Michael Tabb takes a deep look at defining the premise of your story:
A premise is the core belief system of the script and lifeblood of the story. […] There can only be one premise per script from which all the ideas it contains serve, otherwise the script loses focus and its sense of purpose. Premise is hypothesis. It is the story’s purpose for existing at all.
For Tabb, premise is never explicitly stated. Rather, it’s the subtext for the piece as a whole.
It is not a word, theme, feeling, story, question, plot, or tone. It’s not about a person; it’s about the world in which we really live (even if your story is not set here). It is a strong statement with a point to make; it’s the theory the writer is trying to prove or disprove. This defines the author’s perspective.
Basically, it’s your personal answer to the central dramatic question you’ve raised in the story:
- Do souls live on after us? / Souls are eternal and reincarnated.
- Can you ever escape your fate? / No, and it’s foolish to try.
- Is trust granted or earned? / Trust is only earned.
I agree it’s worthwhile to distinguish between “what I’m trying to say” and “how I’m saying it.” But I think premise isn’t the best word here.
Tabb is using premise the way a philosopher would, where it means something like “the proposition that forms the basis for a theory.”
In Hollywood, premise commonly means “what the movie is about.” It’s a very short pitch, basically interchangeable with logline. The premise of Die Hard is that a cop has to stop a band of robbers by himself in an office tower. The premise of Armageddon is that an asteroid is headed towards Earth, and a team of misfits has to stop it.
One could argue that we’ve been using “premise” wrong. But we’re not going to suddenly start using it to mean something else. You’re likely to just confuse people by using “premise” a different way.
A better choice would be to pick a different term for what Tabb’s describing. Maybe “the point.” Or “thesis.” Or “assertion.”
Whatever you call it, I agree with Tabb that it’s best kept to yourself. Characters generally shouldn’t speak it in dialogue, nor should you discuss it with executives. Rather, let it be a touchstone that focuses your writing for this particular story. Work to expose it through scenes with characters in conflict.
Lastly, do you always know the answer to this question when you start writing? Not necessarily. Writing can be a process of discovery. It’s a Socratic dialogue with yourself. What matters is not knowing the point, but finding it.