The Screenwriting Process – Step 2. Premise

Categories Screenwriting Craft, The Process
The premise of your screenplay.

Now that you have your idea and you’re all fired up and ready to write, you need to start and do a little real work.

The place this work begins is writing a premise.

What is a premise? For me, it is a one-sentence summary of what your script is all about. In the industry, you might hear this sentence called the concept or the log-line: and producers, studio execs and marketers love it because it means they can understand a film very quickly (here are ten top tips on writing a log-line from the Raindance website).

However, the importance of creating a premise sentence goes way beyond selling it to a producer (or for that matter a producer selling it to a marketing guy who can sell it to an audience).

The importance of creating a premise sentence for us — before any of that fun stuff can happen — is to have a clear and concise idea of what the hell it is we’re doing. It’s a mission statement, a foundation for the script we’re about to write, and something to keep checking our progress against.

Don’t just rattle this off and then move on. You need to take some time over it, consider different options. What’s more, you need to test your premise, like the audience will test your movie: is this interesting enough, will the premise allow me to create enough tension, will it allow me to deliver great characters?

Your premise sentence should have three things:

Who? What? How?

the “who”…

The who should almost certainly be about your protagonist or the group of people at the centre of your story.  Who they are at the beginning of the story should be immediately apparent:

A bank robber who has decided to do one last job before he retires…

A monster who is afraid that he is losing his scare…

A group of kids with a dream of making it big in the music business…

Here are a few tips to make the “who” of your premise a) specific and b) precise:

  • Use job titles: obviously, only if your character’s job is important to the action of your film. I don’t really care what Jim Carrey did in Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. First and foremost he was a man in love.
  • Use adjective(s): but usually only one, and usually if they cut across what you’d usually expect of the person’s profession or social place: a lazy fitness instructor, a corrupt cop. Think irony.
  • Tell us where they are: usually, the character is settled, happy, but somehow stuck in a rut. Mainly because…
  • Or tell us where they want to be: do they dream of doing something different, are they afraid that something is just around the corner?

the “what”…

The “what” of your premise should be something that happens to your character to burst them out of their existing situation. It might be a good thing, that presents them with an opportunity. Or it may be a bad thing that sets them on the run.

The key is that it comes from outside, that it is dramatic, and that it provides your “who” a means of changing “who” they are.

… is tricked into stealing a safety deposit box owned by a Mafia boss…

… receives an invitation to the National Scaring Championships…

… arrive at a school for gifted musical children…

the “how (does your protagonist react)”…

This is a massively important part of your premise because it gives an indication of the content and the direction of the main part of your movie.

In most cases, it should involve the protagonist battling both the “what” that is happening to them as well as their own initial doubts/insecurities/fears or flaws. And, of course, it should provide a means for you to write a good 100 pages or so (or 60, or 30, or whatever).

Does it provide a fertile ground for following a lot of different avenues? Can it throw up a number of different barriers to your protagonist’s goals?

If it is too precise and limiting, it will limit the rest of what you write.

… must go on the run in order to protect his family.

… must battle the world’s best monsters and his own insecurities to win.

… will do anything to come out on top.

As a matter of course, I don’t tend to include the ending in your premise sentence. Why? Because the one guiding sentence of your screenplay should be about the process that your character is going through — that’s where the focus should lie.

Plus…

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I'm James, a screenwriter working in the film and TV industry. To get in touch, see my e-mail contact page.

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