Premise versus premise

Over the last few weeks I have read both Robert McKee’s Story and John Truby’s The Anatomy Of Story. While reading these two books I have also been working though some ideas for redraft of Carrion. Not sure if it is a good idea to try and assimilate both treaties in quick succession while still writing, but as paid work has cut my writing time in half, I feel the need to keep pounding the keys, or lose whatever momentum I have trained into myself.

Prompted by what I have read, I started to think about the premise of Carrion. Truby assert that the premise “is your story stated in one sentence. It is the simplest combination of characters and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.” On the other hand McKee asserts that the premise is simply “an open ended question: What would happen if… ?” For example. “What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer? JAWS.”

What Truby calls premise, McKee calls the controlling idea. “A controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.” What McKee calls the controlling idea Truby calls the designing principle. “The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole. It is the internal logic of the story, what make the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

While both notions of premise make sense, Truby’s version sounds to me like the logline, and seems too detailed to be what McKee describes as “the idea that inspires the writer’s desire to create a story.” If Truby is right when he says “if your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story” I need to seriously rethink the foundations of Carrion.

When I first started work on Carrion. The initial inspiration came from an idea that they, the government, the powers of prohibition, genetically engineered insects to eat drugs. The whole script was written from that starting point. Characters, plot, dialogue, I now realise were built on shaky foundations. With insights I gained reading Truby, I now realise that drug eating insects was too nebulous an idea, and lacks any notion of what’s at stake in the story. With some work, and the help of McKee, I have come to another “what if” question, what if the war on drugs escalates into civil war?

According to Truby this is still not strong enough, and needs to be expanded to include the event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story. While I still have the character of Carrion’s previous draft, I know this draft has a different outcome. What it is I don’t know yet, but I do know I have a lot more work to do.

The thing I’ve realised while writing this is that while both Truby and McKee offer invaluable insights into the craft of screenwriting, neither has the definitive answer, but they are both useful as tools to clarify my own understanding.


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