The Premise Test

An (ADJECTIVE) (ARCHETYPE) must (GOAL) or else (STAKES) by (DOING) and learns (THEME) .

The premise test is simple, useful, and much harder to fill out than you’d think. Its brevity glosses over a lot of complexity and theory. In practice, it’s a powerful and merciless tool that exposes flawed or incomplete thinking.

Adjective: The chief trait of the character. A teen might be sex-crazed (Porkies), an outcast (Ghost World), a type-A overachiever (Election), or a shy nebbish (Perks of Being a Wallflower). (More)

Archetype: How you’d sum up the character. Major Payne is a badass major, as that’s his principal role in his story. Major Dad is a sitcom dad who happens to be a major. (More)

Goal: The rooting interest of the script. This can evolve or change, but it’s nice to have something to follow. Goals can be straightforward, like blowing up a comet (Armageddon) or more abstract, like getting over personal demons (Good Will Hunting).

Stakes: What happens if the character fails? These can be clear-cut, like “all life on Earth dies” (Armageddon) or abstract, “live life alone.” (Good Will Hunting).

Doing: The hard part. A character must make a million or lose his house or the Earth explodes is a setup. You only get a sense of the movie when you establish if he does it by shooting people, shooting a porn, or shooting baskets well enough to make the NBA.

Theme: The world view that’s established by all that doing. If a character grows and succeeds, that’s one kind of theme. If he stagnates and doesn’t, that’s a different theme. Or vice versa. The theme is not necessary what the character learns, more what the audience takes from the story.

Oh, and one more thing, many stories need to preface everything with “In a world where,” like, “In a world where ghosts are traded on the stock market, an <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. They attempt this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.”

2014-06-25 18.02.42

Five things I believe about screenwriting

  1. I believe that the one rule of screenwriting is be entertaining. It doesn’t matter if a movie uses explosions or conversation to entertain, so long as it does. A movie may be more highbrow, but the emotions it creates come from the same reptile brain. (1)
  2. I believe in three act structure . We could have an ontological argument about it’s existence, but it remains the most useful way to talk about and conceptualize screenwriting concepts.
  3. I believe in tackling premise first, because premise  is easier to learn, yet people have trouble getting a handle on it. Character and scenework are also important, but I like to teach them after premise.
  4. I believe the biggest obstacles to screenwriting are rooted in psychology. Specifically, it’s easier to avoid trying than it is to try your hardest and spectacularly fail.
  5. I believe there are no advanced problems in screenwriting (or anything), only fundamental ones.



(1) An earlier draft had this rule as  “don’t be arbitrary .” I’ve since reconsidered. We use unity to achieve the goal of entertainment, but it’s a means, not an end.

A hater’s guide to save the cat – Chapter Three

Blake Snyder was, by all accounts, a nice man. He tragically passed away in 2009. I’m not here to disrespect the man, and if you do, you’re an asshole. That said, this is a Hater’s guide to his book, Save the Cat. It’s written for people who might have to quote anything about it to someone who’s taking it way too seriously.

Chapter Three – It’s About A Guy Who…

SECTION: Introduction

There are two things that confound me about Blake Snyder. The first is that he had some good ideas, but they’re often buried beneath his more indefensible statements. The second is that because he voiced some of these ideas, other people who talk about similar concepts have to work extra hard to distance themselves from Save The Cat to be taken seriously. (1)

“As my wise old father used to say, ‘tell me astory about a guy who…’

Mr. Snyder uses this introductory section to state his belief in the importance of character in any one-line, logline or movie idea.

Pg 47-48
Mr. Snyder says that all pitches should begin with “It’s about a guy who…” This is not inherently bad advice, but per usual his rationale is scattershot, referencing a soccer mom in a Tylenol commercial, Lawrence of Arabia, and the Jack in the Box mascot.
Mr. Snyder believes that all scripts can be encapsulated into a one-line. Many people have pointed out that his one-line template is not radically disimilar from my diagnostic logline. This is a fair comment, but I like mine better, obviously. (1)Mr. Snyder believes that all one-lines should have an adjective for the protagonist (I agree) and an adjective for the bad guy (which I don’t agree with because it’s too reductive my for my taste).
Mr. Snyder pitches some movie ideas and points out the importance of character in the pitches.
Pg 49
As an example of a one-line, Mr. Snyder pitches his own work, Poker Night: “A hen-pecked husband finally gets the house to himself one weekend and loses it in a poker game to an unscrupulous gambler.”
Hen-pecked is one of those words that hasn’t aged real well. Lucky is the actress who gets to play that man’s wife.Mr. Snyder pitches this as “Risky Business with a dad… need I say more.” Well, actually, yes. I have no idea what that movie looks like.
Pg 50.
Mr. Snyder also pitches his comedy, Third Grade, which forces an immature businessman to attend third grade. With his typical slipshod approach to rhetorical consistency, Mr. Snyder neglects to provide the adjective that this character gets. He also neglects to describe the antagonist, which he just got finished describing. I’d forgotten how lazy the writing was in this treatise.He points out that the smug business man is the best person for this role because of the inherent irony of the situation – the premise would work less well if the protagonist didn’t need to be taken down a peg.
SECTION: Amping up the Logline
Mr. Snyder suggests positioning characters so they have maximum irony. He also advocates writing for the marketplace (you don’t want to write for old and done actors).
Pg 51
Mr. Snyder references some of the loglines he cited in chapter one. Worthy of note is that even though he said that all one-lines should have a protagonist and an adjective, his cited logline for the lamentable Four Christmases lacks an adjective that describes a characteristic (he uses newly-married, which describes a situation).
Mr. Snyder cites Ride Along: “A risk-averse teacher goes on a ride along with his brother-in-law, an overprotective cop, and the goal is primal: the love of the woman they both care about… Those adjectives tell me exactly where this story is going. It’s a trial by fire for the teacher: is he brave enough to overcome his fear… if he loves her, he will.”
This is a fair assessment, but I’d argue that Mr. Snyder makes the mistake of thinking a first act is implicit enough to suggest a second act, when it frequently isn’t.
Also interesting is the general terribleness of the two examples he cited. I remember reading this when it came out and thought, “are those really emblematic of the kind of movies he wants to champion.”  Tellingly, they both got made, so I guess he wasn’t completely off his rocker, but the utter failure of Four Christmases, both critically and commercially, deserves frequent and repeated mockery.
Pg 52
When it comes to picking protagonists, Mr. Snyder recommends we pick the ones that:
* Offer the most conflict in the situation
* Have the longest way to go emotionally.
* Are the most demographically pleasing.
This advice is boring, but serviceable. I’d like to see more about how to write characters to attract a star’s interest, which is one of the ways projects get picked up, but whatever. I’ve already established that I think this book has some problems.
SECTION: The Primal Urge.
Pg 54-55
“The best ideas and best characters in the lead roles must have basic needs, wants, and desires. Basic, basic!
“Make the hero want something real and simple: survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death.”
I actually like this note. Generally, in a movie’s stakes, the trophy, victory, or goal is a fig leaf for one of these things.
SECTION: Casting for the role of your hero.
Pg 56
“Don’t cast the movie before you’ve sold the script.”
It’s worth noting that this flies in the face of another popular screenwriting book, HOW TO WRITE MOVIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, which nakedly encourages you to write things like “Meet CHAD (think Jonah Hill).” I have no opinion on this.
SECTION: Actor Archetypes
Pg 57
Mr. Snyder breaks actors down into archetypes. Speaking as someone who’s facinated by Jungian archetypes, I found this idea intriguing, but totally underfed. Mr. Snyder seems to have thrown it out and just assumed that we’d pick up what he’s throwing down.  (2)
The Young Man on the Rise: Harold Lloyd, Adam Sandler, Ashton Kutcher (remember, this book was written in 2005)
The Good Girl Tempted: Betty Grable, Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon
The Imp/Clever Resourceful Child: Jackie Coogan, MacCauley Culkin
The Hunk: Rudolph Valentino, Vin Diesel
The Wounded Soldier: Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood
The Troubled Sexpot: Veronica Lake, Angelina Jolie
The Loveable Fop: Cary Grant, Hugh Grant
The Court Jester: Danny Kaye, Rob Schneider
The Wise Grandfather: Alec Guiness, Ian McKellan
The Sex Goddess: Mae West, Halle Berry (I regret that Mr. Snyder never got to see Kate Upton make it big. No man should be denied that pleasure).
To Mr. Snyder’s point, some archetypes are deathless.
The archetype stuff is intriguing, but we never hear an explanation for this or any suggestions on how to use archetypes in an interesting way. It’s like I’d need another book for that, which makes the tagline “the last screenwriting book you’ll ever need” stand out like the blighted lie it is.
SECTION: Special Circumstances
Pg 60-61
Mr. Snyder deals with exceptions to his rules, which include biopics, ensemble movies, and animated movies. This is uninteresting, and he addresses it with his typical blithe confidence.
Pg 63
“If it sounds like I am insisting you be a slave to the logline… well, you’re right.”
For all the shade I’m throwing, I can’t help but admire this confidence. I don’t even disagree with this
“By better examing who your hero is and what your primal goal is… you can better identify and expand on the needs of your story.”
This is essentially true, and it hits on things I espouse, like patternizing, unity, and specificity.Speaking as someone who’s had my own problems expressing how loglines can help shape a story, I can sympathize with Mr. Snyder. That said, I also wish he’d used better logic and rhetoric in selling this idea, because now every time I mention the word premise or logline, I have to spend five minutes cravenly distancing myself from Mr. Snyder and Save the Cat before explaining the concepts.
SECTION: Summary
Pg 64
The perfect hero is the one who offers the most conflict in the situation, has the longest emotional journey, and a primal goal we can all root for. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones and fear of death grab us.” Mr. Snyder uses the loaded term “perfect hero,” when he probably meant “perfect hero, at least in my ideal world.” By softening his language just a little, he probably would have allowed his many good ideas to communicate more freely. (3)When committing… to your lgline, you must have an adjective to desribe your hero, an adjective to desrbie the bad guy, and a definite and primal goal or setting.
As noted, Mr. Snyder breaks these rules in the chapter of the book that introduces him, so I’m skeptical about all this. I don’t think a logline needs an antagonist, and I think most loglines would be improved by accounting for HOW the hero accomplishes his goal, which is an idea SAVE THE CAT approached, but never quite articulated.
(1) Hence this series of articles. If you’re wondering what happened to chapters 1 and 2, I’m writing this out of order. I’ll be done with it sometime around 2027.
There are some good ideas in Mr. Snyder’s work. Unfortunately, they’re buried beneath the more questionable “Blake Snyder beat sheet” and his “ten genres.” I was intrigued with his ideas on archetypes in this chapter and the “promise of the premise” on page 81, but future installments of Save the Cat ended up about applying the reductive beat sheet template to everything.
(2) This reminds me of a broader note, that Mr. Snyder seems to have used this book as a proof of concept for every idea he ever had, figuring he’d get it in print and point at it in a seminar if he ever needed to revisit it. He basically says as much on page 119.
(3) As noted earlier, SAVE THE CAT is the name for a kind of scene that makes a person likeable so we’re engaged with what he’s doing. Ironically, Mr. Snyder never “saved the cat” in his own book, so his distinct and earnest voice comes off as smarmy in print, when it was friendly and engaging in real life.

How to use the premise test to vet an idea

* Premise and conversation posted with permission.

A lonely speech pathologist getting over her sons death, a nervous ticked chemist and an escaped, young alien must break into a research facility to free captive aliens or else he will never be reunited with his family. They do this by planning to break in the facility and learn to give up the past and trust in others. 
An emotionally devastated woman who has lost her son encounters a stranded alien child. She fosters him and works to reunite him with his family by rescuing them from a government base. She mounts her rescue and breaks into the most heavily guarded facility in the world, using nothing but ingenuity, planning and courage. Things are complicated by the fact that she’s bonded with the alien and doesn’t want to let her surrogate “child” go. She learns to let go of the past and trust others.
JeffreyWhales: Gotta try mine out to see how it looks so far. A speech pathologist who lost her son in an accident and a nervous ticked chemist fall in love while hiding an escaped alien from a nearby facility, only to find out the alien’s family is still being held in captivity causing them to plan a break in to help get them home. Not there yet, but any tips would be wonderful!
Me: Please put it in the suggested format.
JW: A lonely speech pathologist getting over her sons death, a nervous ticked chemist and an escaped, young alien must break into a research facility to free captive aliens or else he will never be reunited with his family. They do this by planning to break in the facility and learn to give up the past and trust in others.
ME: Presumably, they don’t do this by planning to break into a facility, presumably they break into a facility, right? What do they spend the second act doing? Planning the break in, breaking in, or dealing with the aftermath of the break in?
JW: Yes, didn’t realize that I put that. I imagined it where they spend the first part of the second act learning about the alien and how to care for him, and then finding out about his family midway through the 2nd act which is when they decide to break in. Maybe its put better like this: …they do this by learning how to utilize the alien’s powers and their own expertise to sneak in and find his family. This is difficult. But thank you very much for helping. It’s amazing.
ME: It is hard. People look at this and think it’s going to be easy, but it’s strange how powerful the Visual Means part is when it comes to determining what people take the story to be. …they do this by learning how to utilize the alien’s powers and their own expertise to sneak in and find his family. Okay, I like that better. I can see why learning to use an aliens powers would yield some sequences. The first half explores the powers, the second half utilizes them in service of a goal. That’s at least a defensible second act, though. Perhaps not an ideal one, but it’s defensible.
1) What are the alien’s powers? If he’s got superman-level powers, it’s one kind of movie, if he can teleport, it’s Jumper, if it’s goofy, you’ve got ET or my Stepmother is an Alien or Mac and Me.
2) What’s the genre?
3) What’s the third act look like?
My prediction: They get to the base, break in, but their friendship sours because of an inability to let go of the past. and they get caught. It looks like they’re going to die, but then something happens to remind them to trust each other, let go of the past. Then they do, and use the alien powers and their new fellowship to free the family and save the day? I’ve read enough scripts to infer that’s what would probably happen, but I want to be sure that’s what you want to communicate.
JW: More of superman like powers. The ability to direct blasts of electricity, heal wounds and create fields of energy around them. Not looking for goofy, I like sad shit. The third act you almost nailed actually. difficulty with her letting go of her new “son”, they do get caught and separated. She sees something (spoilers?) that gets her to let go, refocus on escaping and getting the help of the other aliens to escape.
ME: When you said alien, I thought ET or Paul. That’s goofier than you intended. Now I’m not sure what has crash-landed on earth. Is it a Kryptonian? An Iron Giant? A Thanagarian? A Xenomorph? A Predator? Gort and Klaatu? When you say alien, people are going to default to ET, a Grey, or a Xenomorph. You’ve got to be specific, otherwise your idea communicates poorly. Is this an alien movie or a superhero movie? I still need to know what the genre is.
Also, and this is just me, now I’m thinking of the movie Powder and I’m unhappy because no one should think of Powder.
JW: It’s an alien movie, but I really wanted to focus on the relationship of the two people coming together over these circumstances. a Grey type alien for sure. Sci-fi romance for genre? is that a thing? Also I should mention and didn’t know how to fit it in the log line, When she lost her son, she loses her ability to have children as well. There is a payoff for that in the ending once she gets wounded and taken onto the alien’s ship to be healed. I’m assuming you’ll guess the payoff.
ME: Okay, this is getting complicated, and I’m starting to lose faith in the unity of the premise.
Right now you have two premises fighting with each other:
1) Two grief-stricken people rebuild their lives while caring for a stranded alien life form.
2) A stranded alien with crazy super powers must rescue his family from Area 51.
These are two different tonal approaches to the same concept. I’m not certain they’ll coexist well, because either of those could be a movie in themselves, and those are two different genre approaches on a similar concept.
Ask why. Why do you need both of those things? Why does the alien need DC comics powers? Those feel arbitrary, and arbitrary is bad. Wouldn’t the story also work if he was just an alien? Why lightning and healing as opposed to telekinesis and psychokinesis, or cybermancy and flight?  Why is the human’s grief specifically ameliorated or exacerbated by the specific nature of the powers?
What does it all mean? Convince me that you’re writing from an overarching aesthetic choice, not just a random collection of interesting ideas.
JW: Possibly true that not all the powers are needed. I can see that, I did need one, their healing powers, to specifically be there for the ending when they help fix her inability to have children. This allows her to have a child with some of the powers that the facility was trying to gather information on, but that is mostly for the other movies. I imagined it as, in its most basic form: loss of child and ability to have children. A “surrogate child” comes into her life that she must learn to give up and let go of. learning to give up, she is rewarded with unexpected help from aliens to be able to have a child. The powers were there mostly to aid in the break in and out of the facility. Would that be distracting? They do only come into play around the middle of act two when they are able to remove the collar that inhibits their abilities.
“The powers were there mostly to aid in the break in and out of the facility?”
Seems like lazy writing. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the downtrodden woman had a clever plan that worked as opposed to having to rely on an arbitrary ass pull? Of course, now you need a clever break in (I fucking hate writing those), but it’s a better show of your talents.
Here’s your logline:
An emotionally devastated woman who has lost her son encounters a stranded alien (child?). She fosters him and works to reunite him with his family by rescuing them from a government base. She mounts her rescue and breaks into the most heavily guarded facility in the world, using nothing but ingenuity, planning and courage. Things are complicated by the fact that she’s bonded with the alien and doesn’t want to let her surrogate “child” go. She learns to let go of the past, trust others, and to embrace tomorrow.
The healing device must be on the ship, otherwise the alien would heal her womb and her arc is over.
It doesn’t matter if she gets her fertility back or not. It’s not about restoring her reproductive “worth” (I can’t begin to tell you how loaded this idea is in gender politics), it’s about restoring her soul. Arguably, her getting fertile again cheapens her arc, it doesn’t strengthen it. It’s optional.
Choose one genre. This could be a soulful story like Michael, or K-Pax, or ET. This could be a riproaring action story like HANCOCK or THE HOST (Korean). Trying to split the difference cheapens your built-in character arc by turning her human tragedy into a plot contrivance.
If you want to do the actiony stuff, sell it harder. If he has amazing lightning powers, hint at ways those powers might be used.
I hope this shows how using the diagnostic logline helps you focus on what’s specifically interesting about your premise.
JW: Ah fuck that’s good. Yeah, I’m sure I can come up with a better plan, but yes, they really suck to write. I mostly imagined the powers used to protect them from bullets or to shoot back at the guards. They would have gotten in through a weak spot in the surrounding fence that the woman learns about early in the movie. Also that the alien gets taken away and leaves her and the guy to fend for themselves for a bit. I really can’t thank you enough for all of this help. I don’t have any friends in the film world so doing this all in my own head wasn’t getting me anywhere. Thank you!!!
Shameless plug: I’ll do the same for your logline for just $10, and you won’t have to see it posted on the internet! See my services page for more information.

An intro to improv

Here’s a good series on introductory improv techniques created by Jayne Entwistle for ExpertVillage. There’s a youtube playlist of it, but they were uploaded out of order, so I’ve arranged them in a way that makes them more accessible for beginners. I recommend you check out the full series.

This is the first in a series of articles on improv for screenwriters.

1. Introduction

2. The Basic Rules

3. More on Rules

4. Yes And

5. Who/What/Where

6. Giving and Taking

7. Blocking

8. Spacework

9. Questions

10. Summary of rules

11. Even Advanced Improvisation is Based on the Basic Rules