The Premise: Get It Right!

No story - no movie. Gene Deitch explains the importance of premise.

Gene at work in 1976. Image courtesy of Gene Deitch.

Gene at work in 1976. Image courtesy of Gene Deitch.

Flash is fun, but I can never forget what John Hubley taught me, all those years ago at UPA in Hollywood: "First and foremost, your movie should be about something!"

Even an animated film cannot escape the laws of dramatic structure. Hub recommended a book by author, Lajos Egri, titled The Art of Dramatic Writing. It was published in 1946 by Simon & Schuster, just as I was starting out in the animation profession. Fortunately, the book is still available on the Internet as I write this, and very cheaply, so no excuses for not buying and learning from it. I'll attempt to distill its main point for you.

More clearly than any other book I've read about dramatic writing or screenplay writing, it explains premise -- which is the core of "about something." Premise is largely misunderstood and misused. It is the supposition and line of action upon which every successful dramatic story must be based. It can be stated in just a few words, and found in every play by Shakespeare or any other great writer...even in cartoons.

When I had the task of adapting children's picture books for Weston Woods -- the task of translating a book into an animation film, I first had to find the premise, what I called, "the core of meaning." Once I had this, I knew exactly what could and what could not be in the film adaptation. Whether he or she knew it or not, the author's original story, if truly strong, will have this premise. The premise tells us what the story, at base, is about, and where it's heading. According to Egri it must consist of three parts: character/conflict/conclusion. If you distill your story idea to this essential premise, you will know exactly how it will end, and how you will get to that ending. Note that the premise need not be always true. It may be questionable, but it is what you the author want to dramatically state. A good story must prove its premise.

Here are some sample premises that Egri presents: "Blind trust/leads to/destruction." (King Lear) "Jealousy/destroys/the object of its love" (Othello) "Poverty/encourages/crime." (Dead End) "Great Love/defies/even death" (Romeo and Juliet) "Ruthless ambition/leads to/it's own destruction." (MacBeth)

OK, that's all heavy stuff, but the same principles apply to our little cartoons: "Craftiness/digs/its own grave." (every Road Runner cartoon) "Bravado/leads to/humiliation" (Bluto in every Popeye cartoon)

Tom & Jerry cartoons had a sort of premise, "A clever mite/outsmarts/a larger and dumber opponent," but they were mainly just situations, with a series of attack and revenge gags, and thus were rarely true stories. It was just "David" (Jerry Mouse), usually outsmarting "Goliath" (Tom Cat), and ending when the 6 minutes were up.

You will rarely form a premise before you write a story. Story ideas can come to you in a hundred different ways. But as your idea is fleshed out, it may seem to be wandering in several directions at once. Somewhere along the line you have to stop and figure out where you're heading. You must find your premise, so you'll know how your story must end. If you want your story to ring true, you have to believe your premise. It doesn't have to be the only truth there is, but a possible -- a likely truth that you can put your heart into. Even a comic film should have something to say. There has to be that core of meaning that a strong premise provides. If you can't boil your story down to these three parts: then the story is flawed, or you simply don't know what it is really about.

Your premise doesn't have to glare out like a neon sign. You should have enough incident, visual effect and action to dazzle your audience, but you will know it's there, and it will be your sure-footed guide to a strong production.

Want to hear more of Gene's wisdom on story and a thousand other topics? Then read How To Succeed In Animation, (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!) exclusively on AWN.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946, the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958, Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons, 1956-1958, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993, and has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."

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