Tag Archives: structure

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. 

Quick Start to Writing a new Scene

To quickly write a scene, it helps to sketch out your beginning, middle and end a little beforehand, otherwise you run the risk of wandering and making the piece weak in terms of tension. But first lets define a scene. A scene is the change that occurs through a single event in one place and time . That change can be in the situation, i.e. a new event occurs in the action or a change in the relationship between people in the scene. The change in the relationship may be from the tension being raised as a result of increased conflict i.e. one person wants something and other won’t or can’t give it. The single most important element in a scene is what people want. Give a desire to one or both characters and prevent them from getting it. Hey, I don’t see this in every scene – you say. What is in every scene is change of some sort. If conflict doesn’t build from scene to scene, the play will wilt.
1) Put a change into your scene as a result of something that happens in it.
E.g. New information arises out conflict causing a character to pursue their goal in a different way.
2) Give one character a desire for something and let the other character not give it.
e.g. Boy wants to break up with girl. Girl tries to stop him. Nothing works. She then tells him she’s pregnant. Boy reveals that he is dying. Girl is not really pregnant – but now has to pretend that she is.
In this scene you can see clearly who wants what and the change that occurs in the scene. The girl has made a trap for herself and has to pretend to her boyfriend that she is pregnant as it is the only hope the boy has.
Sketching out a scene
To sketch it out, ask yourself some questions, write them down. Don’t answer them in order or get academic, its more like daydreaming, probing questions. Run through places, people and situations that you recently thought about, saw on TV, hate, love, fantasize – anything at all that stuck to your imagination in some way. Write stuff down, scratch it out, put the first thing that pops into your head down then revise it. Spend about 2-3 minutes doing this. Did you have an argument with someone recently? Read a book that sparked your imagination, put your observations into the scene. Don’t be boring! Make the characters be opposed strongly – even if they are polite and soft spoken on stage, they should be burning up inside somewhere.
Brainstorm with these questions – whatever you come up with is good because it is material, free yourself from judgement. Have fun, take it places that surprise yourself.
1. Where are you? Where’s the scene happenning? In a room? What room? Outside? What’s the weather like?
2. Who is in the scene?
3. Give one of the characters a concrete goal that matters to them. i.e. They know what it is, we know it and know when they get it or not. Importantly, if they don’t get it, there is severe consequence.
4. Have the other character oppose it with equal or greater strength.
The opposition should be strong. Imagine you are up a tree and there’s a bear below who wants to eat you. How are you going to get away safely? That’s how difficult the opposite character should be in reaching your goal. Avoid speaking to these things directly, otherwise known as speaking the subtext. e.g. A: Can I have a Milky moo? B: No
This scene has conflict but no tension. Let’s up the ante
A: Are those Milky Moos? B: Did you call your mother about the loan?
5. Give one or both characters a past that directly affects the scene/play. This is called the Ghost, because it affects their ability to accomplish what they need in this scene. E.g. Man rearends a woman in traffic at night in the country, She is fine but her child is badly shaken and arm appears to have a small fracture. She quickly splints it. She goes back to man who is bleeding badly but conscious. She takes her phone out to call 112 but then smells alcohol on his breath. Her husband was killed by a drunk driver two years ago. He begs her for help. He even looks like the guy who got away with murder. She doesn’t make the call and goes back to her car and attends to her daughter. The man is bleeding to death behind her, calling out. She is there for five minutes and the man has stopped calling out. Then something flashes through her mind, something she saw in the car; a needle. The alcohol smell could be diabetes. She rushes back to the man etc.
6. Now write your scene, get the characters striving for the goals and put up blocks against them. You don’t have to know how your main character gets what they want but it should come out of having tried everything else first and now has to get out of their comfort zone and do something that surprises themselves.
Establishing time, place and people.
In one excercise, we took a postcard and used that to establish the environment. If you are sitting at your desk thinking something up, run through places that you recently thought about, saw on TV, hate, love, fantasize – anyplace at all that stuck to your imagination in some way. Anything compelling or exciting or fascinates you.
For people, think about people who are inscrutable but active. i.e. They can be provoked and will follow a course of action, but are discovering things along the way about themselves. Yourself is as good as anyone, but perhaps notions of people, people who popped into your imagination.
Final word
Daydream with these questions. That will make it less like an academic excercise. Watch people around you and frame what you see in dramatic terms. Who wants what? Why can’t they get it?