The premise is based on the initial inspiration for the writing. This might have been a seemingly trivial stimulus which first made you think of a character, a situation, a theme, a title, or whatever it was that then became the seed for a screenplay. Equally, it might be a profound question or issue you’ve wanted to write about for as long as you can remember.
Here’s why it’s important to be acutely aware of your premise:
- Whatever the initial trigger was, once you start writing, the premise will become the corner-stone of your screenplay. It becomes the measure against which you can hold every line of dialogue, every dilemma and every twist. A kind of compass to keep you on track while you write.
- The premise is, as screenwriter extraordinaire Terry Rossio puts it in his characteristically witty column, A Foot in The Door, your calling card. There is no way to overstate the importance of a well-written premise as a marketing and pitching tool. The premise is the briefest but most essential advert for your screenplay. A well-crafted film poster or DVD cover can convince undecided or sceptical punters to part with their money on impulse. Similarly, your premise can mean the difference between your script being read or being binned.
- “Classic narrative is … like a river which has a source in an inland spring … the premise is the source of the river.” (Cherry Potter) In other words: Being aware of what your inspiration is, ensures you can return to it whenever you need creative nourishment, throughout the entire process of writing and selling the script.
- Your premise will pique people’s curiosity because it expresses the unique driving force of the story. It contains the main dramatic issue, the central conflict which is reflected in all the conflicts in the story (see John Truby for more on this). Plus it gives a sense of the unique story world, which elevates it above the generic level of its genre.
- As writer Bill Johnson explains, a story is a promise. It creates expectations. The audience unconsciously enters into a deal with you, and you have to deliver. The premise enables you to be aware of what your story promises while you write the screenplay, but also when you pitch and hopefully sell it!
Knowing your premise inside-out means you know what you’re writing and why. You owe this to yourself, to everyone else involved in making the film and to the audience.