A great story goes somewhere.
It tells us something.
That something is a premise.
A poor story wanders about, gets lost and bores an audience.
In a baseball game, the team with the most runs wins. You watch the game to see if the team that you like can get the most runs and win the game. Imagine how boring baseball would be if there was nothing to win: if “games” were like practice sessions where players just hit and fielded balls without a clear purpose. No one would want to pay to watch.
A premise says, “To win, I must show you that [premise].” It’s the filmmaker’s job to prove the premise with every ounce of skill they can muster.
The baseball team intent on winning a game does so with great pitching, fielding, hitting, running, and strategy. It’s obvious from the first pitch to the last what the goal of every action is. It’s to win.
A great movie aims to prove its premise with script, acting, lighting, sound, music, and editing. Hundreds of experts in their craft work to prove the premise, just as baseball players strive to win a game.
Think of it a little like Jesus Christ telling a parable. His parables were often stories, well told. They had characters doing things for a reason. Jesus didn’t tell the story of the prodigal son just to entertain his listeners. He was proving a premise about God’s love for those who’ve done wrong. His parable about the Good Samaritan proved that Godly love is not just meant for family and friends. Every character in the story, and every action they took, was important in proving the premise.
A premise has three distinct parts. A “this,” a “does” and a “that.”
The premise of the prodigal son story would be, “God forgives sin.” There is a subject “God”; an action “forgives”; and, an object “sin.”
On his way home, the prodigal son does not pass a Samaritan in a ditch. Such an event would be a distraction from the premise of the prodigal son story. On the other hand, the jealous brother is a powerful subplot. The jealous brother serves as a contrast to God’s love. The brother reveals human nature. His role in the story makes God’s grace look that much more amazing.
Subplots, like all aspects of filmmaking, should serve the premise.
A great movie delivers on the premise with show, rather then tell. Audiences don’t come to hear sermons delivered in dialogue.
Imagine a movie of the prodigal son story. The lighting, the music and a close-up on the father’s face, when he first sees his wayward son approaching, should say in music and image all you need to know about love and forgiveness. Body language and action should be like an inspiring work of art as he runs to meet his son. An audience should be in tears before the two speak a word to each other. What they are about to say should already have been said with facial expressions.
David Lean was a master of creating emotion without dialogue. In movies such as THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, he cut gracefully between sweeping scenery, and close-ups, telling far more than dialogue ever could.
Every aspect of a movie works to prove the premise. In a movie, you can “prove” a premise that’s not true. The entire American sexual revolution was built on media “proving” sex outside of marriage is healthy and desirable. It’s been a disaster.
Fortunately, we’ve been seeing more and more movies with premises supportive of faith and values. We long to see this growth continue.
Without a premise it’s unwise to start a script. It’s like wandering around in the dark. With a premise you have a reason for each character, each scene and each line of dialogue.
Ideas for scripts don’t always emerge the form of premise. You may get an idea for some situation and characters that you find to be entertaining or inspiring. Before you go off building a story around a clever idea, pause and ponder the premise such an inspiration demands.
You’ll find that beginning with a solid premise will save you from dealing will all sorts of headaches as your script develops.
It’s healthy to ask yourself on a regular basis, “How does what I’m writing help prove the premise?”
If it doesn’t help, or if it actually hurts, drop it.
To be continued…