Donald L. Vasicek
“How To Establish the Dramatic Premise of your Screenplay and Beyond”
by Donald L. Vasicek
So, you began your screenplay with a visual metaphor. You’ve introduced your main character, the setting, the time, the theme, and you’re introducing other major and periphery characters. You’re getting to like your story pretty well, when all of sudden you hit a block. What is your story about? This question is asked many times over each day in the film business. So, you’d better be prepared for it.
Your story is about a character who reacts to something that causes him (I’m using the male gender because I honestly haven’t had time to learn how to express both genders when writing articles) to begin acting instead of reacting to what is going on around him. The first step in your main character’s transformation (you’d better have one if you want to sell and get your screenplays produced)is when he reacts to the introduction of the dramatic premise. Until this time in your screenplay, you should have established your main character who should be in a setting and time interacting with other characters who should all be showing (I emphasize “showing” instead of “telling” since all great writing “shows” instead of “tells”) different aspects of your theme. You should have established all of these elements by about page 10 of your screenplay.
On or about page 10 in your screenplay, you show something that occurs that is out of context of what you have set up so far. This turning point in your screenplay is when you have your main character react to something that establishes the dramatic premise of your screenplay. This dramatic premise will be the plot of your screenplay. Something happens to your main character that begins his transformation arc because he is forced to react to something he has been avoiding, but he must react to it until he overcomes it, or his life will never change for the better.
In the $56 million MGM screenplay I was a writer/consultant for, “Warriors of Virtue”, Ryan, the main character is shown in school, with his friends, with his family and how he reacts to these people and this setting. Problem is, Ryan wears a leg brace, a defect in his leg he inherited with birth. Kids push him around. He can’t play on the football team. He argues with his parents. His dog barks at him.
He has a lot of problems until he’s challenged to leap over this rushing water to show other kids that he’s not a wimp. Then, his real problems begin. He leaps and falls into the water. He is swept into an alternate universe where he has to change or he’ll never be able to return to his home. The evil Komodo and his army, a village of “people” and five Kung Fu Kangaroos who need his help stand in his way. This is where his transformation arc begins. This is where the dramatic premise for the movie is established. From this point on, Ryan begins to change, and to never be the same again.
This alternate universe (no different than what your main character should be experiencing at this point in your screenplay)”attacks” Ryan. He survives the plunge, but now he’s being threatened by the evil Komodo’s soldiers in a forest. When some Kung Fu kangaroos rescue him, he begins to see that someone cares about him, and he doesn’t even know why. And miraculously, he discovers that his leg is healed.
Fearful of the village, which is made up of a loving community of people, at about page 45, Ryan foreshadows he is going to be at the end of the movie. He meets a girl, Princess Anne and he isn’t afraid of her. At midpoint, the village is attacked by Komodo and his soldiers. Though fighting valiantly, the Kung Fu Kangaroos are outnumbered. They manage to drive the invaders away, but, they know, that unless they come up with some kind of miraculous idea, Komodo is going to take over the village and kill everyone. And now, Ryan has a stake in the outcome. Where before, he cared little about himself, now, he not only cares about himself, but he cares about Princess Anne as well. But, Komodo has kidnapped her to hold her for ransom in order to force the village leaders to give in to his demands and give up the village (Komodo desires the village because of its love and its peace because this kind of behavior terrorizes him).
At about page 75, Ryan tells the village leaders and the Kangaroos that he believes he can talk Komodo in releasing Princess Anne. Interested, he tells them how.
At about page 90, Ryan, under the protection of the hidden Kangaroos, Ryan confronts Komodo about releasing Princess Anne. Komodo, struck by Ryan’s audacity, challenges him to a duel with swords. Only Komodo knows his soldiers are near to back him up, but unaware of the hidden Kung Fu Kangaroos.
Komodo, by far the superior warrior to Ryan, is about to take off Ryan’s head with his sword, when some of the soldiers show their faces. At that point, the Kangaroos show themselves. An all out battle ensues.
Ryan races to rescue Princess Anne. The battle is so fierce, the out-numbered Kangaroos, are exhausted and about ready to admit defeat, when Ryan, grabs a sword and disarms Komodo. The Kangaroos take over and defeat Komodo’s soldiers. Ryan rescues Princess Anne and saves the village.
In the closing scene, the village priest creates a mystical and spiritual avenue for Ryan to travel so that he can return to his parents and other life. After a tearful goodbye to everyone, Ryan leaves.
Upon his return to the town where he lives, his parents, friends, and the kids in school, see that his leg is healed, and so is Ryan. Even his dog accepts him.
So, you need to take your character on a journey, by establishing the dramatic premise, then roughly timing turning points in the story and in your main character. Page 1, a visual metaphor that defines the theme of the story. Page 3, a line of dialogue, or an action that directly pinpoints the theme of your story. About Page 10, establish the dramatic premise. At about Page 30, something extraordinary should happen that spins your character and story around 360 degrees and sends it off in another direction. At about page 45, foreshadow how your main character is going to be at the end of your story. Just a small action, something your character does to reveal this, like when Ryan meets Princess Anne and he is unafraid of her.
From this point forward, you must have your main character creating all of the action. In other words, he/she must be pro-active in all events. At about Page 60, midpoint, you must show that about all is lost for your main character regardless of the new strength he/she is showing. By about Page 75, have your main character change the way he/she is trying to accomplish his/her goal. At about Page 90 of your screenplay, your main character should have a direct confrontation with the villain (villain represents evil in fiction) or antagonist (doesn’t necessarily represent evil so much as representing the opposing force to your main character’s goal).
This confrontation results in your main character winning and sets up how the story is going to end. For the next several pages, your story should build to a climax where your main character goes nose-to-nose with the villain or antagonist. Here, your main character should have an epiphany. For Ryan, it was his discovery that he must overcome Komodo in order return home to his family and friends. It is here where your main character’s fatal flaw (the flaw that has caused your main character to pursue a solution to it because it is more overpowering than any other flaw)comes to the surface and must be overcome by your main character. With Ryan, it was his fear, and he overcomes it.
After the climax, wrap up all loose ends and end the screenplay as soon as possible.
And there you have it. Nine easy steps to establish your dramatic premise and beyond.
Donald L. Vasicek
Olympus Films+, LLC
“Commitment to Professionalism”