The premise is the cornerstone of all screenwriting. Begin with a great premise and the screenplay practically writes itself. Have a weak premise and all the knowledge of structure, character development, dialogue and formatting in the world won’t save you. So important is premise that many a screenplay pitch has sold on this element alone. Is a good premise worth it’s weight in gold? No – it’s with more. Much more.
Like all great things, great movie premises are few and far between. That’s one reason they’re so valuable. However, while great ideas may be elusive, a premise that is at least good is actually easier to come up with than you might think. And sometimes, with the right execution, “good” can become “great.”
So what is the benchmark of a good movie premise? A good premise contains immediately recognizable elements of conflict, surprise, obstruction and the potential for character growth. In other words, all those things we go to the movies to enjoy.
Although these elements appear somewhat far-reaching, they can, in fact, be reduced to a single word: irony.
Virtually all great stories, from Homer’s Iliad to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, have reveled in it. Irony is the heart and soul of drama. Without it, drama – like comedy – doesn’t work.
Exactly what is dramatic irony? Mr. Webster defines irony as “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” In other words, surprise. If you have a situation where one outcome is expected and the exact opposite occurs (sometimes called “the old switcheroo”), congratulations you’ve got irony.
When it comes to dramatic characters, irony tends to occur when their circumstances or behavior are in direct conflict with their professions or stations in life.
* The doctor who becomes sick…
* The dancer who becomes paralyzed…
* The fashion model who becomes disfigured…
* The millionaire who goes bankrupt…
* The homeless person who wins the lottery…
* The nobody who saves the world…
These are all classic ironies, and they just reek of dramatic/comic potential.
Look at the following top-grossing movies and Oscar winners. Virtually all of them had ironic premises.
A Beautiful Mind – The story of a schizophrenic genius. His mind was both his greatest asset and his greatest enemy. Irony…
The Lord of the Rings – The fate of the world rest in the hands of the smallest the meekest of creatures. Irony…
Training Day – A top narcotics cop turns out to be the biggest crook of all. Irony!
Monsters Ball – A woman falls in love with a man, not realizing he’s responsible for executing her late husband. Irony! Plus, she’s black…and he’s a racist. Double irony!
In movies, irony often comes from the clash of extremes: The slob and the fussbudget (The Odd Couple), the family man and the psycho (Lethal Weapon), city and country (Crocodile Dundee), master and servant (Gosford Park).
What’s the highest grossing picture of all time? Titanic. It’s not just a story about an “unsinkable” ship that sinks (irony #1), it’s the story of the world’s largest ship (irony #2) that sinks on its maiden voyage (irony #3) as told through the eyes of two lovers who come from opposite ends of the social spectrum (irony #4).
With so many ironic elements, it’s no wonder the picture grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide.
How can you develop your own ironic premise? Here are some simple guidelines:
Try to work in extremes. Develop a leading character who represents the ultimate version of some characteristic. He’s the world’s worst (fill in the blank). She’s the world’s best (fill in the blank). He has the most (fill in the blank). She has the least (fill in the blank). Of course, your characters may not “technically” be the world’s best/worst/biggest/smallest/first/last anything, but this exercise is bound to point you in the right direction.
Put extreme characters in direct conflict. The best with the worst. The fearful with the fearless. The prince with the pauper. The militant feminist with a male chauvinist pig. Not only do such conflicts present immediate dramatic possibilities (i.e., conflict), they also give each character the pressure he or she needs to grow.
Look for “The Least Likely To…”. When a cop solves a murder, that’s not drama; that’s a procedural. When the victim comes back from the dead to solve his own murder…now that’s interesting. Always look for unlikely heroes, for long-shot champions, for ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations.
Make sure you can express your ironic premise simply and eloquently. “The Slobs Against the Snobs” (Caddyshack). “Sam Stone’s wife has just been kidnapped…and he doesn’t want her back!” (Ruthless People). “The general who became a slave; the slave who became a gladiator; the gladiator who defied an emperor” (Gladiator).
Call it the “twist,” the “gimmick” or even the “high concept,” it is the element of irony that propels most, if not all, successful stories.
Some writers take their entire lifetimes searching for this simple truth, yet it’s been staring at us in the face for more than 5,000 years.
Now isn’t that ironic?
– Reprinted with permission of Fade In Magazine