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The Play’s the Thing: Part 2 By Dale Griffiths Stamos

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THE PLAY’S THE THING

Part 2: First Draft 
Rediscovering Premise

By Dale Griffiths Stamos
November 2010

 

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

"Premise is the one sentence statement that sums up the overall direction of your play."
—STAMOS

We’ve all had that feeling when writing a first draft. We start with energy, excitement – each scene pouring into the next. Our characters are talking to us, the conflicts feel fresh and compelling. And then… almost without warning, the momentum slows, or completely stops. We’re not sure where to go next, or worse, we feel like we’ve hit a dead end.

I will make the argument that in almost all cases it is because we have lost sight of our premise, or we need to devise a new one.

Let’s review premise. Premise is the one sentence statement that sums up the overall direction of your play. It is a proposition that your play is out to prove. Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its desire. Intolerance leads to isolation. Poverty encourages crime. Rationalism conquers superstition. Dishonesty leads to exposure. Each of these may sound like a universal statement, however premise is, in fact, the individualized statement of the world of your play. Your premise could just as easily be: Dishonesty leads to success. Although this is not the most laudable of moral statements, it could be exactly what you’re trying to prove in your play: For example, a scrupulously honest politician learns that the only way to succeed at politics is through dishonesty. Remember, you are crafting a specific proposition that applies to your play.

As I said, in writing your first draft you may come across two premise related issues that are impeding your progress:

The first is that although, during your prewriting stage, you devised a strong premise, you have now inadvertently veered away from it. You may have planned out your scenes to reflect your premise, but as the writing progressed, your characters or the situations began to run away with you. Before you knew it, you were no longer on the forest path, but instead, mired in the brambles. It is not your premise that is at fault here, it is the losing sight of it. You need to take a long clear look at the present state of your play and ask yourself: Do my scenes still reflect a step by step proving of my premise? If they don’t, revise the scenes until they do.

"The point is not to feel so married to your chosen premise that your play suffers."
—STAMOS

The second possible issue is, although you have successfully stuck to your premise, you find, in the actual writing process, your scenes are drying up or your characters are protesting that they don’t feel right moving in the direction in which you are forcing them. Well then: Change your premise! The point is not to feel so married to your chosen premise that your play suffers. Instead, you want to find the right premise that inspires your play to move powerfully forward. This is part of the writing process, to allow character and scene to dictate change when necessary.

"Ultimately, it is easier to retrace a lost premise, or refashion a new, more workable premise . . ."
—STAMOS

You might then say, well, if I can lose sight of premise, or change it one or more times, what is the point of having one? Despite the fact that premise can (and should in fact) be malleable as you move through your writing process, it is still the torch that lights the way, without which your play could descend into confusion or lack of coherence. Ultimately, it is easier to retrace a lost premise, or refashion a new, more workable premise, than to write a play without one.

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 is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and has been a guest artist at Cal Arts, where she taught the workshop, Finding Your Story. For more information, go to her website at: www.dalegriffithsstamos.com For information on Dale’s private consulting (all genres), go to: www.manuscriptconsultant.com .