Category Archives: breakdown

The Meaning of Premise

Elements of Drama: The Meaning of Premise

A question regarding premise was asked of writer Orla Higgins after her reading of her short story, The Thin Blue Line .  The question prompted me to consider a question about meaning. How do we draw meaning from story? To understand this I went back and had a look at premise, a key element of drama.

 Magritte

Premise definitions:

It is the meaningful act by a person that causes change in themselves through a battle with an opponent.

Premise is what the drama is about.

It commits the story to one sentence and evokes its essential meaning. 

The premise is Aristotle’s unity and an essential part of story.

It answers the question, what is the beginning , middle and end?

The dictionary defines premise as  ‘A proposal from which a conclusion can be drawn. Or A proposal from which an argument is based.’  

 

The premise of The Thin Blue Line  is  ‘A girl discovers her own sense of self while waiting for a pregnancy test’.   Is my premise of her story accurate? Her story is the conclusion or argument. Her story argues for the girl’s reflection which draws her into maturity with a thread as thin as the line on the pregnancy kit.  The dictionary definition means a story which proves a point, or a story which the characters actions show an argument and from which conclusions can be drawn.

But in order to prove this idea, you need to have a unified proposal. Not a half sentence but a full sentence one that states what the proposition is and the sum of the proof.

The power in premise is the story that we then draw meaning from. A solid premise gives a story a certain life of its own, like a creature that  is vibrant and changeable and from which we can repeatedly draw meaning.

 A Premise has three parts at minimum : 

1) The protagonist

2) Their Action

3) The Result

A prince delays revenge for his father’s death and loses his own life and those he loves – Hamlet

 Expanded parts:

1) The Protagonist

2) Their need

3) Their action 

4) The Battle/Opponent

5) The result
 

The purpose of premise for the writer is to emblazon the central idea of the story so as not to stray and lose the unity of the tale. For the reader, it allows cogent understanding of what happens in a story. Given that Story is what happens and the meaning we draw from what happens, we can talk about a story itself being of being:

1) A set of events – What happens.

2) What the sum of those events mean.

Lets look at meaning first. For meaning to be received by the audience, it needs to be expressed. The meaning is what is received based (usually)  on the last act decision and action made by the protagonist.  This also gives us the theme. Theme is also the expression of the premise.  For a story to be meaningful the audience themselves must be somewhat transformed by what happens – which is astounding because it is not actually happening to them. What this means for a the writer is that you can’t just tell the meaning, because that won’t transform anyone, it will just lecture them. The transformation is done by the mimic of action by a character in the story who themselves are transformed. They are transformed by taking a series of actions and going through some catharsis during or after a battle. We too will follow that journey at least emotionally. That is our transformation, an emotional one.

A definition from Creative Screenwriting magazine:

Story creates the deeper understanding about human nature that we experience when we hear or see what has happened to another human being. Whether it’s an incident in the life of someone we know, the true-life experience of someone in the news, the adventures of a fictional character, or the heroic life of a compelling historical figure, we are fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters, and this progression of events is called plot. However, what engages our imagination on a human level is how the main character reacts to this progression of events, and this cumulative insight is called story

What happens in a story is that someone has one set of ideas and pursues something then someone else wants something too and that something is going to get in the way of what the first person wants. One of them wins out but not easily, not only do they have to fight someone to get what they want, they have to change something about themselves to overcome them because when they started they didn’t have everything they needed to do that, otherwise they would have just got it

That’s what we find interesting. Watching others attempt to overcome.

 
So what is it about meaning in story? Our lives are constant successions of failure and overcoming. We hardly think of it in that way, but together, those two actions are what we call striving.  Meaning, then, is why we have story. We like to think we do more overcoming than accepting defeat, and meaning  plays its part in building a narrative for our own striving and thus is essential in how it acts as a bridge from indifferent reality on one side and the metaphysical meaning of that on the other. 
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Deconstructing a TV Script – What’s the story?

In order to figure out what the main A, B & C and runner stories in a script are, I need to read through and name each sequence , who’s in it and give some basic description of the  begining, middle end and the meaning. I can  then step back and figure out which stories dominate. A sequence refers to any natural grouping of scenes that belong to a story line.
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Here’s what I do:

1. Open an empty Story Template here.

2. Fill in the name of the sequence.
When I start I put the first thing I think of for the name, I will go back by the first act and rename some of them because I can see by reading on that the earlier sequence is part of the same story. These names will become A story, B Story, C story etc.
Sequences are a handy way to group scenes into a narrative unit. For instance sequence 2 is where  Don goes to his mistress, Midge  but I don’t call it the ‘Midge’ story. It’s mostly him talking  about his upcoming presentation so it’s the smoking story  even though it introduces Midge and tells us more about Don. It’s not a science, I’m just grouping them in any way I think will help me pull out the main stories running through the script.
Some scenes are not really part of a story in themselves but may tie several together or be part of a broader story that goes over several episodes. I could name a sequence actively e.g. ‘Pete sabotages Don’ instead of ‘Steel’ which could be helpful but I try not to do too much analyzing at first.

3. Note the important individuals in the sequence

4. Put a description of what happened or what the sequence means if that is important. ‘The scene is not about what the scene is about’ – you know that adage so the meaning can be more important than what’s going on.  In the sequence ‘Have a Baby’ in the Episode ‘The wheel’ of Mad Men, one of scenes shows Pete relenting to having sex without a condom. The meaning here is that part of his motivation is to get approval from his Father-in-law by trying to have a baby (‘I know you’ll tell your mother’)  to get his business and thus get ahead at Sterling Cooper.

Now I can do a simple sort and see what the main stories are and who’s in them.

Out of the result below I can tell which are the main stories in the script:
A Story – Smoking

B Story – New Girl

C Story – Don vs. Pete

D Story – Rachel’s Store

E Story – Pete’s Party

There is also the beginning of another story which ends the New Girl Story when Pete sleeps with Peggy at the end.
Even though there are more sequences for New Girl, Smoking is the A story because it involves Don,  opens the episode and has the highest stakes. I need to weave in 4-5 stories into my script based on what I deduced above. If you notice that there are 6-7 stories or just 1 or 2 then this tells you to take a close look at the structure of the episode to check for literary devices or conceits such as in the ‘Wheel’ episode.
I can also see that there are two client stories in the episode – so I’ll need more than one when writing my script.
I’m not including runners for now. I know they’re there but am more interested in quickly getting to the heart of the story. Also note that the table doesn’t have Acts. You can break down your script into 4 acts for your drama or whatever number runs in your show. I go back and mark the act break later as this is handy for identifying how the act ends and what I have to do to match it.

Seq Title Who’s Key? What’s it about?
1 Smoking Don Don in a bar asking bar hop about his smoking habits
2 Smoking Don, Midge Don with his mistress 
3 New Girl Peggy, fellas Peggy arrives at the office on her first day
4 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas Pete’s office mates are planning a bachelor party
5 New Girl Peggy, Joan Joan shows Peggy the ropes
6 Rachel’s Store Roger, Don Roger reminds Don about Menken and the pitch to Lucky Strike
7 New Girl Peggy, Pete, Don Pete undresses pegy verbally 
8 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don tells Pete his behaviour with peggy is out of line
9 New Girl Peggy, Doctor Peggy at the doctor getting contraceptives
10 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel, Roger Don and Peggy hit it off – badly
11 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don rejects Pete’s friendly advance
12 New Girl Peggy, Joan, Others Peggy meets the receptionists
13 Smoking Don, Sal, Gretchen Sal and then Grethcen come up short on ideas
14 Smoking Don, Roger, Pete, Gues Big meeting, nearly fails but Don saves the day
15 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas The fellas get ready to head out
16 Pete vs Don Pete, Don Don tells Pete off for going through his trash
17 New Girl Peggy, Don Peggy puts her hand on Don and is rejected
18 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel  Don apologies to rachel and they share a moment of honesty
19 Peggy and Pete Peggy, pete, others Pete goes to Peggy’s house and sleeps with her
20 Home Sweet Home Don, Betty, Kids Don returns to his suburban idyll and beautiful wife

A simple sort on this table in Excel and I can see which is the A, B & C story as well as what is the beginning, middle and end of each

Seq Title Who’s Key? What’s it about?
8 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don tells Pete his behaviour with peggy is out of line
11 Don vs. Pete Don, Pete Don rejects Pete’s friendly advance
16 Don vs. Pete Pete, Don Don tells Pete off for going through his trash
20 Home Sweet Home Don, Betty, Kids Don returns to his suburban idyll and beautiful wife
3 New Girl Peggy, fellas Peggy arrives at the office on her first day
5 New Girl Peggy, Joan Joan shows Peggy the ropes
7 New Girl Peggy, Pete, Don Pete undresses Peggy verbally 
9 New Girl Peggy, Doctor Peggy at the doctor getting contraceptives
12 New Girl Peggy, Joan, Others Peggy meets the receptionists
17 New Girl Peggy, Don Peggy puts her hand on Don and is rejected
19 Peggy and Pete Peggy, pete, others Pete goes to Peggy’s house and sleeps with her
4 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas Pete’s office mates are planning a bachelor party
15 Pete’s Party Pete, fellas The fellas get ready to head out
6 Rachel’s Store Roger, Don Roger reminds Don about Menken and the pitch to Lucky Strike
10 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel, Roger Don and Peggy hit it off – badly
18 Rachel’s Store Don, Rachel  Don apologies to Rachel and they share a moment of honesty
1 Smoking Don Don in a bar asking bar hop about his smoking habits
2 Smoking Don, Midge Don with his mistress 
13 Smoking Don, Sal, Gretchen Sal and then Gretchen come up short on ideas
14 Smoking Don, Roger, Pete, Gues Big meeting, nearly fails but Don saves the day
       

It’s important to do this exercise for a few scripts because that is when you will see a pattern.
Let’s take another example – Look at “New Amsterdam” EP 104

Seq Title Who’s Key? What’s it about?
4 Don & Rachel Don, Rachel Don bumps into Rachel at the office
23 Don and Roger Don, Roger Roger tells Don not to compete with Pete
6 Helen Bishop Betty, Dan Dan tries to get into Betty’s home she won’t let him
7 Helen Bishop Betty, Helen Helen comes over to explain.
11 Helen Bishop Betty, Helen Betty goes to babysit at Helen’s house
14 Helen Bishop Betty,Glen Glen walks in on Betty in the toilet, she gives him a lock of hair
16 Helen Bishop Betty, Helen Helen comes home
5 Home Sweet Home Betty, Kids Betty is reading  a fairy tale to Sally. 
1 New Apt Pete, Ken, Harry & Paul The fellas are listening to Bob NewHart when Trudy  arrives
2 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Harry Trudy tells Harry he can give his wife a baby, takes Pete out of office
3 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Harry Trudy shows Pete a new apartment
8 New Apt Pete, his dad andrew Pete’s dad turns down pete’s request for $
9 New Apt Pete, Trudy  Pete pretends he didn’t ask his father due to ill health
12 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Trudy’s parents Trudy’s dad offers financial help with the apt, Pete grudgingly relents
13 New Apt Pete, Trudy Pete not happy with taking money 
24 New Apt Pete, Trudy, Trudy’s parents They have bought the apt. Pete seems as if he has sold out.
20 Shrink betty, dr. Wayne Betty tells the dr. about her impressions of Helen’s life  in a condescending manner.
10 Steel Don, Pete, Sal, Walter Presentation scuppered by Pete
15 Steel Pete, Walter Pete suggests copy to Walter at a bar
17 Steel Don, Pete, Walter, Sal Pete’s idea undermines Don
18 Steel Don, Pete Don fires Pete
19 Steel Don, Roget Don tells Roger he fired Pete
22 Steel Don, Roger, Pete Roger covers for Pete saying he gave him a second chance
21 Steel  Don, Roger, Coper Cooper tells Don he can’t fire Pete

So for this episode we have

A Story – New Apartment

B  Story – Steel

C Story – Helen Bishop

Why does Pete get the A story? It opens with him, ends with him and he gets the most scene mileage. However the B story seems to have more drama. The tale of Pete undermining Don has a whiff of intrigue and yet lets us see it from Pete’s point of view. Still I think New Apartment is the A story. It doesn’t matter much – it’s all about Pete.

My earlier assumption – that I need to put together 4 or 5 stories together for an ep is not true. There are 2  main stories a smaller C story plus a couple of threads.

Then there are Story Threads – such as ‘Don & Rachel’ and ‘Shrink’ which are stories that will play out over another episode or number of episodes.There is a scene with Don and Roger where they discuss what happened with Pete undermining him twice in a roundabout way. I could have lumped it under Steel but decided not to because it’s a revelation scene that ties in with a number of issues in Don’s life -mainly his unease.

The episode, however,  is mostly about Pete.Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart He undermines Don in ‘Steel’  and is undermined himself in ‘New Apartment’. He nearly loses his job.  Pete really gets ‘buttoned down’  in this episode  nicely indicated in the playing of the Bob Newhart album that opens the ep. That opening, by the way, is a good example of the sophistication of the show. It rarely shows cultural or technological ‘bits’ without leveraging them as metaphor’s in the story. e This was done to great effect in the Kodak Carousel ep.

But there is the one oddball in these stories – the C Story doesn’t have a resolution. The ‘event’ of that story is Betty giving a lock of hair to young Glen though you wouldn’t know it until Helen confronts Betty about it in another episode. For n know a bit about  Betty and gives her an idea of what it would be like to be alone – if she left Don. Helen Bishop’s life is an alternative realit Somewhere inside she knows Don has left her out in the cold.

Don is still serviced in this episode as the story establishes Pete as a true antagonist of his and gives us a direct combat story which Don loses. The one story in common with the Pilot is ‘Steel’ .  That first ep focused on Peggy so now it’s Pete’s turn. The difference is that Peggy is a mirror of Don and Pete is an enemy of Don so the tension between them is of a different nature.

Running With My Eyes Closed › Ten Writing Tips for Your Mad Men Spec

Jill Golick has some tips for writing a mad men spec. 

Here’s the rundown:

1. Beat out between 14 and 19 juicy sequences to lay down two or more thematically related plotlines A Mad Man spec has to carry a weighty theme; you want to say something about the nature of being human.

2. Put in about twice as many A-story sequences as B sequences. If you want a C, devote three to four sequences to it.

3. Write a tease that draws you in with drama bimageut doesn’t provide any direct clues as to where the story is headed. This should be a nice long meaty sequence, like Adam killing himself at the beginning of the episode about the Rejuvenator.

4. Include plenty of bank shot sequences that speak to theme but don’t necessarily drive the plot forward. These sequences help to set the stakes by showing us the lives of incidental characters. Joan’s reality as a single woman having an affair with a married man sheds light on what’s at stake for Rachel if she sleeps with Don. Harry’s pleading with his wife to let him come home warns Don and Pete of the consequences of choosing work over family. Dr Wayne tells Don that Betty is consumed by petty jealousies just before he catches Roger hitting on her and takes his revenge.

5. Don’t over tell it. Mad Men scripts invite viewers to figure out what’s going on, they respect their intelligence. They also trust that the structure and technique of the script to tell the story. We see Don catch Roger hitting on Betty. We see him give a few dollars to an elevator man. We see Don and Roger slurping down raw oysters and booze. And when they get back to the office, the elevator is out and they have to walk up twenty-three flights. Nowhere is it spelled out that this is a carefully planned act of revenge. Don’t spoon feed the audience.

6. Throw in an insider 60s reference or two: Dr Scholl’s, Desi and Lucy’s second divorce, Bob Newhart’s first comedy album. A lot of Mad Men is in the details.

7. Write some witty, educated and intelligent dialogue. A scene with agency men bantering back on forth is the perfect forum. Or give Roger a chance to wax poetic. Rachel is also great for historical and cultural perspective. These characters are smart and educated and not afraid to show it.

8. Include a 60s product in need of a campaign. And allow Don to come up with a pitch that is not only brilliant but sums up the human condition. “Advertising is based on happiness.” “The Carousel lets us travel around and around and back home again.” Of course this also needs to resonate with your over all theme.

9. Hit us on the head with a little racism, sexism or something else that nails the different value systems between now and the 60s. Make us uncomfortable and squirmy. Then in a counterpoint it with something that reminds us how similar we are. Think of Sterling with the twins — what a sexist. Then he keels over — we’re all flesh and blood. Think of Don saying of Rachel, “I’m not going to let a woman speak to me like that” and then promptly falling in love with her.

10. Provide an ending that is totally unexpected for TV and yet reveals the true nature of the character and seems inevitable.

Check it out here –  10 tips for writing a Mad Men Spec. She has really done a spectacular job deconstructing the series for writers including writing scenes that don’t necessarily push the story forward but parallel another story and speak to the theme of the episode.

 

and other home truths that drive you mad…..

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How long should my scenes be?

I was asked this question the other day by a friend writing a spec script. Again, it should be somewhat similar to the length of scenes of the series so that it has the same rhythm.

Here’s a matrix of scene lengths for the Mad Men pilot. You should do a few to get a feel for both length and rhythm. You might well get quite a variation in page counts, but the ebb and flow of the show will become apparent.
As you can see there are a three 5 page scenes which means you are free to write long  scenes but just less than half the script is taken up with 1/2 – 1 1/4 page scenes. I don’t count non speaking establishing scenes.
Download the scene matrix here.

Scn 1/8th  1/4  1/2  3/4 1    1 1/8 1 1/4 1 1/2 2    2 1/4 2 1/2 2 3/4 3    3 1/2 4    5    Scene
1                                 1
2                                 2
3                                 3
4                   x             4
5     x                           5
6                 x               6
7         x                       7
8                                 8
9       x                         9
10     x                           10
11         x                       11
12                         x       12
13                 x               13
14                   x             14
15             x                   15
16               x                 16
17                 x               17
18                 x               18
19                         x       19
20         x                       20
21     x                           21
22             x                   22
23                               x 23
24                                 24
25                               x 25
26                             x   26
27                           x     27
28                           x     28
29                     x           29
34     x                           34
  0 0 4 1 4 0 3 1 4 3 1 1 2 2 1 3  
Scn 1/8th  1/4  1/2  3/4 1    1 1/8 1 1/4 1 1/2 2    2 1/4 2 1/2 2 3/4 3    3 1/2 4    5    Scene

Mad Men Scene Breakdown

To have a script feel like a series script the series regular’s should really appear somewhat as they normally do. Here’s a breakdown of the Pilot ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. Don ,for instance, appears 18 times out of 25 speaking scenes or 72% of the time. This means I won’t have Harry in 18 scenes unless Don is there too. Download this as an Excel Spreadsheet here.

Scene Don Pete Peggy Roger Harry Ken Dick Joan Sal Betty Midge Rachel Regular Guest # in scn
4 x                           1
5 x                   x       2
6 x                   x       2
7 x                   x       2
9     x   x x x               4
10         x x x           x   4
11   x     x x x               5
12 x   x x     x x             5
13 x     x                     2
14 x x x                       3
15 x x                         2
16 x     x               x     3
18     x                   x   2
19 x x   x               x     4
20 x x                         2
21     x         x             2
22     x         x         x   3
23 x               x       x   3
25 x x   x                   x 4
26 x x x x x x x               7
27         x x x   x         x 5
28 x                     x     2
29   x x                   x   3
34 x                 x         2
35 x                 x     x   3
# 18 8 8 6 5 5 6 3 2 2 3 3 6 2  
% 72 32 32 24 20 20 24 12 8 8 12 12 24 8