The difference between a premise line and a logline is about 100 words.
A LOGLINE is that super pithy iteration of the moving bits:
The set up:
crux of conflict, antagonist
and the BIG CHOICE or twist or sacrifice that makes me want to read your script NOW.
A premise line is the exact same thing only with more detail. The premise line is what you work on before you outline a beat sheet. In fact, if it works for you (and this is actually what I do) you can write a logline and once it really works and you like it, expand that into a premise line, adding more detail. If your premise line is one that anybody else could grasp instantly, you’re on the right track. In other words, writing a 500 word premise line that only YOU get is not actually doing yourself a favor. You want clarity.
If you can focus on a premise line – and in reality, instead of someone giving you elements like “sailor” or “pirate” you’d start off with whatever element popped into your head as a story – you can TEST the idea by moving the bits around and changing up the character, the character flaw, the location, the genre, the time period, the antagonist, the m.o. of the antagonist and the big choice or sacrifice in the end. It really is like a flip book or Rubik’s Cube. Click, click, click – look for a pleasing pattern. So maybe everything is really working out…except the character’s flaw isn’t really fueling the conflict in an active way. Or maybe the whole idea needs to be set in 1872. Or 10 years in the future.
While working on a premise line can feel confining – limit yourself to say 100 words – it’s actually FREEING in the end. Does that make sense? You force a discipline on your story idea by making sure the moving bits create a compelling pattern (or narrative); and, in doing that, you now open yourself up to fun discoveries like – wow, this is a comedy!
So while you’re working on your premise line to test your idea, you both force yourself to recognize and craft a specific, easy to articulate story and therefore define the Big Idea of the whole script AND you leave yourself open to allowing the unexpected in.
I can’t say it often enough, the difference between a premise line and a logline is about 100 words (to over-simplify for the purpose of clarity). So once you have a premise line that you like – it really tickles you – it really seems to WORK – then comes the horrible task of showing it to a friend or two and wracking your brain to ensure nobody else has done this exact story or even anything too close for comfort. The least painful way to do this is to simply stare at your premise line and then write down three movies it reminds you of – IN ANY WAY.
Now: when did those movies come out? How did they do? Will your premise be compared to FATAL ATTRACTION? That can be fine if it’s in the same vein – just as long as it’s not actually the same story. Right? That make sense?
The great thing about working on a premise line is that it’s fun, and you won’t notice it but you are giving your writer’s brain a GREAT workout every time.
If every writer got in the habit of working out a good premise line before writing the script, the number of scripts that just DON’T WORK would be reduced greatly. Think of it as exercise – of course you don’t want to work out, you just want to look great at the party tonight, right? Am I right? But what’s the reality there, Wavers? Everything that looks great – a person at a party, a sculpture, a garden, a movie – had a foundation of work beforehand. Right? Right.
So do the work ahead of time – and the best part is, we’re making stuff up here, people. So while working with a premise line can at times feel frustrating, if you can just remember to be playful as you do it it’ll pay off a thousandfold when you write your script: because you created a road map ahead of time, one that works and one that inspires joyfulness in yourself and that will show on the pages. I can’t stress that enough; I can ALWAYS, 100% of the time, tell when a writer was having fun when they wrote the script. It leaps off the pages. And it is very powerful.
So much of screenwriting is totally counterintuitive; work HARD but have FUN. Be specific but OPEN YOURSELF UP. Planning carefully lays the foundation for jumping off and discovering something totally new and unexpected.
And don’t forget the most powerful word when it comes to thinking about your idea and your character – WHY?
So go forth, be merry, work hard, develop some discipline and make me proud. Consider me your personal trainer. You’re gonna look GREAT at the party.