How to Write a Great Premise

Five tips for keeping your screenplay strong and simplePhoto Courtesy of Canva

In the words of Robert Mckee, Hollywood is hungry for story. The same remakes of cinematic masterpiece past are killing the dream for small time writers. Don’t even get me started on Disney’s latest live action, Mulan (yikes!). We sit in our cushy theater seats and whisper, “I could have written a better story.” To some degree, we may be right. But you must realize something. For every idea that gets green lit, produced from script to screen, then fails, there are a million other executions far worse that never made it. Today, we are wrestling with square one of what it takes to write a compelling screenplay; concept. So many completely overlook this, so let’s dissect it together!

1. Start small

I’ve read several scripts on the Hollywood Blacklist that were never produced. I’ve also reviewed screenplays that made it to the screen and became instant classics. The first difference I want to address is concept size. Many of the blacklisted scripts started with concepts that were way too big! Two of the ones I recall were clearly aiming to become the next Matrix, Terminator, or James Bond. Please, whatever you do, at all costs, avoid this.

Script Readers are tired of cliche, and it doesn’t take a large concept to breed originality. Look at Good Will Hunting as an example. This was actually the one I ended up doing a breakdown on in my writing class. The writers most likely started with a character. A down on his luck kid from a rough, Irish neighborhood. Simple, right? Let’s add one more thing. What if that kid was the next Einstein? When broken down, it sounds pretty easy. So let’s talk about how to mold a concept idea like this.

2. Make it relatable

You’ve heard this one before, but it’s true. Most (if not all) classics have some relatable qualities. The overarching theme in Good Will Hunting is that Will doesn’t believe he’s worthy. At the end (spoiler), we find the reason he’s like this is because of an abusive, alcoholic father. These are two very relatable things compounding each other. Oh yeah, don’t forget the Robin Williams character, that will certainly be a tearjerker. My advice to you with this one is to find a feeling, or situation within yourself and ask, “Who feels this way? Who’s been through this before?” Odds are, it might be more than you think. If you are passionate about it, it will show.

3. Make your character uncomfortable

Pixar Storytelling by Dean Movshovitz addresses this as one of the basic requirements for Pixar stories. Take Ratatouille, for example. Whether it be desiring to place the setting in a Paris restaurant or find where to place a rat, creators sought after two things that did not go together. What is the worst place for a rat? The kitchen. What is the worst thing you could find in a five star, award winning kitchen? A rat. It works either way.

With the character of Ratatouille, not only is he rejected from cuisine because of who he is, he’s also ostracized from his rat family. The chef world doesn’t want him because of what he is, and the family casts him aside because of what he desires, to cook. Good rats don’t cook, they do what rats do, which is important to the family. Strive to get your character into several uncomfortable situations that are relatable and worthy of working past to achieve the goal.

4. Have a clear desire

This is synonymous with goal, but it’s more than that. It’s the number one want that drives your character, and it fuels your entire story. If the character doesn’t desire something at all costs, the story doesn’t work. What will happen if the character doesn’t achieve it? The stakes need to be high, there needs to be risk.

5. Use the bare bones approach

My first feature screenplay contained elements of science fiction and fantasy. Not only that, there were specific costume and location needs that would have moved the budget into “high concept” territory. Don’t do this on a first time, indie budget. One of my professors had said to me, “Write something that could take place in the here and now.” When you simplify your concept and challenge yourself to write within practical limits, it strengthens your writing. You don’t need explosions, an astronaut in outer space, or some mystical creature from another land to accomplish a great story.

Write what you feel might connect with others, research what you don’t know, then become an expert. I took this approach with my second feature length screenplay. I set the stage in one town, had two main characters in present day with common desires, and got to writing. No VFX, nothing paranormal, just a dad and daughter against the world. As a result, I got through act two much faster than I did in my first screenplay. Because I was forced to write in a way that made sense practically, the sequence of events became clear almost instantly.

This is just the start, and there are other approaches to concept you can discover and explore on your own. What you’ll find is that there is no magic formula for a classic film, and almost nothing is original. What will be original is how you approach a common problem, feeling, or circumstance. I can’t wait to keep exploring these beginning stages of writing with you. We’ll go through it step by step, so stay tuned for my next blog! In the meantime, practice your concepts with the given principals I’ve mentioned. In the next blogs, we’ll begin to get into screenplay structure and further character development!

How to Write a Great Premise was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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  • September 26, 2020
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