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The Premise Line

Picture this: You’re pitching your story to a producer or a network executive. You’ve been working on it on and off for a couple of months and are convinced that you have a pretty solid logline and hook. Heck, it might even be considered “high concept” in some circles. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, a question comes along that leaves you completely gob smacked.
“Who is the main character’s confidante?”
“How does your main character change in the end?”
“Nice story. But what are the stakes?”

These are questions which have caught me off guard many times in the past. And there I was, thinking that I had all my bases covered. While these things may seem rather obvious after the fact, the truth is that when one is mired in the dark depths of development, chasing after inspiration and chasing after a submission deadline, one can often overlook the seemingly obvious. And there is just no time to go back to the drawing board, and the end result is a blank look in the boardroom and a hastily mumbled “I’ll have to think about that when we’re in development.” Then follows the awkward microsecond of silence.

But what if that did not have to happen to you ever again? What if you had a system that enabled you to identify every single element that every story needs to feel complete, comprehensive and sufficiently dramatic?
That’s what the Premise Line does. Introduced by Jeff Lyons in his book, “The Anatomy of the Premise Line”, the tool covers all the groundwork needed for a solid story. If your script is the blueprint of your story, then the Premise Line is its invisible foundation. 

The Premise Line consists of eight “invisible elements” that every story has. These elements are invisible because they support everything else that happens in the story, and can seldom be pointed out directly on the page. But they are there, like a kind of spirit that breathes life into everything happening on the page and on the screen. These eight elements are:

  1. Character
  2. Constriction
  3. Desire
  4. Relationship
  5. Resistance
  6. Adventure
  7. Adventure (yes, it’s repeated!)
  8. Change

Character is the one person who your story is about. Oftentimes, when you have an idea for a story, you have the vague sense that it is about someone specific. You may not know what their background is, or what their inner conflicts and wounds are, but you know that the story will revolve around that one person. This is your character. 

Secondly, your character needs something to happen to them that will push them out of the door and launch them into an adventure. This is Constriction. It’s the same as the Inciting Incident or the Catalyst.  

The third essential and invisible element of every story premise is Desire. The thing that pushes your character out of the door gives rise to a specific desire, or blows away the embers of indifference or suppression and brings the desire to the fore once again. Some people call this the story goal. Others call this the stakes (though the term stakes has a nuance of “why this is important.”). 

In their efforts to obtain what they desire, your character is going to need some help. They are going to need to team up with someone. This is the Relationship character. As your main Character and Relationship characters go about obtaining their goal, a force of Resistance will place obstacles in their way. Also called the antagonist, it is this force that transforms what would otherwise have been a quick trip to the grocery shop into an Adventure worth writing home about. 

All of these ups and downs and trials and travails culminate in a face-to-face clash between your Character and the embodiment of the Resistance. This what Lyons refers to as Adventure (2), but what might be more aptly called the climactic sequence. And finally, your character goes through a Change as a result of all of this. It could be for the better or for the worse, but it is change nonetheless. 

Those are the eight invisible elements of every story in a nutshell. Lyons calls them invisible because you don’t need to see them clearly before you start writing, but you do need to have a “sense” of each one of them. This, for me, is one of the PROS of system. It is one of the few I have come across that is helpful before the writing process begins, before you put down any substance. Most other writing tools, I’ve found, are form tools, not substance tools. They work best AFTER you’ve got a rough draft down, not before. Whenever I’ve tried to use the Hero’s Journey, Story Clock or Save The Cat before I got something down, I got mired in analysis paralysis. But this hasn’t been the case with the Premise Line. It is compressed enough to hold in your mind whilst writing, in its entirety. And it is also short enough to not have to invest weeks and weeks before you go into the story. It won’t drain you. Having said that, it’s also a pretty powerful formal analysis tool. It can help you identify what’s missing from your script, when you have that tingling sensation that your story structure isn’t quite there yet, but you just can’t put your finger on what the problem really is. 

In terms of its cons, the main one that I came across was that the system does not cater to subplots. I contacted Lyons about this, and he himself confirmed that it is a shortcoming in the system and one that he is thinking about addressing in his next book.

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