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In every story, the premise can be found by analyzing the story. In the Star Wars trilogy, the evil empire is taking over the universe. A young man who is full of goodness, perseverance, and integrity is forced to fight the empire. He wins. “Good triumphs over evil” is clearly the premise. Every film or television program with that clear–cut premise, “Good triumphs over evil,” tells a different story by proving that premise in a different way. However, it is the process of proving the premise that satisfies the expectations of the audience.

Every parable Jesus told through the Bible has a premise. Plays, books, short stories, and even TV commercials all contain a premise. As an exercise, you may want to try to discover the premises in some of the parables. Pay close attention to the next commercial or movie preview you watch, try to find and state the premise.

Many well–produced films, television programs, and other media communications fail, not because of the quality of the production, but because of a defective premise. Such defects include a double premise, or just an unclear premise. Each of Shakespeare’s plays offer good examples of clear–cut premises, as do the parables of Jesus. Without a clear–cut premise no idea, thought, or conviction is strong enough to carry you through to a logical conclusion (Lajos Egri, Ibid). [1]

The movie 2010 was beautifully produced, but failed because three–fourths of the way through the premise changed, and the second premise was never proved through the medium of the story to the audience’s satisfaction. The first part of 2010 told the story of how “cooperation triumphs over adversity.” Then, after proving the first premise, a second premise, “supernatural being(s) bring peace,” was introduced which took the movie in another direction.

A badly worded or false premise will force you to fill space with pointless and irrelevant material. A communication with more than one premise is confused because it is trying to go in more than one direction at once. Note, however, that an anthology, variety, or series of separate and distinct communications will have separate premises for each communication, but no one distinct communication should have more than one premise. A premise that says too much is ambiguous and says nothing. A premise that does not take a position is ambivalent and says nothing. Don’t write what you don’t believe!

In storytelling genre, if there is no clear–cut premise your characters will not live, because without a clearly defined premise, it is impossible to know your characters. No single premise expresses the totality of universal truth. Every premise is limiting. For example, poverty does not always lead to crime, but if you have chosen the premise that poverty leads to crime, then it does in your case, and you must prove it.
The elements of a premise are a subject, an active, transitive verb, and an object. The verb must be active—present tense—not future or past tense, to give direction to your communication. If the verb is past tense, the goal of your communication has been achieved historically, and there is nothing to prove. If your verb is future tense, then your premise is purely speculative. The verb must be transitive to motivate your communication. An intransitive verb states a fact and portrays a static picture, giving you no basis for proving your premise and reaching a conclusion. To say “Jesus is love” is a static portrait of a fact. To say “Jesus loves you” sets up a dynamic situation where starting with Jesus, there must be a demonstration of his love for whoever “you” is, and the questions: How? Why? Where? When? and What? become relevant and necessary to answer.

Here are some sample premises:

Hope triumphs over despair.

Greed consumes itself.

Great love conquers death.

Ruthless ambition destroys itself.

Jealousy destroys love.

Love conquers jealousy.

Poverty encourages faith.

Faith conquers fear.

Honesty defeats duplicity.

Pride leads to a fall.

Good triumphs over evil.

 

If you pay close attention, you can find premises everywhere. Look at an interesting situation and ask what motivates that situation. The best premises and characters come out of genuine experience. Look at a strong, even militant character and examine their motivations. Look at an idea and ask what that idea means translated into action. Your premise expresses the motivation, action and reaction, through a subject, active verb and object, which in turn, drive your story to its conclusion.

If you are starting with a novel, before you write the script, write your premise. In this regard, the great director Alfred Hitchcock said that the worst books make the best movies. The corollary that good books often make bad movies can be seen with movies such as Bonfire of the Vanities, The Name of the Rose, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Often, a good book is too complex with too many goals and too many characters. So, the first step must be to choose the storyline you want to follow in the book and express that storyline as a premise.

To be continued…

Please read HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL) for a complete guide to filmmaking.

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About Ted Baehr

Ted Baehr is the Chairman of The Christian Film & Television Commission™ and Publisher of MOVIEGUIDE(r) (www.movieguide.org), a family guide to entertainment. An award-winning media authority, he is used by God to redeem the mass media and teach families to be media-wise. His books include How To Succeed In Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul) and The Culture-Wise Family, among many others.

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