Writing Past Premise

In the last week I’ve finally made it through my podcast backlog, including those last few 2015 Nerdist episodes I’ve been saving. One of my favorites was with a couple of the guys from Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton. They talked a lot about television and I was struck by one of the discussions involving creativity, ownership, and premise. Here are some thoughts from Rob McElhenney to give some context:

It’s much more organic…when you’re writing your own material, writing to your own strengths, writing to the strengths of the people around you…it’s a much more organic thing…yeah, there’s that chemistry that’s built in, as opposed to writing something and then casting actors. It’s like, it’s even more difficult for the stars to align to where it works in a way that’s really, really special and unique…

The Nerdist guys then bring up trying to adapt shows for American audiences; in effect, finding a show that works very well in the UK and attempting to export it to America, but changing the actors. With shows that are built by comedy teams like Mitchell and Webb and Fry and Laurie, it’s hard to migrate that concept with actors who haven’t built a professional relationship over years and don’t have a shared sense of comedic timing. Think about Key & Peele trying to do the Flight of the Concords and vice versa.

(Although the more I think about it, the more I would absolutely watch the hell out of that.)

Anyway, Glenn continues with:

So what are we buying? Just the idea for the show. And we’re like, the idea for the show is fine, but that’s not what makes a great show. The idea for our show is five people who own a bar in Philadelphia. There’s not a great idea; Seinfeld was a show about nothing, The Simpsons is about a family in Springfield. It’s about who’s gonna execute that particular vision…you’re hopefully buying the people that create it.

Most of my favorite stories are less about plot devices and machinations than they are about great writers crafting memorable, realistic characters who shape a three-dimensional world. Premise can be broken down into a simple one-liner.

For example: A young boy goes to school and deals with the enemy who killed his family.

If you guessed Harry Potter, that’s great. But it’s also (so far, at least), a description of the Kingkiller Chronicles. Two series that both fall into the fantasy genre, but feature very different writing, young male protagonists, supporting characters, and setting.

My lovely starter manuscript was a hot mess of plot points and moving everyone from Point A to Point B, Mary Sue characters playing at progress. I was so focused on gimmicks that I couldn’t provide a concise summary. And if I as the creator can’t explain, how will that come across for the reader? If you can’t see the forest for the trees, how can you orient yourself?

I’ve talked about not getting ahead of myself before, and while there are a few things that I’ve captured so far in my drafts, what I’m ultimately writing is a survival story. Stripped to its core, it’s  about people figuring who they are and what they save when there’s nothing left.

Try boiling your latest piece down to the barest of bones. It might help you identify if you’re spending too much time focusing on plot threads. If your premise is overwrought and needs significant explanation, rein it in and revisit your characters and the world in which they live. Focus less on plot points and let your characters drive the piece. See what emerges.

Thanks for reading! How will you move past premise in your writing?

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