The Premise Test

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. Used correctly, it will save you from false starts. The premise test will tell you if you have a movie or not.

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

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). (Notes on Adjective)

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. (Notes on Archetype)

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). (notes on goal)

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).(Notes on Stakes)

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 must or else . They attempt this by and learns .”

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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