Grab your reader’s attention from the get-go. Transport them into an imaginary world where the stakes are high and the characters are compelling. Make them invested in finding out what happens next.
That’s the mark of a strong screenwriting premise.
But what exactly is a premise? And how can you craft one that captivates audiences and provides a solid foundation for your script?
A premise encapsulates the overall concept and focus of your screenplay in just 1-2 sentences. It sums up the heart of your story idea and the conflict at its core. An effective premise gives readers a hint of the exciting journey ahead without giving away all the details.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about crafting irresistible screenwriting premises. You’ll learn:
- The definition and key elements of a good premise
- Examples from popular movies with effective premises
- Step-by-step instructions for developing your own
- Common mistakes to avoid
Let’s get started on unlocking the secret to great screenwriting premises!
What is the Purpose of a Premise in Screenwriting?
Before we dive into the specifics of what makes an effective premise, let’s look at why a premise is so important for screenwriters in the first place.
Here are some key reasons you need a strong premise:
- Encapsulates your story idea – A premise summarizes the overall concept, focus, and thrust of your screenplay’s storyline in a succinct way.
- Focuses your writing – With a clear, specific premise in mind, you can stay on track as you develop the plot points, characters, and scenes.
- Grabs attention – When done well, a premise intrigues readers, agents, and producers and makes them want to learn more about your script.
- Guides development – Your premise will likely evolve over time, but it provides an anchor for developing the world, characters, and events of your story.
- Sells your story – Loglines and pitches are built from your premise. It’s a distillation of your story idea that makes it marketable.
In short, an effective premise captures the heart of your story and serves as a guiding light as you write your script. All great movies start with a killer premise.
Elements of an Effective Screenwriting Premise
So what are the ingredients that go into crafting a compelling, brain-tickling premise? Here are the key elements to include:
Every good premise starts with a protagonist or hero character. Introduce us to the central person who will embark on the story journey. Give their name and a hint at their persona.
For example, in the premise for Die Hard, we have “New York cop John McClane…” This gives us key details on our lead right away.
The next crucial element is the protagonist’s goal, problem to solve, or central conflict they’re facing. Set up the primary tension that will drive the story forward.
For example, in Premise for The Fugitive: “A doctor wrongly convicted of murdering his wife escapes custody…” The central conflict is established.
Now raise the stakes by introducing the antagonist or obstacles standing in the protagonist’s way. Outline the key forces that will oppose the lead character as they pursue their goal.
For example, a premise may mention “…while being pursued by a relentless detective determined to return him to prison.”
Finally, complete the premise with a brief mention of the setting – both location and time period. This grounds us in the world of the story.
For example, “Set in 1980s New York City…” quickly establishes setting details.
Bringing these key elements together, you have a premise that encapsulates the characters, central conflict, and story world – all in just 1-2 sentences.
Examples of Effective Premises
To see how compelling premises work, let’s look at some examples from popular films:
- Raiders of the Lost Ark “Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones races the Nazis to find the legendary Ark of the Covenant, a religious relic of immense power.”
The premise introduces us to the protagonist, his goal, the antagonists, and the stakes. We want to see what happens to Indy on this epic quest.
- Forrest Gump “A kind but simple Alabama man endures major events of the 20th century while pining for his childhood sweetheart.”
This premise immediately draws interest by outlining an intriguing protagonist and hinting at a sprawling journey where history unfolds around one man.
- Toy Story “A rivalry develops between a beloved toy cowboy and an arrogant new spaceman action figure who both compete for the affection of their owner.”
Familiar characters and a compelling central conflict make for a premise that pulls audiences into the world of toys coming to life.
These examples follow the key elements covered earlier while keeping things concise. They each provide just enough detail to hook interest while leaving room for the story to unfold.
How to Develop Your Screenwriting Premise
Now that you understand what an effective premise contains, let’s run through the process of developing your own compelling premise:
Brainstorm Story Ideas
Start by brainstorming a list of high-concept story ideas. Let your imagination run wild at this stage. Consider interesting protagonists, settings, time periods, conflicts, or unusual situations. Look for premise inspiration in books, news stories, personal experiences, and dreams.
Refine Your Options
Once you have a broad list of ideas, start refining them. Combine related concepts. Eliminate weaker options. Hone in on story ideas with memorable protagonists, fresh conflicts, and compelling world elements.
Write a logline or one-sentence summary for your strongest concepts. Distill each idea down to its essence following the premise elements like protagonist, goal, opposition, and setting. This will help refine your ideas.
Evaluate Strengths and Weaknesses
Take an objective look at the various premise options and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Which introduces fascinating characters? Which evoke vivid settings? Which have tired, cliche conflicts? Assess and rank them.
Choose The Best Premise
Based on your assessments, choose the overall premise with the most promise and potential. Trust your instincts on which has an alluring concept that hooks interest.
Refine Your Premise
Constantly refine your chosen premise as you develop your screenplay further. You may tweak character names, make the conflict more focused, and adjust setting details. Let the premise evolve alongside your story.
Remember, a screenwriting premise doesn’t have to answer every question or outline the entire plot. Its purpose is to encapsulate your core story idea in an intriguing way that engages audiences. A compelling premise captures just enough to make readers eager for more.
What to Avoid When Writing a Premise
Now that you know how to craft an effective premise, let’s also look at some common mistakes to avoid:
Too Vague or Broad
Beware of premises that are too general or broad. For example, “An epic adventure spanning galaxies as a hero stops a dark force.” This is too nebulous. Ground your premise in specifics.
No Clearly Defined Conflict
Make sure your premise establishes the central conflict the protagonist will grapple with. Don’t leave the source of tension ambiguous or have no opposition included at all.
Your protagonist should be active in pursuing the goal or solving the problem established in the premise – don’t make them passive participants with no strong motivation.
Cliches and Tropes
Avoid overused story ideas and tired genre cliches unless you plan to put a very original spin on them. Surprise readers with something fresh.
Too Many Details
Don’t overload the premise by trying to cram everything in. Keep it streamlined and focused only on the most essential story elements.
With a bit of refinement, you can avoid these pitfalls and zero in on a unique premise that captures interest. Remember to seek trusted feedback on your premise as well.
Examples of Strong Screenwriting Premises
To help inspire your own premise writing, let’s analyze examples from several popular movies:
The Social Network
“Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg creates a social networking site after being dumped by his girlfriend, but success leads to legal complications with his former friend who provided the seed money.”
This premise contains a compelling protagonist (Zuckerberg), a clear inciting conflict (being dumped fueling creating Facebook), opposition (former friend turned rival), and high stakes (legal battle over the company). We want to see how this will play out.
“A cynical weatherman is forced to live the same day over and over again, and begins to re-examine his life choices.”
The intriguing supernatural concept immediately draws interest, as we want to see how and why this time loop happens and how the protagonist will change.
“A rivalry develops between a beloved old-fashioned toy cowboy and an arrogant modern spaceman action figure who compete for the affection of their owner.”
The contrasting buddy characters and their struggle instantly pull audiences into the world of living toys. Unique characters plus a strong central conflict equals a winning premise.
“An amateur boxer in Philadelphia gets the chance of a lifetime when he’s unexpectedly chosen to fight the world heavyweight champion.”
This underdog premise promises a rousing story of the ultimate long shot getting an unlikely shot at sports glory. We’re invested in Rocky’s journey.
Analyze what makes these premises work – the vivid protagonists, clear goals and conflicts, high stakes. Use these elements in your own premise and you’ll be on the right track.
Tips for Crafting Your Screenwriting Premise
As you develop a premise for your own screenplay, keep the following tips in mind:
- Introduce an engaging hero that the audience will connect with. Give us a reason to root for them.
- Establish a compelling goal or problem for the protagonist to grapple with from the start. Set up the central conflict.
- Raise the stakes by introducing formidable opposition. Make the path to the goal a challenging one.
- Ground the premise in a vivid, specific setting. Establish time and place.
- Keep it succinct – 1-2 sentences max. Summarize only the most essential story elements.
- Put your unique spin on tried and true genres. Find a way to freshen cliche or familiar stories.
- Let the premise evolve. As your story develops further, you may need to tweak the premise accordingly.
Keep refining your premise until it captures just the right elements to hook interest. An effective premise is the foundation on which great scripts are built.
A strong premise encapsulates the essence of your story idea while hinting at the exciting journey to come. It’s the core that the rest of your screenplay sprouts from.
This guide covered the key elements – protagonist, goal, conflict, setting – that make up an effective premise. We looked at examples from popular movies, as well as the process for developing your own compelling premise.
Remember to make your protagonist active and memorable, establish clear conflict, raise high stakes, and ground the idea in a specific setting. Keep your premise focused and intriguing.
With a thoroughly crafted premise guiding your writing, your creativity will flourish as you expand your story idea into a complete script. Use the momentum of a great premise to propel your screenplay forward from the very first FADE IN.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an example of a premise in a screenplay?
A classic premise example is Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones races the Nazis to find the legendary Ark of the Covenant, a religious relic of immense power.” This quickly sets up the protagonist, his goal, the antagonists, and the stakes.
What is an example of a premise?
Some example premises:
- Forrest Gump: “A kind but simple Alabama man endures major events of the 20th century while pining for his childhood sweetheart.”
- The Social Network: “Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg creates a social networking site after being dumped by his girlfriend, but success leads to legal complications with his former friend who provided the seed money.”
What is the premise regarding screenwriting?
The premise in screenwriting refers to a 1-2 sentence summary that encapsulates the main idea of a film. It introduces the protagonist, lays out their goal/conflict, hints at the opposition faced, and establishes the setting. A strong premise intrigues audiences and provides a focus for developing the story.
What is the difference between premise and plot?
The premise broadly summarizes the main idea or thrust of the story in a compact way. The plot provides the complete sequence of story events that unfold on the screen. The plot emerges from the premise and brings all the details to life.
What is a basic story premise?
A basic premise simply introduces the main character(s), indicates the primary storyline or conflict, and may hint at the setting or time period. For example: “A young girl struggles to reconnect with her estranged father when she joins him in a small Alaska town for the summer.” This provides just enough to indicate the key story elements.
Is a logline a premise?
A logline expands on a premise by providing a full one-sentence summary of the main character, conflict, and high points of the plot. So a logline contains the premise but adds more detail on the story events. The premise is the seed that the logline grows from.
How do you identify a premise?
To identify the premise, look for 1-2 sentences that introduce the protagonist, indicate their goal/conflict, and provide a sense of the opposition and story world. The premise will capture the core story idea without detailing the entire plot.
How do you write a premise for a film?
Brainstorm story ideas, and refine them into 1-2 sentence summaries that establish the protagonist, central conflict, opposition, and setting. Choose the most compelling premise that hooks your interest. Let the premise evolve as you develop the full script.
How do you tell what a premise is?
A premise will identify the main character, and their problem/goal, hint at the opposition, and may indicate the setting. It summarizes the story in a compact way without laying out all the plot details. The premise captures the heart of the film idea.