Tone & Premise

Still from “Mountain Cult – Doctor with the Red Houseware”

As I set out to write my next project, one writing element comes to mind as the dominating cornerstone – tone.

Its importance is oftentimes understated, but I believe it plays an enormous factor in the viewability of a story. We enjoy watching films that satisfy a certain longing. It is the same reason we may return to a barbershop with sub-par barbers – if the music is “cool”, the workers are “chill”, and the “vibe” is right, we may still have an enjoyable experience. We can learn from real life experience that people are drawn to power and certain moods. It is the reason why radio stations play garbage disposals on repeat instead of music.

The second major element I intend to exploit is premise. This contains the basic idea behind the story – and what most viewers are considering when they search a film to watch. Think “Aliens land on earth to impregnate cows and form a competing intelligent species.” Within the premise you may find a motivation for watching.

I have some early ideas and routes I would like to go down, but nothing is cemented yet. I will take my first crack at a short draft on Monday. I’m hoping to produce a short film that contains the essence of a feature length story. From there I will solicit funding and distribution. It’s a long, treacherous road ahead, but the well paved roads are too boring to skate down anyway.

Editing & Premise

This angry Chicken has nothing to do with the rest of this post.

Now that I’ve got a working draft for the episode, it’s time to edit. Editing is, by far, my favorite part of the creative process.

Think about any competition show you’ve ever watched. American Idol, Forged in Fire, Hell’s Kitchen – doesn’t matter. Chances are you’ve been entertained by a competition involving a skill that you know nothing about. I’ll bet that lack of trade knowledge didn’t stop you from judging the competitors!

Editing is the same way. Often it’s easy to know when something doesn’t read write or seem interesting. Fundamental understanding of story-telling elements will enable you to make corrections that fix the problems you find. If you try and make corrections sorely based on feel, there is a chance that you continue creating the same problem in a different way.

Writing is no different than any other skill-based task that we perform in our lives. Your story is an engine. The knowledge you attain pertaining to writing is your tool set. The more engines you build, the more likely they are to work better and more efficiently.

Each scene, no matter how mundane, will always incorporate and be judged by the following categories: Premise, tone, conflict, character arc, plot points, formatting/grammar, and dialogue. There are probably more, but these elements come to mind.

Your premise is the heart of your story. It’s the little description you read about a movie on Netflix before you decide to watch it. There are premises that are universally appealing, and there are premises that fall flat and die before they even get out of the gate. When you pitch a publisher or an agent, they want to hear about your premise before you submit the body of your work. If the soul of the story doesn’t appeal to their interests/market, they will not ask you to submit your story.

A lot of writers make the mistake of thinking that you can write a great story first and then find a way to summarize the plot into an intriguing premise later. This generally doesn’t work.

The most powerful tool I’ve found to grade the strength of your premise is to verbalize it to people close to you. The first time I tried to write a book and tell someone what it was about verbal diarrhea spilled from my lips. You will be able to tell instantly by the expression on another person’s face whether your idea has some legs or whether it was born with a debilitating genetic defect.

The premise is the question. It’s the driving force behind the story and should contain the major story-telling elements within a single sentence. The conflict should be inherent and natural, the tone should be felt, and the genre should be evident.

My premise for episode 5 is this:

Ryan discovers an anonymous love note hidden by his missing wife and learns some secrets are better left unknown.

It raises questions: Who wrote the note? Was his wife unfaithful? Why did she hide it? Was the writer responsible for her disappearance?

The conflict is inherent and the plot can be assumed: Ryan must confront the writer of the note.

The genre is all obvious: Mystery. A sense of danger is implied by the act of the note being hidden.

Anyways, this was sort of a rambling post. But today I get to edit and play with colors that are already on the palette. I enjoy that much more than staring at a blank canvas.

Have a wonderful day creating and pursuing the premise that consumes your own life.

Desire compels but delay gratifies

Whether you are selling a product, an idea, or yourself you should always consider the promise you are making to the consumer. The promise is a sense of fulfillment pertaining to a desire. Because my passion is film (and more specifically story) I’m going to apply these traits to different genres to better demonstrate my point.

The human mind has the capability to understand and recall extremely vast amounts of data and complex systems. Doing this requires work, however, and is no different than embarking on a vigorous workout. Certain people enjoy performing challenging physical activities for the purpose of improved physical health but they are in the minority. Despite our ability to push beyond conventional boundaries it will always be a mistake to expect or even ask this out of your consumer. In other words, any product that requires hours to study the manual, any book that necessitates undivided focus for its labyrinth of plot, and any song that requests more patience and a unique taste from its listener will all struggle to gain any traction whatsoever.

Just because we can be better, stronger, smarter, more ethical and less lazy doesn’t mean that we want to – or ever will be. Our minds are electric and they seek the path of least resistance.

You can argue about the above information all day. You can say its a reflection on modern day reality and the dangers of the informational age. You can say all of that but it won’t change anything.

I think the greatest way to analyze human behavior is through the convention of religion. Since the dawn of mankind man has understood himself to fall short of where he ought to be. In each of us is the desire to be better, but in each of us is the desire to do things that harm ourselves and others. This battle is known as temptation.

David Fincher will be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time. He has directed Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, and too many other great movies to list. When asked for his secret to success, he stated something so unusual that I still find myself contemplating it daily. David Fincher stated he had made a career out of the belief that “People are perverts.”

After a quote like that you would expect his films to be almost pornographic in nature, or at the very least heavy with sex. Instead, David Fincher tends to direct psychological thrillers that are not heavy with nudity or innuendo (those these items are still present). So how did this saying shape his career?

In my opinion, I don’t believe he used the word pervert to specifically refer to sexual deviancy. I believe he meant the image of a person watching his neighbor through a crack in their blinds. Our desire for anonymity during our private hours is obvious, as no person enjoys airing their dirty laundry in front of others. We have an intrinsic desire to watch what others do in private without our presence ever being detected.

What did all this have to do with the topic of the post? I don’t know man, I just finished my work week and I went off on a tangent. But here is a short summary of things we watch or take part in and the underlying emotional experience we are looking for when we do:

  1. Religion – hope
  2. Hip hop – power, confidence, rebellion
  3. Thriller – Anxiety, discomfort, an escape from our personal problems
  4. Romance – Love, contentment, realization that our own lives are worthy of enjoyment
  5. Jewelry – To be perceived by others as beautiful, wealthy, and special

The list goes on and on and exists in every facet of everything. But just as important as it is to understand what the consumer/viewer/reader/listener desires when they choose to give your product/composition a chance, it’s equally important to understand the nature of tension. I guess that brings us back to the beginning of this post – realizing temptation drives us. Look at the opposite of the product’s promise to discover the driving force.

  1. Religion – hope (build up fear to fulfill)
  2. Hip Hop – Power, confidence, rebellion – how do these songs often start? With a story about former poverty, rejection, and the collective “in” crowd the artist was formerly rejected by.
  3. Thriller – Anxiety, discomfort, escape – Begin with complacency and happiness. Engage the viewer to subconsciously root for tragedy by waving “the good life” in front of their face. In other words, bring out the feelings of envy before delivering the promise of fear, doubt, and worry that many fans of this genre are actually accustomed to in their daily lives.
  4. Romance – Before we can arrive at happiness and contentment, the journey must include dabbling in all other potential avenues for life and relationships. That is why the lead in this story has one love interest and one sociological interest. It is also why they are typically between jobs or considering their passion over a guaranteed paycheck.
  5. Jewellery, elitism, fine dining, sports cars, etc. – the promise is a sense of importance and elevation from those around you. What is the fear that drives this decision? It is a club. You can either afford it or you can’t, and those who can’t aren’t welcome. This sense of exclusion is necessary for they types of individuals and products. VIP, limited availability, invitation only, these all sell and generate interest based off of this idea. In the form of a movie, Ocean’s Eleven comes to mind. The actors are all A-list and good looking, but it goes well beyond that. The story is fast paced, the lines are quick-witted, and the non-main characters are always dumber than our heroes. There are countless comedies that are similar to this as well. Think of any movie that you’d be comfortable recommending to a group of friends to view despite having no interest in watching it yourself. That is a story that exudes a sense of cultural value and supremacy much like products we can wear or be transported in.

Anyways, today is my drinking day so I’ve got to get to work. I know this post was all over the place and haphazardly put together but I wanted to get something out. I’d like to go into more detail and expand on these ideas and theories sometime in the near future. Have a peaceful morning.

What is a Premise?

ice-cream-truck-2

I know I told many of you I’d be discussing the indie script I’m working on today, but with all my illusions of grandeur I’ve decided I’d be more comfortable discussing the importance premise holds for storytellers.

According to grammarabout.com,  a premise is: A proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.

This term is thrown around a lot in literature and screen-writing circles. If somebody asks you what the premise of your story is, they’re basically saying “What’s it all about?”

I remember when I spent a year working on a book series that never saw the light of day. I knew nothing about plot, 3-act structure, or even what makes for good conflict. I knew I had a brilliant idea that I was obsessed with, and that’s it… No wonder the books sucked.

I attended a writers conference eager to pitch my first book to agents and publishers. Enlightenment struck when I sat down to explain my story. All I could do was discuss the interesting events and characters, while maintaining the confidence of a reality star interviewing for a position as a brain surgeon.

When you understand premise, you’ll understand the concept of your story and be better able to explain it. A premise should include:

  1. The protagonist
  2. The antagonist
  3. The inciting incident
  4. The obstacles faced by the protagonist
  5. The stakes of the quest.

Here is a cliche premise I’ll make off the top of my head to give you an idea. I’ll link each subject with its corresponding number from the list above.

A chiseled ice-cream driver’s(1) ride is turned upside down when Harry(2) and his cronies bust into the back of his truck(3) with axes. If he doesn’t defy the laws of rush hour traffic(4) and get the ruthless pre-teens to Disneyland within 30 minutes(5), his understanding of a banana-split will take on a whole new meaning(5 again).

Ok, that wasn’t exactly cliche. Weirdly horrific would be more apropos. But when you can condense these elements of your story into one paragraph, you’ll be making leaps and bounds of progress. For one thing, this is what agents and publishers are looking for when you query them. Secondly, understanding how much these elements impact your story as a whole will help you put something together that readers will enjoy before you even set pen to paper. To make a premise stronger, and a story more appealing, turn up the degrees of each element.

  1. chiseled ice-cream driver – sounds like a strong, capable man. A good story features an antagonist who is more capable than our hero. So let’s make this a sixteen year-old girl with braces (regardless of your opinion of stereotyping, readers will always assume qualities about your characters from the moment they are introduced. You may not like it, but you’re better off accepting it)
  2. Harry – Any kid with an axe scares the shit out of me. Why don’t we give throw in a free black-eye with some bruises. Sounds like his dad beats his ass and he’s probably got some psychological issues that make him more dynamic than before. Also, let’s upgrade his axe to a chainsaw.
  3. Bust into the truck – Nah, how bout they planned this shit? At a red light they come sprinting from all corners of the neighborhood and make a tactical play at breaking into that ice-cream mobile.
  4. Rush hour traffic – Well, this is an easy one. How bout we have her driving on the wrong side of the highway, just for the hell of it?
  5. The banana split joke is out, and we might as well kick the random 30 minute thing to the curb. How bout the gas tank is on low, and Harry tells our protagonist she’s dead if she can’t get them there before… the Peter Pan ride closes.

And here’s the new story description:

Lacey ‘the brace-face’s summer job takes a horrific turn when a black-eyed bully and his loser friends use chainsaws to infiltrate her ice-cream truck. If she doesn’t get them to Disneyland before gas runs out and the Peter Pan ride closes, she’ll die before ever telling Brad how she feels. But demanding she drive on the wrong side of the highway is a tell-tale sign that Harry is in the mood for murder.

Wow, that would be the most brutal YA novel I ever heard of. Anyway, I hope you get the idea (and noticed the added romance that is ALWAYS a benefit).

One big takeaway from this experiment should be that the most effective alteration I made between premises was giving Harry a black-eye. This doesn’t make him any more menacing, but does suggests he has some internal conflicts of his own, making him dynamic and more than just a standard ‘bad guy’. This story could then be made quite effective by reflecting his abusive upbringing with similar struggles that Lacy has experienced… Or contrasting them with the ones she hasn’t. An effective resolution to this story would demonstrate how Lacy overcame her childhood trauma through ‘X’, which a good writer would use as the overarching theme throughout the entirety of the story.

I brought up a lot here, and wouldn’t dare elaborate on the more complex subjects in this post. Just remember that when you know the premise of your story, not only can improve it exponentially, but you will be capable of describing it to others without feeling like a drunk explaining the meaning of life to a sober person.

  • Thomas M. Watt

Author of Master