) and Macbeth (ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction). Now, none of those statements are ever stated in the dialogue of those famous plays, but the story continues to resonate over five hundred years after they were written because of the subtextual truth of each premise. So in the end, the technical phrasing of a premise doesn’t need to be complex. It just needs to be true.
That said, even Egri admits it’s hard to start an idea knowing who the hero is, the central conflict, and the result of that conflict from the start. It’s just a lot to try to wrap your head around from the beginning. He says sometimes you have to come back to the premise as you research. Well, for me, if the starting step isn’t something you can do as the first thing… It’s obviously not the perfectly designed first step.
Therefore, before I break down how I create a premise differently, we need to ask…
What Does a Premise Need to Do?
The one constant is that a premise clearly states exactly what the writer is trying to say. It states 1) the script’s hypothesis and 2) says a tremendous amount about the writer.
When figuring out a premise and starting to mine for that deathbed declaration, a writer asks of himself or herself a series of questions all basically asking the same thing in different ways:
- On a subatomic level, what message can endlessly fuel a fire in your belly for finishing this story?
- What makes this more than entertainment?
- What makes your tale important enough that it’s worth years of your life to get it right?
- Why is it worth producing?
- What would you like to say to people you deeply love to stop them from making the same, stupid, self-destructive mistakes?
- What would you say to all the politicians running for office on either side of the aisle?
- How could we make life better?
- What could actually bring world peace into being?
- What quintessential thing about the life does the world in general seem to not understand?
- Why do you want to keep breathing?
- What makes you want to stop breathing?
- If you could say one last thing to the one that got away, what would it be?
- If you had a day to live, don’t ask what you would do, but why would you do it?
Answer these questions for yourself.
The very best premises are based on a personally held belief by the writer that is true yet contradicts common, public opinion. In Leaving Las Vegas, the premise is arguably proving wrong the old adage and widely believed common misconception that, “Life goes on in the wake of deep, personal tragedy.” According to that movie, not even a new love can fill the aching gap left by the loss of true love.
The first half of this article has covered what a premise is, which leads us naturally to a question of how.
CREATING A PREMISE
While Egri teaches that it’s perfectly acceptable to write stories based on a tried and true, preexisting premise, I would feel utterly unoriginal using someone else’s exact wording for the meaning behind my story. As a career writer, I know everything has been said before in some form or another, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to find a way to say it that is not original in some way. So much of screenwriting is an artist learning to present his or her own personal voice into tried and true storytelling structures, rubrics and equations. Therefore, I believe in making everything my own, so I do not always use Egri’s model.
What Syd Field is to three-act structure Lajos Egri, the author of The Art of Dramatic Writing, is to use of theatrical premise.
Lajos Egri was writing about the concept of premise in scriptwriting long before Syd Field, William Goldman and Blake Snyder.
Egri and I agree that the truth never gets old, so long as the story is fresh, but I also say it’s perfectly acceptable to bring the writer’s individuality to how a premise is worded. I believe that specificity of unique, powerful wording in the idea origins will echo throughout the final material. So, when trying to figure out what a premise really is, I took a step back from Egri’s math and looked to a more universal source for definition. Merriam-Webster defines premise as, “A statement or idea that is accepted as being true and that is used as the basis of an argument.” Now, that’s a much more versatile form of first step, story conception. From that, I take the word truth and the fact it’s a basis of an argument. We’re back to the concept of creating a hypothesis.
Sometimes my dramatic premise does present itself in the terms Egri teaches (character, conflict, and resolution), but, at other times, it does not. So, if Egri’s equation isn’t a fool-proof approach 100% of the time for opening the door…That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means you need to recut the key to fit your lock. Egri’s method is a theoretical jumping off point. It’s not always the right key to open every lock. Writers must always retain creative license over their own individual process of creation. Egri launches us. All creative theorists expect the best and brightest to come up with our own take on their teachings. Egri puts us in the ballpark, and then we can always run with the ball.
We each have to find the recipe for premise that works for us as individual writers. Therefore, as you may have noticed from my last article, I sometimes adjust or defy theories, methods, and what some call rules. No rule works 100% of the time in all situations. The minute we think that way, artistry and creativity become stagnant theories. That doesn’t mean you ignore wisdom; it just means that situational adjustments are nothing to fear if needed once options have been thoroughly considered. Knowing exactly when to stray from proven precepts that professionals know work takes some experience and knowledge. If you break story model traditions, you’ll need to be able to explain it far better than, “I thought it was a good idea at the time.” It should be thought through and come from a place of intelligent design.
So, as I tweak Egri’s theories, I always stay faithful to the spirit of what premise is designed to mean. For me, an origin premise is just a simple moral that needs to be vetted, discussed, and demands to be played out visually. That’s my fantastic jumping off point. This means I put two of Egri’s three components aside (characters and resolutions) and focus on the conflict. Everyone has to start somewhere specific. All I need to figure out is what I want to say. What am I wrestling with when I look at the world today? Here are some examples I have come up with:
There’s never enough because there’s always more…
…liberty is merely permission currently granted by law, but freedom is yours until you give it up,…
…nobody today would put the betterment of others before themselves,…
…life is about how you treat the people in your life,…
…love trumps greed (which is not something as generic as “good triumphs over evil”),…
…the importance of family over personal satisfaction,…
…you owe even horrible parents their due,…
…always go for it because regret haunts you until you die,…
…secrets are essential to a happy marriage,…
…lies devastate lives,…
…fear squashes freedom,…
…irresponsibility is the secret path to happiness,…
…nobody wins in life, etc.
Resolution versus Realization
Some of these do not contain a resolution as Egri teaches they should. I believe in writing entertaining stories with deep, subtextual meaning as he does, but I want to write them toward a highly evolved mind. As society evolves, so must how we write for civilization’s entertainment. Therefore, sometimes I write toward an ultimate goal of realization rather than a traditional resolution. I believe that thinking is a bit more evolved. Occasionally, I don’t even pinpoint the protagonist in the premise, because whatever is being realized implies where the protagonist starts his or her journey. When a premise is about realizing, “Life is about how you treat the people in your life,” then obviously the protagonist is not thinking of his or her friends when making selfish decisions at the top of the story.
Examples of a premise in different visual media include:
- The Breakfast Club (film) is a film about surviving an entire day stuck in a place with a group of people with whom you would never want to be caught dead. Deep down, the premise is we really are all the same just as much as we are individuals.
- Angry Birds (game) insists that there is always a right, best way to accomplish any task. The key to targeting is in the way in which everything is connected together.
- Psych (television) says the skill of observation is so important that it’s practically a 6th sense.
- Spider-Man (comic) invented the thematic statement, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
You will notice these are all realizations, not resolutions.
Egri explains that the premise doesn’t need to be true one hundred percent of the time; it only has to be true for the story you told. I agree. That said, some writers prefer to write toward constant, universal, conventional truths and wisdom. Now, I prefer not to, but, in such cases when I do, it makes more sense to base the final analysis of the premise in a realization instead of Egri’s concept of resolution. A realization can effect different characters in different ways. It provides layered conclusions in a situation with more predictable, conventional wisdom. For example, a realization-based premise doesn’t doom all people to the same resolution. Mathematically, the end is less predictable if the premise doesn’t demand one outcome/resolution. The difference is significant if you think about it.
Ironically, Egri designed his model to start looking at story from a character’s perspective, but to base a premise in the resolution is a plotting perspective. Meanwhile, a realization ties directly to the concept of an inner journey or character arc. This means that by switching the resolution part of the equation to a realization, I think I’ve figured out a way to make Egri’s initial goal truly grounded in a character-driven model as opposed to plot-driven one. It’s the difference between a physical, plot-centered concept and an emotional, character-centered concept.
Whenever possible, the writer’s remedy for the problem being faced by characters should be conceptually unique, fresh and specific among a pantheon of produced cinema, television, games or comics. Whether it be a POV on injustice or posed as common misconception, avoid clichés (or at least give a new twist on them). Challenge yourself to stand out from the 99% of writers who will not get hired because they sound just like everybody else. Step away from conventional, universal truths as a premise. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them; I’m just saying don’t let something we already know be the whole point of your story.
Universal truths are necessary to communicate to an audience in a way they can relate, instead of hoping they keep up with the nuances and subtext skilled writers layer into their work. These truths are misused as platitudes at times, but they are needed in order to communicate something more complex in a way everyone can understand. So use them, but take one long stride further. Instead of basing a premise in universal truth, use universal truth in plotting to prove a more personal truth. That’s how writers lay claim to a story.
Having a totally personal, unique view of the world is the bedrock of defining your POV as a writer. It’s what makes you different from all other writers. In fact, it’s why you are writing at all. If you have nothing to say to the world, why write? How can you outline a story if you have no idea what it is you are trying to say with it? Admittedly, your premise may evolve while working on your story, but it needs to always be a strongly held opinion… and better if it’s something we have not seen exactly that way in other movies. Specificity and uniqueness of perspective of the world is at the core of having an original voice. Personality plays a role in premise. That’s why I break the Egri mold on wording and scour my mind for a fresh version of those common conceptions or misconceptions.
We want to believe that love conquers all, but, in the end of Casablanca, regardless of all the good that Rick does, we cannot escape the fact that he ends up without the girl. If the truth will out, American Psycho, Momento, and Nightcrawler didn’t get that memo. Movies like The Wolf of Wall Street prove that money and excess can buy happiness; it’s just too bad for them that the law has the power to take it away. Nightly newscasts constantly remind us that evil is still alive and thriving in the world, so clearly good hasn’t triumphed yet. This all makes sense to you because, even if you don’t like it, unlike universal truth, we know better from personal truth. These are the things we must ponder in our stories to give them a real sense of authenticity. A good premise can ram a truck through those misconceptions that people want to believe.
Don’t get me wrong, a premise can support universal truths, but the writer must be sure to put up a fight we have not seen before when making a statement we have heard a million times. Doing that is just as hard (some might argue even harder) than finding your own person truth.
How to nail down the premise
The first big qualifiers are that a premise must 1) show conviction on behalf of the writer and 2) have a meaning that would be crystal clear to any stranger who reads it. The wording should leave absolutely no room for confusion or misinterpretation. If writers want their story to be written with passion and purpose, it all starts with a strong opinion and clarity of premise.
Get to the bottom of what bothers you. The pet-peeves we have are streams that run from a much larger body of water. Figure out why it ticks you off so much. What does it mean? What does it say about the human condition and human behavior? The specificity of one perspective that stems from personal truth all comes from writers’ willingness to go to the deepest, darkest places inside themselves. Places where only a masochist would willingly go. Hence, the cliché of a tortured writer exists.
Yes, the added benefit is that you may learn more about yourself. It may be therapeutic. One of the reasons I think so many people are drawn to trying their hand at writing is because it’s an evolved form of mankind coping with the concepts and realities that trouble us.
“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Themes are a universal topic addressed in stories. “Love conquers all,” is a classic theme. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet says something far more specific and unique, which is that, “Great love defies even death.”
The statement made with a premise is something the writer thinks either 1) should apply to everyone/everywhere but doesn’t, or 2) does apply to everyone and they just don’t know it yet. The fact that it’s a truth that is not yet understood universally is exactly why you have to write it. If all people believed it already, the story is already a cliché before you have begun writing it. A premise is something a writer sets out to prove and illustrate through characters and conflict.
Let this self exploration lead you to making a list of things you’re dying to make clear to the world. In your heart, you have a set of core beliefs about the universe. Everyone does. Write them down.
Each premise is a separate story.
- A premise is not in the form of the question; a premise is the writer’s answer.
- The premise should not mention specific characters nor situations of your movie idea. It’s a core belief that will inspire those things.
- It does not have to be about peace or love if that’s not who you are.
- It is not simply a situation. It’s the author’s attack on one.
- It never mentions the story’s title or genre.
- No clichés. You’ll never stand out as a writer by saying something a bunch of other artists have already said before you.
It can be a hard truth to stomach. You just have to truly, deeply mean it. Then you prove it.
Great writing is all about saying the most with as little as possible. Find a way to say it succinctly. So, yes, you guessed it– It should be one, clear sentence. That is all. This should all boil down to a singular statement. It needs be articulated in a way that conveys significance, clarity and power. Edit down each premise concept of your belief system separately. Keep the premise simple and focused. Therefore, avoid conjunctives like and or also. It should be one sentence, making one statement. Succinct. Powerful. Your truth.
The best writers argue a point and make their point crystal clear without ever stating it in the script. They don’t have to because the ending makes the point clear.
Expansion through Brainstorming
Under each premise you have come up with, you start a very long list of ideas, physical actions, situations and characters that you could use to fight for and against the premise. Draw from personal experience, stories from the news or friends, and then use your imagination. Let it run rampant with imagery, actions, reactions, and potential conflicts proving or debunking that premise. The length of the list tells you how much you personally have to say about the subject.
Don’t edit yourself at this point. You add to the list, never subtract. Just because an idea or specific situation is on the list doesn’t mean you’re going to use it in your script. This is all just building a color palate for each concept. Just keep adding and adding. This is simply a brainstorm that spreads out the visual and emotional fabric of a story you have inside you.
This is the first step of organic story growing process. You do not have to pick which premise you are going to write first. This is just laying a foundation for several movie ideas at once. Eventually, while climbing the steps of this process, one idea will sprout best and root itself deepest in your subconscious as the one you need to write first.
So come up with your premises and keep expanding the list of attributes for each one.
Keep the premise concepts in a file so you can always add to it. Add concepts as well as images to go along with new ideas for another premise as life lays out lessons for you.
When one is ready to be taken to the next step, writers feel it in their bones.
WHEN LOOKING BACK AT A PREMISE
My roadmap for idea generation starts and ends with premise. Once a writer has a premise, filtered it through genre, sculpted the major character types, and locked down a story idea, he or she should return to the premise. It’s only at that point in the process that writers will know enough to lock down a premise that fits Egri’s model, if they wish to use it. The character, conflict, resolution model is great, but even he admitted you can’t find it right away. This is why I felt it was a good idea to share with you my own method for a way to unlock premise that can be used every single time without fail.
The key to never having writer’s block is to never stare at a blank page, waiting for an idea. I insist on never being without a way to unlock inspiration. Great story ideas are out there floating around in the ether right above and all around us. I don’t ever have to wait for them to land on me or drift my way like a feather on the wind. Premise is my harpoon gun; it reels the stories right into my head.
The story idea is what you sell. It’s the front door to the big house when you pitch it to anyone else in town. The premise approach is the secret, back door entrance for creators. Others might see it as the service entrance. Either way, this is my key to the kingdom of concept creation and a firm foundation for world building.
Now, as much as that’s a big deal, we’re not yet done with premise and its functions. Premise is far more than a foundation slab. It’s a stabilizing agent that runs through the DNA of the entire project.
The gift of premise is its ability to keep the script on track
Premise is where you put the train on the tracks at the station and lay tracks in the directions your story train may go.
Once you know what your premise is, you should never feel lost in the woods. In the dark of night, all you need to do is look to the sky and premise is your North Star. It’s always up there to guide you home to the story’s core truth. If you don’t have a premise, go back to the idea and figure out what it is. Dive deeper and ask yourself why you wanted to write that story in the first place. What compels you about the subject matter? What troubles you about it, and what does that make you want to say to the world? What are your arguments for and against the premise? Where did you stray from it, and what did you forget? I always start there.
When you need to cut pages, go back to the premise and ask yourself what scenes aren’t making a compelling argument on one side or the other. This is extremely helpful when a writer overwrites a first draft and isn’t sure at first what to cut. Cut what has nothing to do with premise.
From first to final draft, premise is the key to clarity, vision, and voice of a film. If it never had a heart, you just discovered why you’re having trouble.
As great writers have noted before me, in the end, when you look back, you will find that premise is the intersection where individual plot meets universal theme. It’s the seed at the center of it all.
The 3 Most Common Premise Mistakes
1) Unsubstantiated Victory
The worst is when someone spends an entire film making a point… so it clearly has a premise… But it doesn’t hold our interest. A badly written script with a strong premise can be incredibly boring. That happens a lot. There’s always one common denominator as to why good and meaningful ideas bore the hell out of us. It happens for the exact same reasons some well-conceived protagonists are boring to watch. They can both suffer from the same problem. The writer loves the character and premise too much. You’d think that’s a good thing, but it can turn around and bite the writer in the ass. Deep down, the writer doesn’t want to hurt them. He or she wants to protect them, keep them safe, put them high up on a shelf behind safety glass, and gaze lovingly at the splendorous beauty and meaning it represents like some stunning relic in a museum. Sadly, to make a great script, everybody has to get their hands filthy, fight hard for it, and spill a little of their own blood along the way.
Therefore, the big irony of proving your point is that you must also fight tooth and nail for the other side of the argument. If it’s not a good fight, we check out and lose interest. Scent of a Woman only works conceptually because as much as the Colonel believes that the value of living has an expiration date, Charlie (his young mentor) never stops fighting for the value of living. Fight extremely hard against your premise so that the point feels proven. Without a hard fought battle featuring great arguments on either side of the premise, the film is just a piece of propaganda with an agenda. Great movies aren’t preaching one idea from atop a soapbox. I believe this is why religion-based businesses take a hit when times are good. People go to houses of worship in the wake of death and when they have something they need to pray for or understand. It’s a fight for light in the darkness. Attention and purpose is spurred on by palpable conflict. Unless times are tough, what are they praying for? This is why the primary Jewish prayer for the meal is said after having eaten. Before, people will say whatever to get what they want. To pray from a place of comfort… That is devotion.
Audiences want a compelling argument. Really uncover the sometimes beautifully intentioned flaws in the counter argument to your premise. You have to give your premise a black eye and bust their ribs with strong body blows. You must show it for all the qualities that allow that belief system to thrive in the world in order to make the point of your premise clear so you can dismantle the argument, scene by scene. A premise’s triumph must always be earned through adversity.
Like I mentioned, in Leaving Las Vegas, it proves the old adage, “Life go on,” wrong. The writer threw every wonderful argument in the character’s way he could. Ben was given enough money, the love of a beautiful woman, more booze than anyone could need, no need to work for a living, a city that’s full of entertainment of every kind… Yet none of it cures his woes from the loss he endured. The movie disproved a common misconception with a character’s personal truth. It shows that there are some things a person does not get over, which is why suicide exists. It debunked what many people consider to be a universal truth, and showed it for the common misconception that it can be under certain circumstances. That is the key to proving or disproving anything, finding the right, personal situations in which to display your opinion. They need to be specific and truthful for audiences to go along with your argument.
Now, this is all a rigged game because a smart writer knows what the wrong side of the argument is from the start. The misconceptions will always lose at the end of the film because we writers plan it that way, but that cannot allow the writer, who knows the ending, to get lazy. He or she cannot short shrift the argument. A writer must create a counter argument for the misconception so that it can defend itself, forging a strong opponent to the premise. Otherwise, your premise is trying to claim an unearned victory. This is a lot harder than it sounds because the writer knows all along the misconception is wrong. Meanwhile, it should appear to be the far stronger argument from the start.
A protagonist never becomes the hero without a good fight. The same can be said for the writer. A writer doesn’t shine unless he or she puts up a huge brawl to prove the premise. For the protagonist to be the underdog at the beginning of the story, he or she takes on someone who holds all the cards. The writer’s argument also needs to feel like it’s an Atlas-worthy, uphill battle with the entire world on his or her shoulders. Now, that’s a battle worth watching. That can only happen if the misconception the writer is struggling to disprove puts up a damn good, down and dirty match. The misconception is the weapon of the antagonist. The central character, champion of the writer’s premise, dismantles that belief system by poking holes in it with relentless attacks and proactive, bold choices.
Misconceptions can often be the things that people say to console themselves. They are comfort food in a reality that is often unpalatable. Normal people don’t necessarily want to challenge comforting misconceptions. They lure people into a sense of security and exploit the general welfare of society. Now, if you can make the unpalatable truth so entertaining that the audience will enjoy it, that’s gold.
2) Outside Influence
When other people than the writer mess with premise is usually when we wind up with a film that reads and looks like it was overdeveloped (losing the vision and intent). When they change the ending and it messes with the premise is where movies get lost and become unsatisfying. They do this frequently by asking for the writer to change the ending of the film to something that doesn’t fit the anything the script/story was designed to say. A perfect example of this is The Scarlet Letter. The stories of this happening are long and painful to hear. The story Kevin Smith tells of the producer who wanted desperately to put a giant, mechanical spider into a movie comes to mind, and he finally got his way in Wild, Wild West.
Sometimes the other people involved with making the film will want to change things that lose the film’s integrity and shatter its foundation. At that point, if you cannot save them from themselves or get behind what their changes would mean, you have to walk away. Let them explore their idea with a writer who can get behind it. You have to accept that if you cannot get behind the new core belief system their ending is reinforcing (which may cause re-evaluating the entire film that led up to that moment in order to make it right), you may no longer be the correct writer for the job. It’s their material now. Kiss it gently good-bye and know that so often those people wind up rehiring the original writer later on to bring the project home after all the things they needed to try and do. Let them. The writer plays out all the scenarios in his or her head and sees the endgame. Sometimes the people paying writers need to wander down those paths without you and get lost in the woods. You’re always there for them and your script if they need you and want to find their way back to the highway.
3) Inconsistent Vision of the Story
This happens a lot when a story is adapted from one medium to another. Have you ever seen an adaptation of a pre-existing intellectual property (most frequently novels, comic books, or stage plays/musicals) that seemed to get ruined in the adaptation of it? Too many, right? Many of those films went awry because the writer did one of three things:
- The writer was unable to reverse engineer a meaning into the story that perhaps was different from the source material,
- The writer tried to put their own heart into a piece of material that was not suited for the original material, or
- Honestly, some writers tell a story grounded in the series of beats (a string of pearls connecting a series of cinematic events, attempting to form a single story) never really taking that important step backward to figure out the heart of the original idea. They so often forget that without a premise, there is no spine of events to follow; those beats are just a list of moments building to something without meaning.
That’s why I never take an adaptation writing job unless I can tell (or find out) what the material was trying to say and go along with its premise, trying to prove it with the tools best suited for my medium of expression. The writer’s heart has to get in sync with the story or forget it… The work is a lost cause from inception. Examples that fall under these categories include: Land of the Lost, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Golden Compass, Daredevil, Dune, The Fantastic Four, Inspector Gadget, The Great Gatsby, Ender’s Game, and Bonfire of the Vanities.
Please note that two of three most common mistakes I listed have nobody to blame but the writer.
Lastly, never pitch anyone your premise
Don’t even talk about it. Like I mentioned, you don’t say it in the dialogue of your script either. Great writing should make it understood and self-evident. A reader may not be able to find the words, but they feel it. The premise is yours and yours alone. If your share it, someone will try to change it. The only time I ever talk about premise is only if the development team wants a script change that fundamentally goes against everything the script is about for me. Remember, the premise is the writer’s soul and fire on the screen; it’s the reason for telling the story. In short, I’ll tell others only if they really need to know, but there’s no reason to make it an issue except in such a circumstance. When the company running the project is bent on a change of premise, that is the only time I ever walked away from work on something I was writing.
Premise is the one proverbial line in the sand on which you do not compromise unless the team has a better premise that gets you just as fired up as the one you had. This is why we never talk about fight club… I mean premise. It’s such a sensitive breaking point, why would you point a giant, neon arrow at it by making it a topic of conversation? If it ain’t broke, don’t give them a reason to try and fix it. It’s always better to never make it an issue. Keep it to yourself until the script has been shot, edited, released, you are on a panel at Comic-Con International, and some fan wants to know what inspired you. That is something special and personal that you can share with fans.
Producers and studios may like a story idea, but premise is what connects them to it, whether they know that or not. A studio will buy a fantastic idea, but the writer only gets a crack at not being replaced instantly if under that surface idea there is a soul behind the gimmick that is felt in its reading. Otherwise, the original writer will likely be quickly replaced by another writer, who is selected because of either professional clout or the creative soul of that writer (which is revealed through a strong premise) deeply connected with the hiring party as a reader. Preferably both.
The protagonist’s journey and arc revolves around the premise, and all other characters revolve around the protagonist. Clearly, premise is kind of a big deal. It is the foundation of everything. If everything has an origin, the origin of story is premise. It’s why we tell stories at all.
Once a writer figures out what to say, it’s time to decide how best to say it. This will bring the heart of our film (premise) and run it through the prism of genre. Alas, that is another article.
WGA writer, Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb and Pinterest.