The biggest bonus of having a tight, focused and precise premise is that it informs your answer to one of the most frequently asked questions a screenwriter hears; “Why do you want to tell this story?” And a good answer to this question opens not only the ears of potential screenplay buyers, but doors.
Stories are intrinsically cautionary tales, and as such the ones that focus on a message are well positioned to be thought-provoking, attention-grabbing and entertaining. For this reason then, I believe that the most important quality a screenplay writer requires, is a strong opinion or at the very least, something that they believe in passionately.
Passion however is not enough. Screenwriters also require the ability to argue both sides of an issue. The dictum “There are always two sides to a story” has been around forever, and for good reason, because it points out what is termed a *universal truth. But more importantly for writers, it is the DNA of all forms of conflict, and conflict is the fuel that energises every story.
The Other Two Sides
Aspiring writers often start with only a narrative; experienced writers know that this is not enough. The narrative is only a portion of the screenplay. It’s what happens, or the “outside” story, essentially a series of carefully arranged events. But these chronicles are hollow without the characters that are involved being emotionally invested in the belief system that drives the action. This is the “inside story”, the portion of the screenplay that controls, shapes and drives not only the characters but their journey as they negotiate their way through the narrative.
The premise should be the light that guides the way for a writer as they negotiate every step of the way. It’s an all-encompassing moral-of-the-story kind of concept, and even though there are many different definitions and theories about exactly what it is, and how you formulate it, whatever theorist you subscribe to, it must end up being a short phrase specific enough to give focus and direction to every decision the writer makes as they craft their story.
This brings me back to the ability to argue, the ability to tell the same story from two opposing points of view, and most importantly, the ability of a screenwriter to understand and use a premise when crafting a screenplay. Simply put the two sides of a premise should be personified in the narrative by the protagonist and the antagonist. In fact in a broad sense you could look at a screenplay as two advocates presenting their arguments and the audience is the judge and jury.
If you have a legal mind, a premise can be said to be the resulting declaration, or affirmation, arising from two statements of fact, for example;
- Secrets hide the truth.
- People can’t keep secrets.
Therefore… “The truth will out!”
A premise should always allude to stakes or consequences, and if well-constructed indicates the presence of two beliefs… in this case those who believe people can keep secrets and those who believe they can’t.
The Answer To “That” Question
So once you know what your premise is, you are in a better place to deduce why you believe in, and want to tell this particular story – AND importantly you are now in a position to infuse the narrative, the world and the characters with characteristics that directly serve the premise and in doing so enrich both the story and the audience experience.
* In this context, a truth is considered to be universal if it is logically valid, unconditional and seen to be timeless. Interestingly a universal truth also makes for a good premise.