Tag Archives: premise

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.


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.