Posts Tagged ‘The Moral Premise’

“The premise is the motivating power behind everything we do.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

Lajos Egri interchanges the words premise with purpose. As in what’s the purpose of your story. This is not to be confused with plot. Egri writes, “A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play,” and gives some examples;

Foolish generosity leads to poverty.
Honesty defeats duplicity.
Bragging leads to humiliation.
Craftiness digs its own grave.
Egotism leads to loss of friends.
Extravagance leads to destitution.
Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

That last one could be Macbeth… or more recently Bernie Madoff.

Egri writes that the premise must not be ambiguous (Love defines all) and it must be something you believe. It comes out of your convictions. And it may come later in your writing.

Egri explains, “You don’t have to start your play with a premise. You can start with a character or an incident, or even a simple thought. This thought or incident grows, and the story slowly unfolds itself. You have time to find your premise in the mass of your material later. The important this is to find it.”

Robert McKee calls this the “controlling idea.” John Truby calls it the “moral argument.” Others call it “the moral of the story.” It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you have one – and just one.

Egri explains, “No one can build a play on two premises, or a house on two foundations.”

Now, with all that said…I do think there are plenty of produced screenwriters that not only don’t only start with a premise, but are generally unaware that they even have one. Stanley D. Williams addresses this in his book The Moral Premise:

Successful writers do not need to understand the rules of every story to be successful, anymore than a young child needs to understand the dynamic stability laws of physics when they learn to walk. Although I think a writer is better off knowing what the rules are, whereas dynamic stability only matters to engineers who want to make robots walk on two legs…But in reality, for many creative tasks, the right brain is able to do just fine all by itself.”

Scott W. Smith

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