Building Blocks: Premise (Part II)

We have three more elements to look at regarding premise, Contrast, Unrequited Love, and Legs, so let’s get to them…

Contrast

When two characters approach everything from opposite ends of life’s spectrum, or when a character is thrown into a situation where his or her skill set doesn’t help, or his skill set gives him a fresh perspective on solving problems in that environment… that’s contrast.

Castle and Beckett clash personality-wise and it’s fun to watch them struggle past their differences so they can get on with the job. In The Big Bang Theory, watching Sheldon fumble around in social situations—where his mad genius skills are useless—is fine entertainment. And in White Collar, Neal Caffrey’s criminal mind forces his handler, Peter Burke, to think outside the box.

Unrequited Love

Nothing brings out the romantic in audiences better than unrequited love. Think of the mileage TBBT got from Leonard mooning over Penny, or how often Castle or Beckett went home heartbroken when the other had a date. It’s powerful stuff and should always be considered if it’s possible. The longer a series can hold onto it without forcing, the better.

Legs

This final element is elusive. A series has legs if the premise suggests lots of episode ideas, but it’s hard to know if that’ll happen until we start playing with the elements.

Episode ideas come mainly from:

  • environment (situation),
  • relationships between characters, and
  • character goals, both long and short term.

Combine and mix to find out if the premise has legs. Let’s look at some examples…

Castle

At the center of all Castle stories lies a murder in need of solving. That’s the situation growing out of environment. And variations on murder are nearly endless: how the murderer tries to cover his tracks will depend on personality, background, and what’s at hand, including where and how they can dispose of the body.

As to relationships, the most compelling here is the one between Castle and Beckett. He’s all play and she’s all business, so they butt heads. Whenever one of them is dragged into the other’s world—or invites himself in—we get variation and new ideas. Bring in Castle’s family: more ideas again. And when Castle manipulates Ryan and Esposito into a temporary boys’ club, we get even more.

The goals we care most about in Castle are those of the two main characters, Castle and Beckett. Beckett protects her reputation and self image, but Castle shakes her up time and time again… like when Castle digs into her mother’s murder and throws her off her game. Castle, on the other hand, wants romance with Beckett, but she’s having none of it… until later in the series which could be seen as a huge mistake, because it killed unrequited love.

All these relationships and goals, along with the endless variations on murder can provide lots of fresh angles for story ideas. Conclusion: Castle has legs.

Star Trek (TOS)

Situation: Kirk has been charged by Star Fleet with exploring deep space, cut off from outside help most of the time. It’s uncharted territory and they might encounter anything or anyone… lots of ideas there.

The relationships between Kirk, McCoy and Spock, with their contrasting personalities and approaches to problem-solving, can change the course of episode stories. Kirk gives orders, but if Bones or Spock disagrees, they’ll steer him toward a new path or solution.

The only discernable long-term goal is Star Fleet’s, to explore the universe. Personal goals are rarely mentioned, but when they are, they grow from an episode’s plot and are forgotten next episode. One exception is in The City on the Edge of Forever when Kirk sets aside his fondness for Edith Keeler to save the future of mankind. Likewise, Spock stages a one-man mutiny so he can get home for pon farr.

Conclusion: Star Trek has legs, not that the network realized this until almost twenty years later.

The Big Bang Theory

In contrast to Star Trek, TBBT sets long-term goals in the first episode. Penny wants an acting career, Sheldon wants a Nobel Prize and Leonard wants Penny. These goals rarely take over, but they lurk in the background to influence almost every episode.

And these series goals don’t need to be overt. For instance, the audience doesn’t need to be reminded that Leonard wants Penny. Every action he takes in the first eight seasons shows him inching ever closer to first a date, then a relationship, and finally marriage.

I feel the creators should have ended the series after Leonard married Penny. (This was unrequited love, too.) By then, the show had swerved so far from its initial premise, it was almost unrecognizable. But with so many diehard fans, no one seemed to notice.

Conclusion: TBBT has legs, although the network may have started pulling ours after season eight.

Summary

So, these are the elements of a solid series premise: environment (situation), characters and their relationships, goals (both long  and short term),  contrast, unrequited love, and that elusive ingredient: legs.

They make or break a series premise, make it work or leave it lying on the studio steps to be stomped into oblivion.

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