Premise Test Examples

Reader question: You talk about your premise test a lot. How would you apply this to a more character driven piece like Five Easy Pieces or Dog Day Afternoon? Or even Reservoir Dogs. How about the Shining or Taxi Driver. What theme do the protagonists of those stories learn?

My premise test:  An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. They do this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

I have no idea what process the authors of these used; it’s not like they used my premise test. But I can work backwards:

FIVE EASY PIECES: A self destructive piano genius must resolve his issues re his estranged father or else continue his downward spiral. He does this by (events of the movie) and learns that his efforts to normalize or resolve his life are doomed to fail. Hence he continues his drifter lifestyle.

DOG DAY AFTERNOON: A desperate man robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation, but a hostage situation ensues. He must escape it or else go to jail. He does this by (events of the movie). He fails, and learns that his failings (carelessness and desperation) have doomed him in crime just as they’ve doomed him in all other areas of his life.

RESERVOIR DOGS: A group of criminals (and one undercover cop) pull off a robbery, but have to hide from the heat. They quickly turn on each other and do (events of the movie) in the process leaning that their line of work precludes trust.

THE SHINING: A writer on the edge must resist the seduction of an evil hotel, or be transformed into a family-killing madman. He attempts this by (events of movie) and fails, learning that the human animal is frail, corruptible, and more susceptible to evil than we’d like to admit.

TAXI DRIVER: A border-line psychotic, alienated war vet takes a job driving a taxi in 70’s New York. He must cope with his growing violence and madness, and try to find hope in a world that seems dingy and fallen or else give in to madness and violence/wreak evil. He does this by (events of movie) and eventually learns to channel his madness into something that almost resembles heroism.


I’ve purposely avoided the doing section, because it’s been a while since I’ve seen any of these and I don’t want to dilute my point by getting the details wrong. Note though, the importance of the doing section. Even if you keep all the other options the same, you can radically change any of these stories by substituting in “winning a surfing contest,” “turning into a wereshark,” or “by taking care of six loveable orphans.” You can boil any of these stories down to a basic premise. If you can’t do this on your premise, you might not have enough material yet.

Even your “character driven” movies have plots. Their characters flourish because they have something to do and a world/story to push against. Just because I’m stating premise first doesn’t mean I’m ignoring character. At some point, I’ll continue with the examples and show the character stuff I do before starting.

Some people read the test and think “this is soulless and will yield nothing but cookie cutter ideas.” The point is to know how to bend it to make it work for you. Almost every story has a character (or group of characters), and they’re going to have a goal and do things. This is formulaic only in the sense that sentence are formulaic for having nouns and verbs.

Most loglines are weak because they’re all about the first act setup and give no clue for how the story will be resolved. Example: A time traveler escapes to 2014, but is tracked by a time cop who wants to kill him to prevent a time crisis.

This tells me the first act, but doesn’t hint how the second act will unfold. I want to know how the story is resolved. Do they fight across the time stream, do they end up in a time jail, does it turn into the second act of Looper? Is the story about love, car chases, gun fights, sword fights, or battle by giant robot?. Each of those choices birth a different movie.

So the real question with the doing part of a premise is “Can I see filling a 60 page second act with this idea?”

Published by Matt Lazarus

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

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