Is His Premise Unworkable, or Not Worked Enough? - Complications Ensue
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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Q. I'm developing a webseries for a screenwriting contest. I dove into creating interesting and relatable characters, but then it struck me that the premise seems really hard to explain, and hence to pitch. I don't have much trouble envisioning the finished product as something worth watching, but maybe that's because it's a work comedy and I've had jobs in the same field the series would be set (political communication consulting, which I guess is rather esoteric for the general public). So, does this mean the premise is unworkable, or is it just that the idea is still too raw and needs more development?
The premise may need reworking. You have to figure out how to pitch it so people get it quickly. You might need to restructure the show to include a point of entry for the public. For example, SPIN CITY and THE WEST WING are two takes on "political communication consultants," if you will. We get what they're doing, because one of them is a guy advising a mayor, and the other is some guys advising the President. We didn't know what the Deputy Communications Director did for the President before watching THE WEST WING, probably, but we know what the President is and does, so he's our way in.

If your premise is hard to pitch, it's not a great premise. A good premise is easy to pitch. We immediately get what your main characters are trying to do, whether it's run a restaurant, save a marriage, look cool or save American from terrorists.

However you can find a great premise in all sorts of unlikely territories, certainly including political communication consulting. You just have to work it a bit more than you have.

One mark of a good writer is the willingness to throw out good stuff in order to arrive at better stuff. You may, in reshaping your premise, have to chuck out wonderful characters. Maybe you'll be able to work them back in, maybe not. But "carnage" is a part of the creative process. Don't be afraid of it.
Q. Alternatively, do all series ideas just seem great at first and horrible a week later?
No. Great series ideas seem good at first and then get better as you develop the pitch and find your groove. My best premises ring the bell when we think of them at home, and then ring the bell over and over again when I pitch them.

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3 Comments:

I recall a quote from Quentin Tarantino: "What do you do with a contrived premise? You emphasize it."

He said that in reference to "The Gold Watch" story in "Pulp Fiction." Initially, his premise--that Butch would return to his apartment after screwing Marsellus Wallace--simply was inadequate. Then he came up with the whole backstory with the watch and the scene Christopher Walken. By pushing the story's initially flawed premise out into the center, he forced the premise to become deeper and, thus, more satisfying.

By Blogger David, at 6:48 AM  

Question-asker here. Thanks for the input. I'll give it some more work, I'm sure there's an interesting story there (and one that can be told in 5 minute episodes), I just have to distill it into something pitchable.

By Blogger Alejandro, at 10:54 AM  

You need to also make sure that your FIRST episode sets up the main conflict.

Take a look at THE GUILD. Zaboo is on Codex's doorstep and moving in on the FIRST episode.

Do to the shortness of webisodes, I've seen a lot of webseries that don't get around to what their show is all about until the 3rd or 4th episode.

That's a huge problem. You can easily lose your audience in that time.

By Blogger James, at 12:48 PM  

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