There’s a somewhat silly argument swirling around out there about the importance of thinking about what you’re trying to say with your piece as you start developing a new story idea. Silly because it’s obvious that there’s an interrelatedness between theme and structure. That it’s important early on in the development of any story idea to attempt to come up with—as accurately and as simply and clearly as possible—the universal truth you think you ultimately want to communicate. In scriptwriting this is generally referred to as the dramatic premise.
Some folks think that this is the last thing you should do. That thinking about theme or premise will destroy creativity and the excitement of discovery and surprise—that it’s much better to allow yourself to figure out what you’re saying with the piece as you work through the process of writing it. But it’s only logical that to come up with the initial, basic building blocks of your story you have to have some inkling of how you want your story to end. And it’s your resolution that blasts your premise into the hearts and minds of your audience.
In my earlier post “It’s all in the story,” I briefly lay out the basic ingredients found in almost every successful play or screenplay in some configuration: Central Character ® Compelling Need/Desire ® Conflict/Dilemma ® Resolution. One thing leads to the next until the story finally lands at its destination. And it’s that destination that illuminates your premise. Therefore, what you ultimately want to say plays a critical role in how you develop your story’s essential structural underpinnings. One determines the other.
With that settled and if you’re still with me, let’s look at how you might tackle coming up with a preliminary or initial premise for that story idea that won’t go away. First, I suggest you let it stew in your head for a while. Ask yourself why do I want to write this piece? What do I want the audience to leave the theatre feeling and thinking about? Is this something truthful? Do I believe it passionately? Then when you feel ready, write out a simple statement that captures as close as you can—even at this very early stage in developing your story—what you think you want that overriding communication to be.
Write this out in action terms--something leading to something else—so that you can fuse the premise to the forward movement of your story in the making. For example, if you look at four great Shakespeare plays you come up with “Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction” (Macbeth); “Great love defies even death” (Romeo and Juliet); “Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love” (Othello; and “Unfounded suspicion leads to disaster” (King Lear). All of which have also made wonderful films, by the way. Hats off to Lajos Egri and his classic The Art of Dramatic Writing for these examples.
Keep it short and to the point—no clutter or embellishments. And don’t worry that you’re locking yourself in. This can shift and change as the development of your story deepens and more and more layers are peeled off. And don’t be concerned if it seems overly basic and obvious. It should be fundamental and clear. Writing out your premise is just for you, an essential tool, like a plumb line to a carpenter. The audience will never see or hear it directly when your work is done, but the finished product will testify to its good use during construction.
My next post will continue this discussion of premise…