Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tricks from the Screenwriting Trade: Understanding and Using the Concept of the Premise, Part One

Like all successful screenplays, successful commercial fiction is based around a powerful premise. So, what’s a premise?

A premise is, essentially, the kind sound bite you read in a TV guide or Pub Lunch’s weekly list of hot deals (all you prospective writers out there are signed up for this free email from Publishers Weekly, aren’t you?). A premise immediately and provocatively answers several important questions: Who is the hero or heroine of this story? What does he want? What is standing in his way? The catchier your premise—the sharper its hook—the more successful your book will be at snagging both editors and readers.

Of course, a book can have a wonderful premise without the writer ever having heard of a premise. It’s one of those things many writers do instinctively. But if your book is floundering, it’s a good idea to take a look at your premise and make sure it’s solid. In fact, Alex Sokoloff thinks a writer should BEGIN with her premise, and work from there. Listening to her, I thought, What a concept!

There is a formula I’ve seen so many different places I can’t say who originally came up with it. It works because it forces the writer to reduce his story to its most basic components: protagonist, goal, motivation, conflict (and no, the originator wasn’t Deb Dixon, because I was using this handy little formula long before her book came out). Any and every piece of successful commercial fiction can be plugged into it. So what’s the formula?

This is a story about a __________________ who wants __________________ because ____________. But can he succeed when ____________________?

The first blank, obviously, is for your protagonist—your hero or heroine. The best way to describe your protagonist is with an adjective-noun combination. Why? Because you want to make sure you’ve developed a profoundly intriguing character. If you say, “This is a story about a girl….” you’ve already got people yawing. But if you say, “This is a story about a psychic orphan…” or “a wounded Iraq vet…” you’ve already intrigued a lot of people who will go, “Oooh, I’d like to read about that kind of person.” (You’ll also turn off a lot of people who’ll go, “Eeew, I don’t want to read about that.” Accept it.)

Since this is supposed to be a post about Premise, I’m not going to go into the whole goal, need/want, conflict thing. We all know our hero needs to want something, right? We know he needs to want it for a powerful reason, and we know there needs to be something or someone (i.e., the villain) standing in his way. When you formulate your premise, you lay it all out there in black and white. If your setting is intriguing, work that in. If the stakes are high, that’s part of your “because” and belongs in there, too. When you’re all done, look at your premise—really look at it—and think, is this as strong as it can be? What would make it bigger? What is the hook, the X-factor that makes this story different?

When my agent ran the premise for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT in the Pub Lunch, she had over a dozen production companies call her in one week—that’s the power of a good premise. That’s what you want: a high concept so intriguing it has both editors and readers instantly wanting to know how it turns out.

Next time I’ll take a look at some examples of premises, and what we can learn from them.

4 comments:

Steve Malley said...

You know, all of my best work has begun with a solid, tangible premise, or found it pretty darn quick.

But still I find myself looking at a WiP and going, 'well, it might be about a guy who sells shoes, or maybe something with a beachball, I'm not sure..."

You'd think I'd learn!

Farrah Rochon said...

Starting with a good premise has become essential to wrapping my head around the story. As someone who once thought of herself as a "seat-of-the-pants" writer, I've discovered that laying a foundation just makes it easier.

So, while I'm still not an "outliner", I have become a loose plotter, and that plot always starts out with a clearly defined premise statement very similar to the one who used.

Looking forward to Part Two.

cs harris said...

Steve, I never learn. Or if I learn, I forget. I did not sit down and formulate DEADLIGHT's premise before I started, and I suspect that is a big source of my problems.

Farrah, I started out as a pantser, too. Then I turned into a loose plotter. I only became a plotting fiend when I moved out of romance. I suspect personal stories work better with only a loose plot.

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