Thinking about the Premise

In preparation for my playwriting course this September with Big Smoke Writing Factory, I’ve been reading a few books on playwriting to help crystalise my ideas. One interesting notion that I’ve come across is the idea that every play must have a premise. Seems self-evident, doesn’t it?

However, on further thought the notion of what ‘a premise’ actually means becomes a little nebulous. What is a premise? Is it a starting point? When I put it into a number of sentences, that’s my first conclusion: The premise for the argument, the premise of the novel etc. However, this doesn’t really explain it. Webster’s dictionary defines ‘premise’ as:

a: a proposition antecedently supposed or proved as a basis of argument or inference; specifically: either of the first two propositions of a syllogism from which the conclusion is drawn b: something assumed or taken for granted : presupposition

While this definition seems headache-inducingly complex, I think the important emphasis is that a premise is something antecedently supposed or proved. So, a premise isn’t necessarily a starting point – it’s a conclusion that can be extrapolated from an argument or narrative after the fact.

So how does this relate to playwriting? Lajos Egri, in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing says that the play’s premise is the answer to the question posed by the play. For example, Romeo and Juliet poses the question: What happens when the children of two warring families fall in love? Shakespeare gives us an answer: they pursue that love through any obstacle placed in their way, even death. So the premise that Shakespeare offers us is: True love defies even death.

I find this an interesting, if rather knotty concept. I spend a lot of time asking my students to concentrate on the story that their play tells; the plot should be a concrete, tangible, driving force in the play and not a meandering compound of thoughts and ideas. I would always advise a playwright to have strong and focused ideas about how their plot progresses before they begin to write. But are plot and premise the same thing? It seems not. ­­­­­­­­­Egri seems to view the play as an argument, a dialectic process (here I agree), but he also states that the playwright should know which side of the argument he’s going to come down on. For example, if Shakespeare had been posed the question: ‘What happens when the children of two warring families fall in love?’ and had answered: ‘Ummmmm, well maybe they just decide it’s too difficult and then they meet other people and at the end of the day decide they were too young to commit anyway’, Romeo and Juliet would have been a very different play. In reality, Shakespeare has thought about the question of feuding families and true love, plotted the progression of this story to a certain point, and made the decision that in his version of events, the play must end in tragedy. He has extrapolated his premise by thinking deeply about his plot and he sticks to it. Wonderful play written, job done.

Best ever version of Romeo and Juliet, as seen in Hot Fuzz

But can it always be this straightforward? Do we all have the time and certainty to enter into this rather circular process? Do we have to have all of our ideas nailed down at the play’s end? And where does this leave ambiguous plays that tease and tantalise an audience by offering them mystery instead of a didactic lesson? I’m thinking of JP Shanley’s Doubt, where the fact that the truth is never known makes for a powerful, affecting ending. And isn’t there a risk that if you set out to write a play with a premise along the lines of True love defies death, or Greed leads to self-destruction or Lies lead to isolation, that your play will simply become a didactic rant, with all the characters endlessly spouting your tired agenda? Egri says that the character should never state the premise – that it should be implicit rather than explicit – but I still wonder at the level of confidence a writer must have to juggle these various imperatives when writing a play. An interesting concept, but possibly not one I’ll be using to frighten my students.