Tuesday, 14 April 2009


Many thanks to those who sent in their story premises after my last posting. Premises are great - such a simple task (maximum three sentences), and yet such a universe of possibilities! I do believe it's well worth taking the time and trouble to hone your premise until it really works: it says what you mean it to say, and you can hold it in your head like a mantra, ready to pitch it at a split second's notice.

But now that you've been mulling over your story premise for a little while, honing and refining it, it's time to step back a little ways and look at the idea from some new angles.

There are two things which need considering. The first is - what's the genre? The second - what's the format?

Genre first. It's a bit of a dirty word, genre, but it's more important than it looks. It might be worth checking back through the postings on this site to find the one about genre.

Take a good look at your premise and ask yourself, 'What kind of story is this going to be?' Is it a comedy? Fine - so you're sure that this is going to be funny, right?

If it's a character-based story (otherwise known as 'drama'), do you have sufficiently strong and interesting characters, and is the situation going to push them far enough? If it's a horror, is it going to be horrifying enough? A thriller? Better make sure that there are going to be some thrills, and that the premise feels like a good pitch for a thriller.

It is possible (and rather contemporary) to throw several genres together, but all in all it's best to choose your genre and then stick to it. And then immerse yourself in that genre - read books and scripts and watch movies from that genre. Soak up the implicit rules of that particular genre. And make sure that you're staying true to the rules of that genre from now on.

You may find that your premise doesn't point to the sort of genre you have in mind (one writer I remember once tried to pitch a 'comedy' which, as a key plot point, involved a rape; she insisted that it would be a 'funny' rape, whatever that might be; part of the problem was that she wanted to write a comedy, and was trying to force the wrong story into that genre, so make sure that your story suits the genre you've decided on - if it doesn't, change one or the other, the story or the genre).

Next, format. How do you see your story developing - into a full feature-length screenplay? Into a TV mini-series, a single-strand TV drama, a sit-com, a short film, maybe even a short story or a novel ... Again, as with the story's genre, never try to force your story into the wrong pigeon-hole. You might have a great pitch for a short film, but that may not make it suitable for development as a theatrical feature.

Look long and hard at your story, and let your story tell you what if has to be - a full-length romantic comedy for cinematic release or a horror short lasting no longer than ten minutes; a three-part melodrama for television or an airport novel.

Don't try to force your story into the wrong format or genre.

And don't try to push a 'theme' or 'message'. In television drama, a lot of writers like to preface their premises or synopses with some pithy sort of rhetorical question. Actually, there only ever seems to be the one question, which goes something like: 'How far would you go to protect someone you love?' To which the only sensible answer is 'Inverness' or 'Addis Ababa'. Not only is a pert moral question like 'How far would you go to protect yadda yadda' unlikely to be answered in any depth during an episode of 'The Bill', but who's to say that your script will actually pose that question?

Did Shakespeare start work on 'Hamlet' by scribbling down the question: 'Is it right to want to kill your step-father?'

Probably not. Ignore questions about theme or message - they're an absolute waste of time and they lead to shallow thinking. It's up to a person reading your script, or watching the end result, to decide on what the 'theme' or 'message' of the story might be - it's certainly not your problem.

Trust your story to tell itself without imposing themes or messages on it, and let your story decide what genre it belongs to, and what format it's best suited to. There are times when you are the master of your material, and others when the material has to speak for itself. This is one of the latter occasions. Let the story choose its proper format and genre, or be prepared to alter the story if you have to fit a certain genre or format.

Don't try forcing a square peg into a round hole.