If you’ve been following this series of posts on premise, I hope you’re starting to get a sense of why it’s important to add this tool to your toolbox. Here’s yet another consideration.
There are basically two kinds of workable dramatic premises. The first conveys a lesson by showing the negative consequences of a certain mode of behavior or action. It leaves the audience wiser about what not to do if they want to avoid the central character’s fate: ruthless ambition leads to destruction, jealousy leads to ruin, suspicion leads to disaster, chasing after worldly success leads to disillusionment. A good number of classic plays and films contain this type of premise. The best of them are enormously powerful and have the potential to affect audiences profoundly.
The other type of dramatic premise takes the reverse approach and illustrates the positive consequences when important discoveries are made and steps are taken to change behavior or action. It communicates to the audience not only what they need to avoid in life, but also what they need to do to make their life more meaningful and fulfilling. The central characters in such plays are put through ordeals, but ultimately they come to realize how they have erred and take at least an initial step in a more positive direction.
For example, look at the dramatic premise of Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible: “honor and integrity conquer sin and evil” (or something similar); in which we’re left with a powerful sense of John Proctor’s integration as a person and of his liberation from guilt and that people can and do rise to the occasion even if their only reward is death. Or consider Edward Albee’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “accepting reality opens the door to personal integration” (or something similar); in which the central character Martha finally rejects her own destructive behavior and takes her first tentative steps at living in reality for the first time in her adult life.
These are both powerful works that have succeeded both as plays and films. They contain a great deal of struggle and turmoil—the former even ending in the death of its hero—but both leave the audience with a positive message. The dramatic premise points to something constructive and enriching, something basically uplifting, to a way in which life might be lived more fully.
Obviously, both types of dramatic premise are valid and your script can pack a punch either way. The great plays and films that have been handed down to us prove that. Just be aware of the fact that there is both a negative and positive way to treat dramatically most human issues and problems and that your premise is the key to determining which treatment or approach you’re going to take as you proceed.