Every great screen story can be whittled down to its core premise, and it’s often by beginning with a solid premise that screenwriters are able to keep their story focused and on track throughout the process of developing it.
For example, George Lucas might have begun writing Star Wars with the following premise in mind.
A young farm boy joins an aging warrior in a fight to rescue a princess and defeat an evil Galactic Empire.
This is, at its most basic, what the story of Star Wars is about. Of course, we know Lucas actually began the story of Star Wars with some ideas that were quite different than the story we originally ended up with as the story went through revision after revision.
Still, there’s a lot to be gained from knowing your story before you begin committing it to pages of script.
Let’s say that I were planning to write a screenplay based on the following premise.
An up-and-coming virtual reality designer must use his skills and position to stop a top secret government weapons project from killing billions of people.
It’s a simple idea, but there’s so much potential in it as well. With this simple one-sentence premise, I can flesh out a complete screen story and knowing the core elements of the story idea will keep the story on track as I develop it.
When you’re developing a story premise, there are four key elements you need to include.
Who is your story about? Who is the hero viewers will follow from the beginning of the story to the end? What makes this character unique?
People watch movies for the characters. The plot doesn’t matter if the protagonist isn’t relatable.
Notice in the premise I developed earlier that I specified that the protagonist is “a young up-and-coming virtual reality designer.” It’s specific without naming the character. I know that when I begin writing this story, the protagonist’s identity as a virtual reality designer is vital to the story and crucial to the character’s identity.
The same could be said of other movie protagonists. Harry Potter isn’t just about a boy; it’s about a young boy wizard with a mark on his forehead. The Hunger Games isn’t just about a girl; it’s about a protective and resourceful young teenager.
The premise is your opportunity to consider who your character is and what makes him or her unique.
After you figure out who your protagonist is and what makes her unique, you need to give your character a significant goal. It must be a goal that the character can pursue for the length of an entire story.
In my premise, the protagonist has the goal of stopping a government weapons project from killing a lot of people.
Luke Skywalker has the goal of rescuing a princess and stopping the Galactic Empire.
Katniss Everdeen wants to survive The Hunger Games so that she can be there for her family.
Though it may not be present in the premise itself, the driving motivation for the protagonist’s goal is just as important as the goal itself. It should flow organically from who the character is. Luke Skywalker is a farm boy who is desperate for adventure, so when the opportunity to go on an adventure to rescue Princess Leia appears, it’s as if it’s all he’s ever wanted.
It’s not enough for the protagonist to have a goal; he has to do something about it. That’s what forms the plot of the story.
In the case of my premise, the up-and-coming virtual reality designer uses his skills and position to try to stop the government weapons project. Though I don’t know the specific details, I know he’s going to do something with his skills as a VR designer to try to reach his goal.
In Star Wars, Luke joins an aging warrior in a fight to rescue a princess and stop the evil Galactic Empire. Joining Obi Wan Kenobi on the adventure is the action he takes to reach his goal, and he’ll learn much from the aging warrior along the way.
Conflict is vital to any good story, and it should be present in your story premise. It should be closely tied to your protagonist’s goal because the goal is often formed in the face of a significant story problem.
In my premise, the VR designer is faced with the problem of billions of people dying if he doesn’t do something to stop it. This source of conflict will often form into an actual person, such as Darth Vader in Star Wars.
Notice the specific details of the antagonist aren’t necessary to the story premise because you’ll flesh that out in the story. It’s enough to know that there is a conflict or source of opposition that will frustrate your protagonist’s pursuit of his goal.
Developing Your Premise
If you’re like me, developing a solid premise line is often the catalyst I need to begin fleshing out a bigger story. So discover your story’s protagonist, find out his goal and how he’s going to pursue it, and consider the conflict he’ll face along the way. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to begin writing the pages of your next screenplay.