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Part 1: Prewriting

What’s In a Premise?

By Dale Griffiths Stamos

December 2009

Authorlink welcomes award-winning playwright Dale Griffiths Stamos as a regular monthly columnist.

"I will attempt to clearly define what a premise is and how to go about finding one. "

Determining the dramatic premise for your play is an essential task in the prewriting process.
In this limited space I will attempt to clearly define what a premise is and how to go about finding one.   Let me also recommend the following excellent books that discuss the issue of premise in more depth: The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri (considered by many the seminal book on playwriting structure), The Playwright’s Process by Buzz McLaughlin (this will likely not be the only time I recommend this superior book on all aspects of playwriting) and How to Write a Damn Good Novel – Volumes I and II (although these are for novel writing, both volumes have very clear chapters on devising a premise – and the story structure ideas throughout are sound for all forms of writing.)

So, what is premise??

"A dramatic premise is a one sentence distillation of what your play is about."

A dramatic premise is a one sentence distillation of what your play is about.  It contains three C’s: character, conflict and conclusion.  It is an active sentence, implying dramatic progression,   i.e., a character struggles to resolve a dilemma and ends up in a different place than where s/he began.  But keep in mind, it goes below the events of the play (This is a story about a young man, Joe who falls in love with Sue and gets his heart broken) and gets to the heart (and the author’s vision) of the story (Young, foolish love leads to heartbreak.)
Premise generally has three parts: A set of actions (or choices or circumstances), an active verb, and a result.  Here are some examples:

Macbeth:  Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.
Death of a Salesman: Looking for fulfillment in worldly success leads to disillusionment.
Days of Wine and Roses: Alcoholism destroys love.
The Crucible: Honor and integrity conquer evil.
Madame Bovary: Illicit love leads to death.

Notice that often the verbal phrase: “leads to” is used to link parts one and three of the premise.  That is because “leads to” always implies movement.  But other strong verbs like “destroys,”  “conquers,”  “defies,” and “defeats” can be equally effective.

"Also notice that premise is not, per se,a universal statement. "

Also notice that premise is not, per se,a universal statement.  It is instead, a statement of the “truth” of the particular world of the play.   Unlike morals ( “Greed is selfish,” “Love conquers all,” “Adultery is wrong.”) premise presents the direct consequences of the actions of your characters in the world view you as author choose to depict.  In other words, in one premise, your main character may indeed “sow what he reaps.”  But you could be telling a much more cynical story instead, in which the character gets away with his evil deeds.  Think of Noah Cross in the movie, Chinatown:  That premise might be: Power leads to getting away with crime.  You establish the premise of your story.  You decide with what slant you are telling your tale.  Another way to look at it is, premise is a statement that in the fictional, subjective world of your play, you are trying to prove

It is important to take the time in the prewriting phase to construct an effective premise.  It will serve as your focal point as you begin writing.  It will be the sentence you put on the wall that will remind you when you are or are not on track.  Like all aspects of playwriting, it may change during the drafting process (at which point you make a new premise), but establishing now that one clear distillation of the heart of your play, will save much heartache later.

About the Author

Dale Griffiths Stamos is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced and published in the United States and abroad.  She has been on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and a guest artist at Cal Arts where she taught the workshop, Finding Your Story.  For more information, go to