A premise is the motivating force behind your story. The moral or message of the story, the point you are trying to make.
Other words used are thesis, theme, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, dramatic centre, driving force, subject, purpose, plan, basic emotion, point.
Premise, as defined in Webster’s dictionary, contains all the words those other words try to express and it is less subject to misinterpretation. The best word that encompasses all those ideas, they are all interrogating the moral.
Why is premise so important? It unifies, it gives a script thematic, intellectual and emotional unity.
The Premise of Pulp Fiction (very complex narrative), has one single premise “Only living honourably leads to true happiness because living dishonourably leads to dishonouring yourself.”
Theme is a word that often gets used in the place of premise. Premise turns the theme into something active, conflict driven and structured.
The theme of Star Wars: is the battle between good and evil.
The Premise of Star Wars: Intuition will triumph over the rational because only intuition can think outside the box.
The theme of the Matrix: Battle between good and evil
The premise of the Matrix: Man defeats machine because the human spirit is indefinable and unquantifiable.
Although they have the same theme, they have very different premise.
The theme of the Wizard of Oz: childish innocence and coming of age
The premise of the Wizard of Oz: you have to accept yourself because wherever you go, however far you run from yourself, there you still are.
The theme of Fight Club: the alienation of the individual in a modern, self-obsessed urban environment.
The premise of Fight Club: you have to accept yourself because wherever you go, however far you run from yourself, there you still are.
Although the themes are different, the premise is the same.
Good screenwriting is always a matter of life and death.
Figuratively or literally, destruction in some form always be hanging over your protagonist and the success of his or her ‘quest’.
That’s why it’s important that your premise be an active statement not a flat one.
Contains a pair of opposing values or ideals.
Ant that one value/notion/ideal ultimately ascends the other for an in-built reason.
A premise contains the notion of destruction/loss/failure.
Because a premise contains two opposing values, it will often also contain the implication that choosing the wrong course of action, choosing to follow one of those values through to its conclusion will lead to destruction.
This gets back to the notion that premise is essentially an argument: on the one hand this and on the other hand that.
Examples of opposing values premise:
Fakery leads to exposure and defeat because you can’t hide the truth from yourself. (Muriel’s wedding; There’s something about Mary)
A True and great love will stand up even against death. (Romeo and Juliet; Ghost)
Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction. (Macbeth; a Few Good Men)
Opposing values lead to destruction:
A Premise contains the idea of destruction because it speaks to two opposing ‘qualities’ locked in a unity that only the destruction of one can break.
These two opposing qualities gives us our ‘unity of opposites’.
The Film Ghost tests these opposing qualities: love vs death, and it ‘proves’ that love can indeed triumph over death!
Premise and the unity of opposites: an important concept in screen writing, both at macro and micro level (right down to the scene level).
The unity of opposites sets two forces/qualities/ideals characters against each other in conflict.
The forces in conflict must be united in a relationship that cannot be broken or escaped without the destruction of both sides of the opposition (and from this destruction new hope is born).
Such as CatDog: Dog is stupid, foolish, naïve, gullible, sweet dog, whilst Cat is intelligent, witty, ambitious, all the things that Dog is not, and they are linked together inescapably.
Also seen in Fight Club.
The premise is the inner core of this unity or pairing of opposites.
Premise, unity of opposites and character.
Premise refers to an inner struggle, played out in the head and heart of your protagonist.
It informs a choice the between two opposites between two opposites he/she has to make.
Premise is “true beauty is everywhere around us but we don’t see it because we don’t look/try hard enough.”
Lester Burnam and (indeed all the characters) is desperately searching for meaning, beauty, hope, validation, to feel ‘alive’. He chooses to quit his safe bourgeois job and look for beauty and ‘aliveness’ in a recreation of his idealised adolescence-red sports cars, big muscles, blonde 16 year olds, flipping burgers. Ultimately however he chooses to reject all this when he sees the true beauty all around him that has eluded him.
Premise Man defeats machine because the human spirit is indefinable, unquantifiable and universal.
Neo ultimately has to choose between trusting the deep truth of his inherent, intangible humanity, or relying on the false ‘truth’ of his eyes and reliance on the tangible. He has to choose between the red pill and the blue pill. Between running or fighting. Between believing his eyes or believing his heart. Between the apparent blinding reality of the matrix and the more subtle, elusive, authenticity of his self.
Premise: Fakery leads to exposure and defeat because you can’t hide the truth from yourself.
Muriel ultimately has to choose between her ‘successful’ but fake marriage and being an unmarried ‘failure’ but honest and real. She really has to choose between her fake and real self.
Premise: Only honour leads to true happiness because living dishonourably leads to dishonouring yourself.
Bruce Willis has to choose between fleeing the S&M den and certainly saving himself (but living with the dishonour), and remaining there to free Marsales thus doing the honourable thing but jeopardising his safety. He also has too choose between abandoning his father’s watch and being safe, and the dishonour that would bring him and his father’s memory.
The premises are tested throughout the film: i.e. is it true that dishonour leads to misery/that only honour brings happiness.
Premise and character:
Premise is reflected in the characters themselves and their various oppositional characters.
Good, human, flawed, uncertain Neo, versus evil, mechanistic, robotic, unwavering Agent Smith.
Oppositions can happen to characters on the same side: Simple “new born” Neo versus sophisticated experienced Morpheus. These characters are both on the same side.
Intuitive, loyal, committed Trinity versus rational, treacherous, selfish Cypher.
Supremely human Morpheus versus computerised government apparatchik Agents.
Wizard of Oz:
Dorothy, attempting to flee herself and her problems versus the Wicked Witch of the West/Miss Gulch (ever present).
Deceitful, cowardly free to live a lie versus brave, honest Brenda trapped in a horrible truth (her cancer).
More than one reading; only one premise
But it should only have a single premise.
THIS IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT FOR SHORT FILM
WHICH IS WHAT WE ARE MAKING. IF YOU TRY TO MAKE TOO MANY POINTS YOU WILL MAKE NONE. HUGE FEATURE FILMS HAVE ONLY ONE PREMISE. HOW MUCH MORE SO FOR A 7 MINUTE FILM.
One premise is more than enough per script, a strong premise contains multitudes.
A strong premise can lead to a myriad of different plots.
A strong premise can be interpreted (by different writers, by different viewers) in a multitude of ways.
You have to know what you are trying to say.
Premise-coming up with your own
A well-articulated premise will assist you to find connections and directions.
Having a premise behind your script means you are actually writing about something.
· That matters
· That has stakes
· That has depth
· That has conflict.
Having these things means that your work has a point, you are trying to make a point, if you are not trying to make a point, then your work tends to be pointless. If you have nothing to say, then you’re not saying anything. If your script has no point, if there is no message in it. Then it’s just a bunch stuff that happens and it will lack that depth that it really requires.
Writing from the premise up… a warning
Creating a script entirely from the premise up can lead to three pitfalls.
It’s much more important to have a good strong plot, and then figure out what you have said in that. Rather than start off with an ideological/emotional point it will probably be polemic and you will have an illustrated lecture. To make your point, prove your premise via character in action.
A Premise should not be weak, woolly, or passive:
“Being a bit worried can maybe lead to a not very pleasant lifestyle.”
A premise is not just a statement:
“Drinking arsenic will kill you.”
We know that-so there’s no drama or conflict. This is a given; a premise should have two sides to it, otherwise there is no drama.
A premise is a simple-to-express idea that has great potential for depth.
A premise must have:
· Two sides to it
· Two choices in it
· Contain the notion of movement.
A premise should ideally be a single sentence
The BIG FIVE
The Big Five are the five most useful questions you can ask of your script or any script.
The Big Five interrogate the very heart of the matter of your story.
Once you understand them, you can use them to break down, interpret and discover structure and character and dramatic states and anything you want.
They interrogate the very heart of the matter of your story.
Whose story is it?
What’s the story about?
What’s the main dramatic question?
What’s the prize and what price is paid?
Why should we care?
The BIG FIVE Focus and express the guts of your story:
Number 1: Whose story is it?
Focuses on character.
Asks you to identify your main character.
Number 2: what’s the story about?
Focuses on character active in plot & logical satisfaction.
That asks you to focus on that character being active in plot. With logical satisfaction giving us the ending of the plot.
Number 3: What’s the main dramatic question?
Focuses on tension & momentum & structure.
What are we waiting to see in the end? What’s the drama? Where’s the tension coming from. This pays into structure.
Number 4: What’s the prize & what price is paid?
Focuses on dramatic weight, transformational arc & structure.
Number 5: why should we care?
Focuses on empathy & emotional engagement.
Why would anyone want to invest in this and pay money to go and see this?
The Power of Five:
When the Big Five “work”, the script is “working”.
With a well expressed and responsive Big Five, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When the big five work, and you’ve answered them so they do express what the story is about, and so they all fit together. That means your story is unified and all these disparate elements; character, plot, structure, theme, premise, dramatic weight…what seem to be disparate elements are all pulled together, when the big five work, when you’ve really nailed it and expressed it clearly
The Big Five are part of a teaching strategy devised by Professor Digby Wolfe during his time as a director of the Dramatic Writing Program at the University of New Mexico. They also appear as part of his "Big Six Questions" in his book Walking on Fire: the Shaping Force of Emotion in Dramatic Writing published by Southern Illinois University Press
Whose Story is it?
This is about the protagonist.
Responding to this means you have to:
It requires that you identify whom it is that does the story.
Who is the main character? Who is driving the action? Who are we caring most about? Who is it that is making the story happening?
Your response can be as short as that character’s name.
(Lecturer gives a character called Diane Sawyer)
Heilwig von Brandenburg, novice at the Temple of Snotra
What is the story about?
This is about plot.
It is NOT about theme.
I don’t want to be told that your story is about the battle between good and evil. So is Star Wars, So is the Matrix, so are many other films.
This is where you tell me about the plot, about the sequence of events that take place in your story. Not vague thematic notions like the battle between good and evil. But concrete stuff about the incidents that, the incidents, that happen with your character.
It requires that you articulate the basics of the plot, including the catalyst, crisis and climax.
It must include your protagonist, with a problem, taking action to achieve an outcome.
E.g. Diane, a neglected child must battle with her bullying siblings to get attention from their mother. Or something like that, more than that, but you actually telling us what happens. It’s not just vague.
Your response should be only four or five sentences. (this is not the synopsis)
3) What is the main dramatic (central) question?
This is about drama and tension.
The main dramatic question, basically is the question where waiting to see what happens in the end. When you ask the question “what happens in the end?” that’s you’re wanting the main dramatic question answered. It’s the big question that arises out of the plot. You know “will Luke blow up the death star and save the rebellion?” Yes he will goodness me. “Will Neo learn the nature of the matrix and defeat Agent Smith?” Yes he will. Will Eddie stay with Pearl? Yes he will. There’s lots of others. With Medusa that you’re watching this week; will Medusa find true love? Yes she will, but not necessarily in the way they expect. What this means in with the main dramatic question and why it’s so important. It requires that. If you’ve got a main dramatic question it means that there actually is something we’re waiting to see in the end. It means that there is…
It requires that there actually be a dilemma/problem/question established in the catalyst and answered by the climax.
We’ve talked about Catalyst and Climax, this is not separate stuff from the big five. They are embodied in the big five.
Your response should be brief and MUST be phrased as a question.
4. What is the prize and what price is paid?
This is without doubt the hardest one. It is the trickiest one because it’s the one where the characters internal journey and external journey dovetail most precisely.
This is about having high stakes & dramatic weight.
The protagonist must be seeking some sort of “prize”, and in order to gain that prize, he/she MUST pay a price (or else it has been too easy). Whatever story you’re telling, they’ve got to have some sort of goal, something that that they’re struggling towards. And in order to gain that prize/achieve that goal, he or she must pay a price. They have to sacrifice something. They have to struggle at some level. There has to be a price Or else it’s been too easy. They say they want true love; and oh there it is. They say they want to save the world; oh done it. There has to be a struggle; if you don’t have a price paid it means basically you don’t have second act because there’s been no struggle, there’s been no sense of tension and of struggling towards this being a valid goal. You’ve got to have a price. It’s not either or: you don’t have prize or a price. You only get the prize because you paid the price.
Number 4 is not about the risk of failure; you can’t say they ‘oh they get the prize but they ran the risk that they might not get the prize.’ ‘well yes of course they did’, but that’s not tension they have to actually struggle, you have to have to have seen the struggle for this to be achieve; it’s about the price of success.
This is a tricky one: your response to this may be several sentences; sometimes protagonists think they’re after one prize, only to end up with something else.
Corny example: boy meets pretty girl but fails to notice mousy girl next door. All through the film pursues pretty girl, but ultimately realises that what he wants is little mousy girl next door because she’s nice. It can be quite subtle and the goal can change as the protagonist works through the material of the story.
5. Why should we care?
This is about empathy, about emotional engagement.
It requires that you articulate where an audience will find their emotional engagement with your script and its characters.
If an audience doesn’t care about your characters and their dilemmas, then you have failed to engage them emotionally.
Your response to this should be a few sentences.
What this means is not that every character that you write or every character in a film or a script should be likable. It’s not that we have to like them, but we have to have some place of engagement, something that an audience member can engage with. Think about the lecture last week about the universal and the unique. Why is somebody going to watch this? Lots of new writers…many new writers want to write about unpleasant people; people who are lazy, repellent, or sexist or whatever. That’s fine, but there has to be some place in that for the audience to engage with them. Most people don’t want to hang out with unpleasant people all the time. It’s fine and interesting to create characters who are not immediately engaging because they are funny, kind, or all those things we tend to approve of…. Fine go ahead, create characters however you want, but you have to remember that you are asking someone to spend time with them. Now if they are entirely repellent why should we care? Why should we care about these people? And we have to care at some level, or else we won’t… fundamentally we won’t turn the page. Everything is about getting somebody to turn the page of your script and getting them to keep reading, then you’re getting somebody to put money in it, and then get actors involved, and then you’ve got to get audiences to come into the cinema and people to watch it on TV. It’s a big ask so we have to care at some level.
A good example of a film where ‘why should we care’ has a complex answer is “As Good as it Gets.” Starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.
Marvin is absolutely repellent but we understand him. It is written in such a way that we understand Marvin’s struggles, and we engage with him because we also see that he is struggling with it. So you can have repellent characters but you have think about why an audience is going to spend time with them.
I would also point out that As Good as it Gets also has some very charming characters who help keep us engaged but ultimately we are engaged with Marvin as well.
In your own work your response to why we should be… maybe a few sentences, and it shouldn’t be we care because they’re nice. Why are they nice? What do we see about them that makes them nice? Actually think about it. This is intellectual stuff…
Whose story is it?
2. What is the story about?
After Ruth’s funeral, Will is haunted by Tulip’s moos. He cannot milk her as only Ruth milked her. He think
3. What is the main dramatic (central) question?
Can Will milk Tulip? (Outer Journey)
Can Will recover from Ruth’s death? (Inner Journey)
4. What is the prize and what price is paid?
Being able to milk Tulip is the prize. This symbolises his reconciliation to his wife’s death.
A small price is that Will scandalises his neighbours by dressing in his wife’s house coat and apron.
5. Why should we care?
Universal themes of grief and loss.
Will & Ruth are happily married. Ruth milks the cow for Will’s coffee.
Ruth dies. At the funeral, her friends help and say that he is not coping.
Call to Adventure: Tulip moos, young man says the cow (Tulip) will suffer if she is not milked.
Refusal of the call. Will at first ignores Tulips moos because it is night.
Tulip continues on mooing.
Will chases Tulip around at night.
The hero of your journey
Audiences connect emotionally with the story through the character, rather than plot.
Audiences need the characters to experience emotional catharsis by engaging with characters (emotional proxies) dealing with problems.
To attain a sense of logical completion.
The big issues in creating meaningful and active characters.
Having a meaningful goal
That goal bringing the character into conflict with other characters.
The writer director David Mamet takes this a step or two further
Who wants what?
Who is trying to stop them?
What happens if they don’t get it?
Motivation is the ‘why’ characters want what they want.
Motivation provides a reason for why the character should choose to leave the safety of their ordinary world.
As writers, motivation is Crucial. If a script lacks motivation, it will lack dramatic intensity and fail to convince.
Motivation pushes the character forward, into the story. It is a mechanism at the beginning of the story that Forces the character to be involved.
Without motivation, good solid motivation, the audiences won’t believe in or feel compelled by the character and their journey and struggle.
Motivation is now.
Motivation should be shown.
Motivation is what comes together when the protagonist undergoes the.
As a character motives
From motivation to goal
From catalyst to climax;
From triggering event to conclusion
From Act 1 to Act 3
A well-rounded character gains something, in the character terms, via their participation in the story:
Luke gains a sense of purpose and the Force
Dorothy gains a sense of where her true home lies. (Wizard of Oz)
Lester gains a sense of family. (American Beauty)
Gavin gains his sense of self-respect. (Splintered)
A transformational arc maps a character’s emotional, personal, character-based reactions to the sequence of events that comprise your plot.
A transformational arc indicates the degree to which the script engages with the characters as dimensional beings, not mere functionaries of the plot.
The transformational arc maps the ‘inner journey’ of a character (the plot line maps the ‘outer journey’)
Without a transformational arc, the character remains static, in character terms. (Think James Bond).
The wizard of Oz highlights the ultimate dovetailing of
The inner journey, with the outer journey;
The transformational arc with the plot.
Character growth with story progression.
The wizard of Oz is a film about:
Self (inner) and adventure (Outer).
About identity and physical danger.
Function the main function is of the protagonist is to do the story-to make it happen.
His/her point of view is usually the dominant POV. We tend to view the story through the protagonist.
The protagonist is usually the character for whom we care the most.
The mentor protagonist:
A mentor is a character who has effectively complete his/her transformational arc.
He/she is essentially full ‘at one with?
Protagonist: Jack is an Underdog.
Failed Mentors: Jack’s mother (single, working mother) and teacher (is given Jack’s stolen apple by Branson)
Mentor: Gordon (very comfortable in his own skin).
Jack is being bullied by Branson who steals his Nutella sandwiches, apples and beetles. Gordon comes up with a plan for Jack’s beetle to beat Branson’s slow stag beetle.
This plan fails when Branson kills Jack’s beetle in the race, this symbolizes Gordon suffering from mentor occupational hazard. Thus Jack must outsmart Branson by giving him dung beetle food sandwich.