Thursday, July 7, 2011


"If you can't say it in three sentences, you don't know what your script is about."

A LOG-LINE presents the “what’s-it-about” of a story – the Set-Up, Conflict, and Resolution - and should include all of the following:

•Reveal the protagonist’s SITUATION

•Reveal the important COMPLICATIONS

•Describe the ACTION the protagonist takes

•Hint at the CLIMAX - the danger, the 'showdown'

•Hint at the protagonist’s potential TRANSFORMATION

•Identify SIZZLE: sex, greed, humour, danger, thrills, satisfaction

•Identify GENRE

•Keep it to three sentences

•Use present tense

How can you pack all that into three sentences? If you think of your logline as a commercial for the movie you've seen in your head as you've been writing the script; then you'll breathe life and personality into those three sentences.

Logline for Rainman:
A self-centered hotshot returns home for his father's funeral and learns the family inheritance goes to an autistic brother he never knew he had. The hotshot kidnaps this older brother and drives him cross-country hoping to gain his confidence and get control of the family money. The journey reveals an unusual dimension to the brother's autism that sparks their relationship and unlocks a dramatic childhood secret that changes everything.

Logline for Some Like It Hot:
Two male musicians accidentally witness the St. Valentines' Day massacre; and to elude the mobsters who pursue them, they dress in drag and join an all-girl band headed for Miami. One of them falls for a sexy singer and poses as a Miami playboy so he can woo her; he convinces his pal to dodge the amorous advances of the rather nearsighted Miami playboy he impersonates. Love conquers all -- till the mobsters show up at the same Miami resort for a convention.

PREMISE – “a proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument.”

A premise is something to be proved, something asserted as true; it is the writer’s truth concerning the great issues that confront human existence – the ideas and values that inform and confound us – love, death, loyalty, jealousy, prejudice. A premise states what the story is about, what it means, rather than simply recounting what happens. It conveys in a simple proposition the central truth of the story as that truth is understood by the screenwriter. A cogent premise is supported and validated by the actions of the characters; the story is the evidence that either supports or fails to support the story’s premise. If it does not, then there is either something wrong with the story, or something wrong with the premise.

The search for your story’s premise is a meditation on what the story actually means. As such, a premise – at least in the early stages of finding the characters and the story - is not written in stone. You may massage it; elaborate on it; employ it heuristically to test the effectiveness of both the action and the emotions conveyed. A premise is a guide to how well every part of the story supports or resonates with every other part of the story. It may be a stepping stone or a catalyst in the quest to dig ever deeper into the story’s possibilities and to find something new and unexpected there. Your premise should point the direction and vividly illuminate the ultimate goal and meaning of the actions of the characters.

Screenwriter and teacher, Bill Johnson, has said that a premise is a promise. It articulates for the writer and others the truth for which the screenplay offers evidence. If I say I’m going to tell you a story that proves love conquers everything, including death, I better make sure I’m giving you Romeo and Juliet and not Othello.

By way of example, consider the film, Viva Zapata, written for the screen by John Steinbeck, from a novel (uncredited) by Edgecumb Pinchon.

The log-line of this film might be stated as: “Emile Zapata, a good man, struggles against oppression, and in the end becomes an oppressor himself.”

BUT the premise will be: “Good men who fight against injustice sometimes discover through their actions that they, themselves, become the perpetrators of injustice." (Viva Zapata)

If the premise is borne out by the story, if the story “proves” through what it shows us that the premise is true, then we can say that the story has succeeded in accomplishing what it set out to do.

Premises deal with universals, like love, courage, greed, freedom, justice, death, duty, play, the nature of our responsibilities to ourselves and to others…

A premise is usually wider than a simple statement of a theme (e.g.: all men are brothers, war is hell, etc) because it includes in its expression the fulfillment of the dramatic issue that lies at the core of the story. Thematic statements don’t always contain this fulfillment stage.
Every cohesive and emotionally logical dramatic screen story is capable of articulation in a well-formulated premise of one sentence. When it comes to writing energetic, vital screenplays, there is no idea or situation that is potent and meaningful enough on its own to carry you from beginning to middle to end unless it can be expressed in terms of a clear-cut premise.

(with acknowledgments to Bill Johnson)
Every human being is a bundle of presuppositions. Another word for a presupposition is PREMISE. Hence, every human being is a bundle of premises.

Some of these premises are significant and some aren’t.

A significant presupposition might be: “You can only keep what you are prepared to give away.”

An insignificant presupposition might be : “Broccoli puts hair on your chest.”

The significant ones are the ones that ought to attract our attention as storytellers.

Some times an insignificant presupposition can be made significance by virtue of a story.

One premise can lead to many stories…

Knowing one’s premises is really knowing oneself. And writers, like everybody else, don’t usually know that much about themselves, or they know what is comfortable for them to know and repress or hide the rest. They’ve been “taught” to do this – like everyone else – since they were very young.

It is idiotic to go hunting for a premise OUT THERE, in the world. A best story premises are the ones that are already alive and within you. Find one of these, one that reflects or reveals a powerful conviction that you hold about the nature of human and/or non-human reality.

The act of creating a story becomes – in part - an act of clarification – an opportunity to explore and clarify to yourself (and others) a conviction or value that you hold dear.

Do you know what your convictions are?

Do you ever look them over? Are there any that you would die for?

Anyone who has a few strong convictions is a mine of premises. And a storyteller – or at least, a potential storyteller.

Storytelling is about self-discovery. We tell stories in order to find out what and who we are…


A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of the idea behind the story, and MUST contain the following:

1. The CENTRAL THEME, idea or dramatic ISSUE.
2. The defining ACTION, movement or conflict
3. The FULFILLMENT of the idea or value.

The creation of an inspired story is not possible UNLESS the storyteller commits him/herself to a POINT OF VIEW…

Until the author takes sides there can be no story.

When the author champions one side of an issue or another, a premise becomes possible.

This does not mean that the writer oversees a rigged game. The veracity of the premise is worthless unless it has been actively challenged by formidable and capable opposition.

We, the audience, might not agree with your conviction. BUT through your story, you have a chance to prove the validity of your contention, and make us re-think our own prejudices and assumptions.
To have a chance of changing your audiences attitudes, you must lead them into the sort of world in which YOUR PREMISE can be true, and SHOW them the life of that truth as embodied by characters whose quest we care about.

The story must prove the premise.

The premise is a promise concerning the sort of story you intend to tell.