Last weekend I attended another screenwriting course, this time from Screen Academy Scotland. It’s different from Screen Lab in that the focus is on the actual writing process, rather than on breaking into the industry. Our homework after the first day was to write a premise for a 10 minute film. (A premise consists of one or two sentences that capture the essential elements of the screenplay).
I had already been writing a short film script and decided to write a premise for that, which meant less work than if I had thought up the idea for a film and planned out the narrative from scratch. Nevertheless, the exercise still took me a couple of hours because we were given a strict limit of 35 words and I spent a lot of time trying to whittle down my sentences to get to the core idea of the film.
Here’s what I came up with:
Rebellious teenager, Alana, plans to escape from her controlling mother by running away with an unsuitable boy. A stumble stops Alana in her tracks but pushes her relationship with her mother in a new direction.
On the second day of the course we got into groups of four to workshop our premises, which was really helpful. In general we found in our group that the first sentences of the premises were bang-on in giving an idea of the protagonist, goal and antagonist. The second sentences were a bit vague because I think we were all unsure about how much of the story to give away. In my premise, “stumble” and “new direction” were highlighted as not being very clear.
An interesting bit of feedback that I got was that because my characters were recognisable (rebellious teenager and controlling mother), I would need less set up in the script to establish them, which is great for a short film.
The premises written by the other people in my group all had their own particular strong points and reading them helped me to see which elements were missing from my premise. One had a striking visual image, another a good sense of tone and character and the third had nailed the genre.
My short film is set in a seaside village and I wanted to use images of the open sea and fishing net to contrast the ideas of freedom and being trapped. I have not managed to convey this in the premise, nor have I given any hint of the humorous elements in the script. I don’t have a clue what the genre of my film is so I was never going to squeeze that in.
According to the handout we got in class, a good premise should contain information on genre, form, characters, antagonistic force, location and time and should raise an active question. Hard work to find the potent 35 word combination that will cover all of those points, but I think with practice you can get pretty close.
Our homework for the next course day is to write an outline for our short films. (The outline is a prose version of the screen narrative). Now that I am sitting down to do it, I have realised that with all the tweaking I did on the premise, it has departed a bit from the script that I was writing. I think the best thing to do now is to develop the outline from the premise, rather than use the script as my starting point. The characters I described in the premise are stronger and better defined than in the script anyway and by continually returning to my two sentence premise while writing the outline, I can keep the focus where it should be, on the mother/daughter conflict.