Wednesday, 1 April 2009


So now we know what a set-up involves - a character, a desire and an obstacle or two.

The chances are that, once you've got your set-up, you'll be imagining all sorts of exciting things which can happen in your script. Which is terrific - you need all that excitement and creative energy - but keep all those ideas to one side for now.

Don't get distracted by your bright ideas. The process of screenwriting is one of expansion and contraction - some of the time, you'll need to be expansive in your thinking, open and receptive to ideas; but some of the time, you'll need to focus, to be clear and precise, and not let all those ideas get in the way.

Now is a time to focus. You've got your basic idea (set-up) and it's worth converting that into a short and pithy statement, something a little like a brief blurb on the back of a book.

The aim is to summarise your great idea, so that it can be easily and readily conveyed to a reader or listener. Also, the summary (or 'premise') will be something that you can memorise and hold onto when the going gets rough. One of the toughest things a screenwriter has to do is to remember at all times what you set out to do in the first place. Creating a succinct and enticing premise will be one way of remembering what got you going - what your original idea actually was.

An alternative name for a premise is the 'pitch'. They both serve the same purpose - to convey your idea in a concise and engaging way.

A successful premise or pitch will give the reader or listener a good sense of what your story might be, where it might go, and whether they want to know more. So it's a sales pitch, basically. You're selling your idea: your character (or characters), your situation, your set-up.

Three simple sentences should be your absolute maximum. Arguably, two simple sentences are better. Two or three sentences should suffice to express your idea. If you can't get your idea across in three simple sentences - max - then you need a new idea.

(This isn't quite 'high concept', that ghastly creation of the 1980s which gave us such awful pitches as 'Nurses in wet T-shirts', 'Whoopi Goldberg plays a nun' or 'Tom Cruise in a jet fighter'. When executives get lazy, and creatives pander to their laziness, you end up with dross like that. But no executive is so lazy that they can't get through a pitch expressed in two simple sentences. Writers can learn to organise their thoughts, and to express their idea succinctly, without stooping to the brainlessness of the 'high concept'.)

Now, there is a kind of workshop situation which can be extremely useful when you're working on your premise. A group of writers hear or read your premise, take it in, and then comment on it. Does it work? Does it leave them confused? Does it leave them wanting more? Does it actually say what you think it says?

Most importantly, how might it be improved?

This is really the start of your development process, and it's worth getting your premise to the point where it really does its job - it gets peoples' interest, it establishes the basics of the story, and it suggests a darn good script in the offing.

So - if anyone has a premise they want comments on, I would suggest that they leave it as a comment on this post, or email it to me, and we'll invite feedback. The feedback has to be constructive, of course. But as the best way to polish up your premise is to find out how other people receive it, what they make of it, and whether they think it's working or not, I think we should use this site for comments and feedback on premises.

There's your challenge. Express your script idea in two or three fairly straightforward sentences. Post it as a comment (or email it to me) and we'll 'workshop' it.

How neatly can you summarise your idea?

And can you avoid the dreaded dot-dot-dots ... ?

Over to you.


markust said...

Great - bave emailed you

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

but... BUT... nurses in wet T-shirts is a great idea! Michael Bay would think so!!!