Your story now has a strong plot and subplot, but this is still not enough for an entire screenplay. What’s missing is the heart of the story, the “why” of it—why you feel drawn to write this particular story, and why the hero or heroine of the story belongs in it. That’s why we need to find and dramatize what we call the premise.
The premise of a screenplay is the fundamental statement that drives the plot. We are all teachers and when we write we want to do more than just entertain our audience; we want to communicate something we have learned or consider important. The premise is like the rudder on a boat—it will keep your story flowing in the right direction, lending even a first draft a professional, finished quality.
Before committing to writing your screenplay, ask yourself why you’re eager to tell this story, and what underlying communication you want to make. Try to formulate that answer as a statement, such as: “The end doesn’t justify the means.” This statement might describe the premise of Wall Street, because Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) wants to get to the top and is faced with tough moral choices about how to achieve his goal. “Prejudice destroys love” is another strong premise, which would support any version of Romeo and Juliet. The premise of both The Fugitive and ArtRage is “Good triumphs over evil.” There are many premises. My own personal favorite is “One person can make a difference,” so it’s not surprising that the films I watch over and over are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and North by Northwest.
Before you begin your screenplay, write down a premise for your story. You can change it or rework it as you go along, but you need something to start. This statement must contain a pearl of wisdom that concerns not just your character but you, the writer, as well. For example, Everett Aisen, the author of ArtRage, is an artist, and has taught screenwriting for many years. The question about the importance of art is very real to him, not simply an intellectual concept.
By analyzing the films you love you will find that, however different they are plot-wise, many will have the same premise. For example, if you watch a lot of love stories, “Love conquers all” is a likely premise. If you watch action films, “Good conquers evil” will likely keep popping up. Using a premise that resonates with you personally will help you write a better, more cohesive script.