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The Anatomy of the Premise Line

Summary of "The Anatomy of the Premise Line" by Jeff Lyons.
  • Chapter 1: Your First Book In Story Development

  • Tell Me Your Story: this is an introductory chapter where he asks you to jot down your story idea.
  • Story Comes First - Writing Comes Second: in which he cautions against jumping into writing pages, because one is likely to get lost in the narrative jungle. Rather have a premise sentence formulated first, because it will act like some sort of map of the jungle. Meaning there should be a way of Combining Save The Cat with the Anatomy of the Premise LineCombining Save The Cat with the Anatomy of the Premise Line
    I don't trust these writing systems anymore. They seem to interrupt [[flow]]. But insofaras it's useful to know what ballpark you're playing in storywise right at the start of a story, i.e. it's good to know what type of story you're telling…whether it's mainly a quest or a mystery etc… then the below might prove to be useful.
    Casting each of the Synopses of the Save The Cat genres in terms of the 8 Categories of The Anatomy of the Premise line.

    As I'm writing this, and coming up short when ...
  • Storytelling And Writing Are Not The Same Thing: in which he distinguishes between storytelling and writing. They require different talents and different skillsets. And this book is about the former.
  • The 7 Step Premise Development ProcessThe 7 step premise development process is designed to give you a repeatable, reliable and validated methodology to consistently produce stories with narrative legs that can survive the overall development process; or at the very least help you to realise your idea is a dud.
  • The “science” of premise development lies in the construction, which is what this book is about, and the “art” fo premise development lies in natural story sense and the ability to identify efficiently each of the essential components of the Invisible Structure - which takes practice, practice, practice.
  • Premise development normally takes a month or more to get right. It is the first step in developing a script or novel, and it is the most important step, so take the time - do the heavy lifting at the premise stage. When writing, if you find yourself going off in tangents, you go back to the premise line and read it. If it still makes sense, keep writing. If not, redo the premise line.
  • From page 158. “The other thing (other than knowing the difference between a story and a situation) that separates a pro from an amateur is having an intimate understanding of the moral nature of any premise idea. If you are writing a story, then the moral component can make or break your script, and if you can master this single story structure principle, then you will have a foundation tool Tha twill deepens and expand every story you tell.”
  • Keep in mind that the Premise Development process is not a quickie or a magic bullet, but rather a precision instrument that takes time, finesse, practice and patience to master fully. It involves a lot of testing, and going back and forth as you write…

Chapter 2: What is A Story Premise And Why Should We Care?

  • Common definitions on Story Premise: in which he puts forward some current definitions of story premise, and tears them apart. The reason why we should even care about Story Premise is because it is one of the most powerful story development tools out there.
  • Historical definitions of story premise: this is self-explanatory. He really liked the one that Lajos Egri put forward.
  • A Working Definition of story premise: “A Story Premise is a container that holds your story’s right, true and natural structure by delimiting the 7 essential limits of the story heptagon: Character, Constriction, Resistance, Desire, Relationship, Adventure, Change. He calls these “The Invisible Structure”- or “the 7 well-springs that feed the story river where we sail our boats.” I like maps. I prefer to think of these 7 points as the elements of any good map. A good map has elements such as a)Title - the heading of a map. b)Compass Rose - a part of a map that shows the cardinal directions/other directions. c)Key - a part of a map used to define symbols on the map. d)Grid - the set of lines that show coordinates on a map. e) Scale - the part of the map used to show how big it is in actual size.
  • So my working definition of a story premise is “A story premise is a map that represents the arrangement of the emotional elements on a specific narrative landscape by delimiting the 7 essential elements of the map.” Dunno if that helps any, but it helps me a little bit.
  • So running with the map analogy, a story premise keeps you on the charted territory and prevents you from traipsing to where the dragons be.

Chapter 3: The Invisible Structure

The Invisible Structure is a structure we cannot see - it’s an intuition, a feeling. It’s that “thing” about a story that makes you feel it and you “just know” it’s right: you’ve got something on your hands. There’s a quickening of the heartbeat, a sense of tense excitement and hope.

This “thing” is the powerful filter that helps you pick ONE story idea over the hundreds of others competing for your attention.

  • The Blinding Ball of Information: All the invisible structural elements come to you in one blinding flash of light, a gestalt, that you can’t actually describe but you can feel. A moment when you “see” the whole story, without specifics, but you just “know” it. But the details are not clear.
  • The Invisible Structural Elements

  • Character: The best ideas have ONE HUMAN BEING at their core. You feel this at the gestalt moment - one human/ anthropomorphic that has a journey.
  • Constriction: The sense that something/ someone forces the character to go out the door their soul - literally or not - and go on a journey. Some kind of motive force that causally and logically pushes them. Again, this is a feeling - it’s nothing tangible.
  • Importantly - this motive force that forces them to move is just what the Universal Physician recommended - the blood-letting, the excision that’s needed to make them better, more alive, more aware - aware of the lie they’ve been telling themselves - so Constriction and Moral Component are linked.
  • Desire - the Character wants something - you sense it strongly - you don’t know what, clearly, but you know they deeply want something. You sense the wanting. If there is no deep want - perhaps indescribable at this stage - then you won’t have a clear story.
  • Relationship - You sense the Main Character (M.C.) is going to have a group of people or a person - a team/ teammate - who’s going to be pivotal for their journey - they’ll go with them - for good for bad - but not for neutral.
  • Resistance - You don’t know what, but you get the sense that there is going to be opposition - maybe faceless and nameless at this stage - but nevertheless and impeding force that will cause chaos, disruption and confusion.
  • Adventure - a result of the pushback above, there is chaos and unruliness - that’s drawn out over a long period of time - the middle of the story. And there’s a vague sense of DIRECTION/ motion/ forward momentum.
  • Change - You sense that this character is not going to end up where they bang - there’s a telos they are going wards that’s different where they started from.

  • Backing Into The Story - It takes skill that moment of vision - that sense of wholeness of emotion - into constituent parts THEN into a premise. Most writers “see it” and “feel it” and then hurry off to write so as not to lose that moment - but then they get lost in the storytelling jungle, backtrack, and waste a lot of time and energy.
  • The Premise Sentence takes the amorphous feeling of a story into a tangible premise sentence expressing that single unity of emotion in words. This is what is called The Visible Structure.
  • NOTE: The Invisible Structure is an important part of the Premise Sentence’s 4 Clauses…

Chapter 4: The Visible Structure

Every story moves from abstract, inexpressible feelings to THE CONCRETE. Often times, that feeling stays in your head as an “idea” or “concept” and takes years before it’s born. It won’t let you midwife it or induce labour. When an “idea” or a “concept” pesters you to be written, it’s pestering you to give it a visible structure.

How the Invisible Becomes Visible:

INVISIBLE ELEMENT

VISIBLE ELEMENT

Character

Protagonist

Constriction

Moral Component & Constricting Event

Resistance

Opposition

Desire

Chain of Desire

Change

Evolution-De-Evolution

Relationship

Focal Relationship

Adventure

Plot Momentum

  • The Invisible Made Visible

  • Protagonist. The concretisation of Character.
  • Moral Component & Constricting Event. The concretisation of Constriction. It answers the question “Why now?” It’s some person or event that makes the Protagonist get out the door by illuminating their LIE/ moral blind spot. It is also the concretisation of the immoral effects of said blind spot on the people/ places around the Protagonist. He’s hurting people either by commission or ommission, based on a false belief that he has. Others can see the Lie/ Blind Spot, but the Protagonist cannot. Then the Moral Component comes along and “waves” from the blind spot, drawing the Protagonist’s attention.The Constricting Event must limit the Protagonists’s options/ time by supporting and reinforcing (not questioning) the LIE. THIS STEP TAKES THE MOST TIME… brainstorming a Constricting Event that supports, ramifies and reinforces the Lie, creating a sense of inevitability… “of course the Protagonist is going to go out the door!”
  • Chain of Desire. The materialisation of the invisible Desire. It’s called a chain because there are server sub-desires that stem from the main desire that stem from the Lie. The simpler all of this is, the better. All the links of the Chain of desire are visible and tangible, and all are necessary ingredients that are needed to make the overall goal achievable. ** Normally broken into 6 Acts/ Motions. These are the building blocks of the house, the ingredients of the cake… and each often has a sub-desire associated with it.
  • Focal Relationship. The materialisation of the Invisible Relationship. The focal character personifies the relationship that the protagonist will be working in with one or more people to achieve the goal, and this relationship is absolutely central to the storytelling.

  • The F.C. Focuses the story by driving the middle part of the story, by being a window/ mirror/ reflection character into the protagonists’s LIE/ moral blind spot. They reflect back to the M.C. Some aspect of themselves that makes the inner moral conflict of the MC. Comprehensible to the MC. The MC. May or may not pay attention to it.
  • There is usually one F.C. But sometimes you can several who act as windows into various angles of the LIE. This doesn’t mean that the story is an ensemble , necessarily.
  • The Audience has 2 ways in which to touch the soul of the M.C. 1) through the M.C’s personality and 2) Through the FC and the Focal relationship.

  • Opposition: This is the materialisation of the invisible resistance. A good story has different forms of opposition, but the indispensable one is the Antag.

  • The Antagonist has the same overall desire as the MC, but is driven by a different motive. Not sure if this means that he’s driven by a different LIE.
  • ALWAYS MAKE THE ANTAG FAMILIAR WITH THE M.C. Make it so that they know each other due to some circumstance or other. This ensures that the Antag’s attacks are tied into the M.C’s Lie and each move the Antag makes exposes more and more of the Protag’s lie.

  • Plot and Momentum. The concretisation of the Invisible Adventure. I find it interesting that the 6 Act structure seems to be considered as separate from the plot. It’s like the Chain of Desire (6 Acts) are the Ingredients, and Plot is the recipe?

  • The recipe (I.e. Plot and Momentum) need not be too detailed at the Visible Structure Stage - the detail comes in at the Outlining Stage using other tools- but what matters are the 4 key actions in the recipe. LEARN THESE 4 KEY ACTIONS IN THE RECIPE:
  1. Overall Midpoint Stakes: The point in the story where whatever objective, tangible thing can be lost goes up in value/ impact / size by tenfold.
  2. Protagonist Midpoint Stakes: At the same point in the story, what is personally at risk for the Protagonist also goes up, or comes into existence. Good movies don’t take the pedestrian choice where the Protagonist discovers that the Antag is an old friend/ colleague/ lover/ relative.
  3. Doom Moment/ All Is Lost. The point where the Protagonist uncovers the LIE and goes into a real existentialist crisis, questioning long-held beliefs.
  4. Final Resolution. Subjectively, the Protagonist heals their lie and embraces TRUTH and as a result, what they want changes. They get what they want but realises they don’t want it anymore because what they want has changed. Now what they want is healing of the lie. They becomes their Truer-Self (TRUTH) OR they embrace the Lie more fully (tragic ending a la The Godfather).
  • Evolution-De-Evolution. The materialisation of Invisible Change. It provides a tangible, exact, measurable, visual answer to the question “what will the invisible change look like to the outside world?”

  • The Premise Sentence Connection: This tool is what helps with making all the visible structure coherent.
  • NOTE: The Visible Structure is an important component of the Short Synopsis. You won’t use it overtly in the 4 Clauses of the Premise Sentence, but you’ll use it quite overtly in the Short Synopsis Worksheet.

  • The Premise sentence is a map that delineates the natural structure/ limits of any story and hence provides a guide for keeping the development process on track.
  • The Story Structure - Premise Connection

  • The Premise Sentence is a tool that physically takes your Invisible Structure and transforms it into a Visible Structure, and arranges the Visible structure into a coherent whole.

  • Anatomy of a Premise Sentence: where he analyses the elements that go into constructing the premise sentence. These are 4 CLAUSES, as below.

  • *

  • Mapping the Invisible Structure: The Four Clauses

  • Clause #1: Protagonist Clause…An event sparks a character to action, that…

  • This combines CHARACTER & CONSTRICTION (hence the LIE and all the stuff that goes with it such as the wound, the flaw, the fear, the immoral effect). In this clause, something pinches the character and inertia stops - he/ she is pushed into a new line of action.
  • This one clause is meant to capture both the Protag’s Moral blindspot and flaw, and the constriction that is related to/ built out of it. This is hard to do well.

  • Clause #2: Team Goal Clause…joins that character with one or more other characters acting with deliberate purpose toward some end…

  • Combines DESIRE & RELATIONSHIP… The character joins with one or more people acting on some tangible goal with purpose.
  • If you can, make it ONE PERSON, not many. It makes for stronger writing.

  • Clause #3: Opposition Clause…when that purpose is opposed by a force of resistance bent on stopping/ frustrating/ opposing them…

  • Combines RESISTANCE & ADVENTURE…. The character’s actions meet with some force Tha generates disorder and/ or chaos.
  • 4 wonderful questions to craft/ find your Antagonist, are:
  1. Who wants the same thing as the protagonist, but wants to beat the protagonist to the punch?
  2. Who knows the protagonist best and can use that intimacy to manipulate the protagonist?
  3. Who is a reflection of the worst kind of person the protagonist could become, unless they change?
  • These 4 questions open up beautiful vistas in antagonist-craft. Again, try and have ONE Central Antagonist, even if there are others.

  • Clause #4: Denouement Clause….leading to some conclusion/ resolution..

  • Combines ADVENTURE & CHANGE…the chaos leads to change and a new moral effect.
  • The Invisible Adventure traverses the 3rd and 4th clauses because chaos is messy and it stems from resistance, and creates the change.
  • In this clause we get a clearer sense of what the final stakes of the adventure might be.

  • Premise Analysis: It’s okay to have one long clunky sentence, because this forcefully prevents you from sneaking in backstory, adverbs and adjectives into the premise sentence.

  • Put all the story there. Don’t try and be clever and hide the ending to leave them wanting more. Just say it as it is.

Chapter 6: A Story Versus A Situation

Situations are parts of stories; they are not stories themselves. Understanding the difference between a story and a situation is one of the most valuable tools you can develop as a screenwriter. This is because, when one wants to make a property that is sustainable, you can’t build it out of situations e.g. You’ll never have a Gravity II, Godzilla II, Contagion II…

  • What is A Story? A story is the combination and interplay of character and plot that is a metaphor for a human experience leading to change. The key point is a change in the emotional life of the character.
  • The Magic Formula. Character = Plot = Story.
  • What is a Character? The combined effect of the personal motivation that generates a causal sequence of actions resulting in emotional change.
  • What is A Plot? Plot is the causal sequence of scenes that constitute the “what” of what happens in a story that originates from, and is at the service to, the motivations behind the choices made by a character.
  • What is A Situation?

  • The reason why situations are so common is because writers work very hard at more and more “hook-able” openings and story concepts, but have little or no facility at generating a sustaining a satisfying middle. It’s much harder to come up with the middle than with a banging opening. And the irony is that, you can be quite successful with only banging openings and high concept stuff… attention grabbing fireworks.
  • Situations are only about entertainment and engagement, not about relationships or character development.

  • The Five Components of A Situation.

  • Protagonist has a very weak or no moral blind spot/ lie.
  • The narrative is a problem, puzzle or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.
  • The narrative does not reveal personal motivation but rather tests a character’s problem solving skills.
  • The Plot twists around the puzzle or predicament or mystery, but rarely gives insight on the character.
  • Situations begin and end in the same emotional space.

  • What do I do if I have a Situation and Not A Story? •

Chapter 7: The Moral Premise

This is the single most important element in storytelling. If you successfully achieved a story with a protagonist who had a compelling and clearly defined moral component, your story would simply fall into place.

  • What does Moral Mean?

  • Very few writing teaches and commentators articulate a clear strategy for creating characters with convincing and sustainable moral components.
  • Moral refers to the life of the will, the will being the highest faculty that a human being possesses, enabling him or her to want what the intellect perceives as “good”. When the intellect is darkened by a false belief, something that is held to be certainly good, the will (person) then freely wants that good thing… and this harms the people around them, because it’s not really a good thing.

  • What is a Moral Component?

  • Moral Blind Spot: a core belief that is false, yet held as true - generated by a fear to which they are blind. This generates a flaw.
  • Immoral Effect: the flaw has a negative impact on others, and the protagonist is in denial about it.
  • Dynamic Moral Tension: the protagonist keeps making choices based on the moral blind spot and the immoral effect.

  • The Passive Protagonist: generates scene-level action based on external events that force them to act.
  • The Active Protagonist: generates scene-level action based on the blind spot and immoral effect.
  • Summary
  • Because this Section is so vitally important, I am including all the examples from the book, below…
  • “Consider the following examples from literature, theater, and film:
  • Sunset Boulevard (screenplay Billy Wilder, 1950)
  • Protagonist: Joe Gillis (William Holden)
  • Moral Blind Spot: Joe feels he has no real value.
  • Immoral Effect: Joe uses people for advancement, even as he  demeans himself; he manipulates others to look good.
  • Blind Spot-Immoral Effect Connection: Because Joe’s lack of  self-worth haunts him, he seeks out situations that remind him just how “less than” he really is, despite his hunger for achievement and the need to be admired. It is his ironic lack of value that drives his lust for being valued by others.
  • Amadeus (play Peter Shaffer, 1980; screenplay Peter Shaffer, 1984)
  • Protagonist: Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)
  • Moral Blind Spot: Salieri feels he is lacking talent, real genius—he’s ordinary.
  • Immoral Effect: Salieri cannot tolerate anyone excelling at his expense, so he must destroy them.
  • Blind Spot-Immoral Effect Connection: Because Salieri is driven by a core fear that he is mediocre (i.e., ordinary), when faced with real genius in the form of Mozart he obsessively drives Mozart toward his own ideal of perfection—and Mozart’s doom.
  • “Of Mice and Men (novel John Steinbeck, 1937; screenplay Horton Foot, 1992)
  • Protagonist: George Milton
  • Moral Blind Spot: George fears he will be obliterated by the world if he lets down his guard.
  • Immoral Effect: He must compulsively protect Lennie from the world, or else it may destroy him—Lennie being a metaphor for himself.
  • Blind Spot-Immoral Effect Connection: Even while he resents his role as protector, he so completely identifies with Lennie’s vulnerability to the world at large that he dooms both of them to a tragic end, when he is forced by his fear of the world to “protect” Lennie in the ultimate way: taking Lennie out of the world that threatens to destroy them both.
  • The Verdict (novel Barry Reed, 1980; screenplay David Mamet, 1982)
  • Protagonist: Frank Galvin
  • Moral Blind Spot: Frank is blind to the fact that he sees himself as valueless and not mattering.
  • Immoral Effect: He sees people as targets and easy prey for money; people don’t matter, they’re just a means to an end.
  • Blind Spot-Immoral Effect Connection: Frank takes advantage of people because they have no value to him, beyond what he can manipulate out of them, but he feels this about other people because he has no sense of worth about himself. He would not hurt other people if he found himself valuable; which is exactly what he does by the end of the story, reclaiming his own humanity.”
  • Excerpt From: Jeff Lyons. “Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success.” iBooks.