Thursday, January 06, 2011

More on Premise

I threw "premise" into the last post almost like an afterthought, but I should have talked about it first.  Premise is usually where you start.  There are a variety of definitions for premise.  In logic, premise is a foundational part of an argument; it's the presumed truth that the conclusion is based on.  In story, premise is the core concept the story is based on, and can usually be summed up with a "What if?" question.  For example, the movie Inception is based on the premise, "What if you could 'con' someone through their dreams?"  Some arguments for premise say it must include the central conflict of the story, which would make it impossible to state the premise of Inception in a single sentence.

My use of premise assumes that, like a story or a logical argument, every component of a property has a foundational idea that it's based on.  I believe that, like in a story premise, these premises should be designed to make each component interesting within the context of the whole.  I apply this idea to every character in the story, to every area in the environment, to every story scene, to every action the game character can perform, and so forth.  I don't always do this consciously, but I'm never satisfied until each of these can be described with a short blurb that makes that component compelling to work on.  The Incredibles is filled with characters who are based on interesting and interconnected premises:
  • A retired superhero longs for glory days
  • Superhero's superspouse wants to settle down
  • OCD boss of superhero can't accept breaks with protocol
  • Stalker-fanboy becomes supervillain
All of these premises are enough, as incomplete as they are, to inspire further story choices and drive design decisions.  I often have students pitch premises like "hero hiding a dark secret," "charismatic but evil bad guy," or "gorgeous girl who is insecure."  These are technically not bad premises, but they have been used so much that it will take lots of work to make them interesting.  So part of creating a good premise might be finding an original aspect to infuse the idea with.
So let's say you're assigned to do concept art for a goblin.  Without a deliberate search for premise, most artists (myself included) default to the most generic solutions: ugly face, green skin, fur boots, spare armor, feisty personality, etc.  I'm not saying generic goblins are bad, because in some cases the stereotype is the right choice.  But I'm trying to train myself to go generic as a last resort, because usually a more interesting premise that can drive the design is just around the corner.
No matter how ornate the armor is, he's still nothing new
This is where another aspect of good vs. bad premise comes in.
Honestly, I'm not sure if there is such thing as an inherently bad premise, with the exception of 2 rules:
1. Originality and interest are good
2. Unless those things mess up the story or alienate the audience*

So an unimportant character with a premise that requires screentime to explain is a bad thing.  Also bad: a main character that has an interesting premise but that is incompatible with the premise of the story.  And of course, if you're making a property for popular teenage girls, they will not be impressed with your mossy hobbit-hole tree world, no matter how rich with history the magical runes are.  The only (*)exception to the don't-alienate-your-audience rule is when a story beat requires something that the audience would be uncomfortable with.


  1. Great post! Lots to think about!

  2. Interesting points, I can definitely see this influencing my art.

  3. Thank you sam. in the last post i didnt really understand what u were trying to say and it didnt seem that important but now i see this as something i can really use on a regural bassis. these post are a big help, thank you

  4. Interesting. I'm going to try to apply this next time i do art.

  5. Very interesting reading indeed! It's all too easy to skip the preliminary thinking stages, overly eager to just jump in and draw - reading stuff like this is really food for thought, and great motivation to strive towards something original. Thanks for the cool posts ;)

  6. mm. premise. delicious.

  7. Again, in reading what you have to say, I realize that this is not my creative process. I mean, it is - but not quite the way you have it laid out. I start with a conversation. The conversation itself is interesting to me - but I never know what it means. I discover as I write who is saying what to whom and why. And eventually, I will discover the premise. But it only really comes to play in the re-write. Again again - I am not doing what I do in support of a larger story, so I have more time to discover. And then the frank truth: I haven't had to worry about my audience for the last three years - this is the charm of "has been."

  8. Great post, as always.

    Question: In this design series, do you think you could give your thoughts on cultural mediocrity in universal appeal? (ie, do you feel designs are often "dumbed down" to appeal to more people?)

  9. You always come up with something very interesting.. I'm in a very mediocre art school en México and i've been lerning LOT MORE with your blog than with anything they are teaching me... thnx! sincerely

  10. really great read. really hits home, especially using a goblin as an example :)

  11. Thanks everyone for the great comments!
    K: You raise some good points, maybe I'll post an addendum revising a few things.

    Heather: Certainly (I had something that already grazes that issue, so I'll just push it a little further).

    Tyson: Blizzard's fault, you're a victim of circumstance.

  12. K: And maybe the reason why I think this subject is so important to the painting stage is because it is, in a way, like a rewrite. So I think you're right, this isn't a suggestion for process as it is a checkpoint that you NEED to be able to cross before you can pull the whole thing together and take it across the finish line.

  13. thanks for the post, will be looking at my art now

  14. Anonymous4:20 AM

    thanks for sharing agreat resource of guidelines really helpful for all of us


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