Premise Bias

A few years back I was in a bar with a couple of friends.  M had just gone off to grad school and was giving us reports about the people in her program and their work.  G was her bestest best friend at the time and had already heard all of the shit-talk.  I was sipping a particularly well mixed snake-bite (half stout half hard cider); I put it down quickly and said, “Yeah, so what was so terrible [about their work]?”

M said, “Oh, my God, Sharif! It’s just so baaaad!  I was wondering how they got into this program, you know?”  G started giggling, already aware of the dirt.  “One guy, wrote a poem about werewolves having sex.”  G couldn’t restrain herself and burst out laughing.

I smiled, “So why was it bad?”

M restrained a yell, “It was about werewolves having sex!”

“And was it not done well?” I asked.  G began to stop laughing.

M insisted, “It was about werewolves having sex!”  M noticed that I wasn’t really amused, in fact I was judging her for closed-mindedness.

“Okay, well, hear this one!  Someone wrote a poem about vampires!”  She said a few more things and shot down her classmates, offering little more explanation than premises.  As someone who writes high concept work like a stork who kidnaps babies (“Stork” in Writing That Risks to be released by Red Bridge Press Fall 2013) or a Roomba that kills itself (“Roomba Suicide” Perceptions Magazine of the Arts. Print only. 2013.) I had a feeling that they were indirectly trying to take digs at me.

It's a crazy idea got me into this anthology.

It’s a crazy idea got me into this anthology.

I asked, “So what subjects can art be about and what subjects are not art?”
Where as M and I were writing students, G was an art/writing double major.  While writing classes do not actually address the questions of “What is art?” art classes definitely do.  G stopped laughing.

M was trying to regain her status and justify her remarks, “No, you just don’t do poems like that.”  This was just like her, to say an opinion like it is fact and expect you to take it on her authority.

“What about a poem about a video game?”  I asked.  Sensing that this was a trap, she didn’t spring it.  I sprung it on her anyway, “What if that video game was Sega Ghost Squad?”  She knew I was referring to the poem by Colette Atkinson, our former professor at our university.  “Ideas aren’t writing.  Anyone can have ideas.  It’s how you write them that determines if they’re good.  Colette Atkinson used Ghost Squad very well to tell the story of a shitty relationship…Just because it’s not ‘high art’ doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

I’m not sure whether they were trolling me or not, but the discussion ended there.

I was reminded of this anecdote when I was talking on the phone with a writer in my program and friend Jonathan Rosenthal (Pound Puppies, Recess, Hey Arnold!).  We were talking about the premise for Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” which is a great film.  Jonathan said, “No premise is bad so long as it has a good answer to the question  ‘And then what happens?'”

Seriously, that is such a FANTASTIC writing perspective that I’m going to quote it again:

“No premise is bad so long as it has a good answer to the question ‘And then what happens?'” -Jonathan Rosenthal

Looking at the premise for My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, it is a pretty awful premise.

Princess Twilight Sparkle must leave her land of magical talking ponies and become a human in the human world where she must become prom queen to win back her stolen crown.

It was so awful that people started throwing fits about it, and death threats were given to DHX (the studio that animates MLP).  Before this similar hostility was given to MA Larson for writing the episode where Twilight Sparkle becomes a princess/god/alicorn.  Yet after seeing the actual execution of these premises, people remembered that Megan McCarthy and MA Larson are actually pretty bad ass writers who can handle their shit.

A premise itself, is not enough to judge a work.  If you are this closed minded you can keep yourself from writing the next great novel, or publishing it, or making it into that movie.  Keep in mind that bronies should have never liked My Little Pony.  They discovered that despite the genre, the premise, and the demographics, the execution of the show made it something more than just engaging, but heartfelt and powerful.

I really liked Spenser’s (Brony Clubhouse) video expressing his disappointment with the over reacting part of the brony fandom who should know better than to judge a work by the basic idea alone.

So let’s play a game.  I’m going to put a list of premises/ideas of existing properties.  Your studio has developed a reputation for producing terrible films.  They hired you to try to turn the studio’s reputation around.  You are authorized to make 5 properties, whether it’s a TV show or a movie, or whatever.  You will not be working on the films, your job is just to green light the films you think will be the best.  You must reject 5 ideas and go with the best 5 based upon their premise.  Honor system.  No cheating if you recognize the title.  Remember, your studio is not concerned with money, but quality.

  1. Sex-changing martial artist finds himself having to deal with the challenge of having too many fiances while constantly having to engage his enemies on various forms of combat from martial arts Japanese tea-ceremony to ice skating martial arts fighting.
  2. A teenager takes a time traveling car back in time accidentally undoing the circumstances of his own birth.
  3. A teenage girl finds herself obsessively and dangerously in love with a monster hiding as a human, which is perfectly evolved to be irresistible.
  4. A bunch of high school kids from different cliques attend Saturday school together and learn they aren’t so different.
  5. A rat who wants to be a chef tries to achieve his dream by controlling a human who is hopeless at cooking by pulling his hair.
  6. Unlikely paranormal investigators must save the world from the upcoming apocalypse to be brought about by The Great Destroyer, who takes the form of a giant commercial marshmallow man.
  7. A bookworm studying magic is forced to study the magic of friendship in order to prevent the world from being cast in eternal darkness.
  8. The last members of a dying planet shoot their baby to a distant planet whose sun gives him super strength, speed, vision, and flight.
  9. After a failed attempt to drown himself in a river, a man finds himself stranded on an island in the middle of the city, where he uses trash to adapt to his new life.
  10. Things go wrong in a theme park full of dinosaurs causing a life and death situation for the people there.

BONUS: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


Ranma 1/2: If you thought of making something with this premise and decided against actually doing it, then you’re not Rumiko Takahashi, at a point Japan’s wealthiest woman, who made a fortune off of Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha.  Both of these series are not just widely popular but are considered classics and a must watch for any anime enthusiast.

Back to the Future:  The way I wrote that premise, I would not have made this movie and I love time travel…and cars.  But the premise just sounded bad or at least like it could go bad at any moment.

Twilight: I have to say I would have put my money on making this.  The premise sounds fantastic!  But are these good movies/book?  I’m of the popular opinion that they aren’t (even though I’ve only read a chapter or two of the books).  That’s the reason I included it.  To show that even a good premise with poor execution will make a bad movie.  Really what we’re learning here is that a writer’s ability isn’t in his ideas, but how he brings them to life.

The Breakfast Club:  This movie does not have a premise that would make me risk investing my money, but it’s a classic.  It resonates with a lot of people…people who still live with their parents.

Ratatouille:   This is the film that inspired this blog post.  At least it inspired the conversation that inspired this blog post.  After the movie was made someone at Pixar was lamenting how stupid the premise was, even though the film ended up being fantastic.

"Can a brilliant movie also be retarded?"

“Can a brilliant movie also be retarded?”

Ghostbusters: Proving that with humor you can really get away with a lot.  One of the better TA instructors at UCI taught me that with humor, camp, self awareness, and lampshades you can make a really enjoyable work which gets away with anything.  Ghostbusters not only gets away with murder with the Stay Puft Man, but they created one of the most recognizable scenes in cinema.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:  Well, without someone buying into this premise, none of us would be here.  I’d probably have a much more cynical blog where I’m just like every other jerk writer trying to establish some sort of platform for himself.  I’d probably be trying to exploit my race or something.  Anyway, without someone giving the magic of friendship a chance, we wouldn’t have followed Twilight Sparkle and friends.  We wouldn’t have discovered that a world of ponies could be so rich with humanity.

Superman:  Coming from one of the dumbest origin stories ever, Superman has become the icon of modern day mythos and American society.  So goes America, so goes Superman.  “Man of Steel,” possibly being the first film to crash airplanes in building since 2001, is really a film about the divided identity of America post 9-11.  Speaking of “Man of Steel” I would argue that this film shows how a movie can be simultaneously excellent and terrible based on execution alone and not the premise.

Casaway on the Moon: This is a South Korean film, so of course they’re obsessed with the effects of capitalism and technology on the human individual.  This film explores the human pain and loneliness while being surrounded by people.  This is profound, powerful, creative, fun, moving, and on Netflix.  It would be a shame if someone passed on this because of the premise.

Jurassic Park: Of course this film made a gagillion dollars.  As a kid this was the only film I saw which traumatized me and made me afraid of getting eating by a T-Rex each time I went to the bathroom.  If that doesn’t make a great film I don’t know what does…other than great characters, plot, tragic elements…

Bonus: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Enough said.

It’s natural for us to create patterns of what will be good and what won’t be.  It’s to save us time and let us know that a movie about a hot tub time machine is a terrible idea.  But keep in mind that good artists are not trying to just remake what has been done, but to break expectations and destroy the established paradigms.  My Little Pony was done poorly a few times in the past.  This My Little Pony is so great, because Lauren Faust broke paradigm after paradigm of what we expect from television for little girls.  Unfortunately, premise bias is strong in the writing community and risk taking isn’t.

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