Leslie is the Novel Consultant for Truby’s Writers Studio (more info here).
It’s no secret that books are behind a staggering number of Oscar nominees this year. Five of the eight nominations for Best Picture are based on literary works. Books led to Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor. The question is: why?
Hollywood is obsessed with bestsellers for the same reason they love sequels and superhero franchises: the audience for these stories already exists. There is also a built in audience for books based on public figures like Steve Jobs and Trumbo or historical events like the stock market crash and a Catholic Church scandal. But fiction is riskier than nonfiction. So it’s no coincidence that all of these stories have one thing in common: a strong premise line.
A premise line is the same thing as a logline or an elevator pitch. It’s so short, that if someone on an elevator asks you what your story is about, you can describe it between floors. How long can you talk before your listener’s eyes glaze over? Even with a simple story, it’s easy to get caught up in the details with extra characters and subplots.
Now, literary conferences are copying screenwriting conferences by offering Pitch Fests. These opportunities to pitch your story are based on the speed-dating model, but with agents. It’s a great moneymaker for the promoters, but for most writers it’s a waste of money. Why? Because it’s not easy to write a great premise line. And unless you are professional with a track record, you will still have to write the book. Fortunately, a strong premise can also serve as a guideline to keep you on track as you write.
Here’s how to write a strong premise line, using four of 2016 Best Picture nominees that are based on books.
1. Establish an underdog hero that the audience will root for.
The Martian – a stranded astronaut
Room – a kidnapped little boy
Brooklyn – a young Irishwoman trapped in her old fashioned society
The Danish Girl – a man realizes he is a woman
2. Make sure your hero has a strong desire line that hooks the reader.
The Martian – the stranded astronaut must survive an uninhabitable planet to return to Earth
Room –a sheltered young boy must learn to thrive in the real world
Brooklyn – a young Irishwoman seeks freedom in America
The Danish Girl – a man needs to live as a real woman
3. Now, create drama on the page with a cause and effect sentence. This structure not only conveys action, but provides room to add compelling details.
The Martian – When an astronaut is stranded on Mars, he must learn to survive in harsh conditions long enough to hitch a ride back to earth.
Room – When a 5-year-old boy raised by his kidnapped mother escapes the only room he’s ever known, he must adjust to the frightening world outside.
Brooklyn – When a young Irishwoman moves to Brooklyn to find work, she falls in love and must choose between her strong Irish roots and a new life in America.
The Danish Girl – When a man realizes his true inner identity, he musty enlist the help of his artist wife to become a woman on the outside as well.
Now you know how to write the kind of premise line that can be your ticket to the Oscars. Let’s hope this year’s winners remember to thank the authors!
LESLIE LEHR — Award winning author and NY Times columnist, Leslie Lehr, has over twenty years of experience mentoring and teaching: privately, at the Writers Program at UCLA and for Truby’s Writers Studio. She is the author of the novels What A Mother Knows, 66 Laps, and Wife Goes On, as well as four nonfiction books.