Creating an Original Premise: Tips of How to Be New in Your Story

Scott McConnell demonstrates the many ways writers can merge genres to come up with an original premise for your TV show or feature film.
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Scott McConnell demonstrates the many ways writers can merge genres to come up with an original premise for your TV show or feature film.

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Our television viewing was forever changed by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, the first adult western Gunsmoke, and Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. These shows in either their settings, storytelling, characters or concepts offered something new or fresh.

To highlight this issue of originality, let’s analyse one of these examples, Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek, one of the most successful Hollywood franchises of all time. Star Trek could easily have been old and cliched. Since at least the time of Jules Verne (the later 1800s), there have been many stories set in space, but what Roddenberry did was to combine specific known story and science elements in a new way.

In 1964 when Roddenberry was first pitching his show, he related it to a popular TV western series of the time. Roddenberry wrote in his pitch: “STAR TREK is a “Wagon Train” concept—built around characters who travel to worlds ‘similar’ to our own.” Roddenberry also noted that Star Trek was a show of the genres “Action—Adventure—Science Fiction. The first such concept with strong central lead characters plus other continuing regulars.” Roddenberry described the lead character of the series (later renamed Captain Kirk) as “A space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower.”

Thus, when creating Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry took a famous fictional hero (Horatio Hornblower) and many known character types from American westerns—explorers, pioneers, doctors, soldiers and marshals—and stories related to them and set these in space. Such character types with their traits, goals and conflicts were “old,” but they had not before been set in space in the future with its “new” science and technology. Further, Roddenberry also took well-known genres and combined them in a new dramatic way: “Action—Adventure—Science Fiction.” In short, all these old elements had never before been integrated together. This combination created something new.

Roddenberry also added to his Star Trek concept other elements and premises from his own life and belief system. Very importantly, and unlike most science fiction of today, Roddenberry added this significant premise to his show, characters and stories: Star Trek’s heroes and plots were to reflect an American sense of benevolence. That is, Roddenberry’s space explorers (men and women) were from many nations across the earth who each week (in vibrant color) would intelligently and heroically discover fantastic (but “similar”) new worlds where they experienced larger-than-life adventures.

Alt Script: How to Be Original, Part 1

This Star Trek galaxy was one where human frontiers were advancing and human goodness and optimism won. Roddenberry’s focus on achievement and success was also expressive of the spirit of the American space program of the time.

It also can’t be stressed enough how Roddenberry took a values approach to creating Star Trek. First, the values at stake in each episode/story were very high: The fate of the Enterprise, key members of its crew, of civilizations they discovered. In the classic City on the Edge of Forever episode, the very future of life on earth is at risk. Roddenberry’s values approach relates to his premise of the Enterprise traveling to “worlds ‘similar’ to our own.”

Roddenberry didn’t fall into the trap that many writers of sci-fi/fantasy today fall into, of creating worlds so fantastic that their characters and their values and problems are not very relatable to a human audience. Hence their stories are not interesting or dramatic. Anyone remember the film John Carter? When you watch episodes of the first two Star Trek series (Star Trek and Star TrekThe Next Generation), look underneath the costumes, make-up, special effects, alien worlds and beings and see that the focus of the drama is nearly always on values, ideals and problems universal to human beings.

One important lesson therefore to be learned by writers from Gene Roddenberry’s creation of Star Trek is that when you are inventing a story ask yourself this key question: What elements can I mix together in a new way? As a writer, unless you can invent some dramatic new integration of things you know from reality that is new or arresting, there is little chance managers, publishers or producers will want to read or produce your work.

There are of course other ways to be original in your story besides setting old characters in a new location or by fusing genres. You can also use other imaginative methods like these: Introducing a new theme, type of character, conflict or enemy. Or dramatizing some kind of new or unique problem that has never been depicted on the screen. You can also develop a new twist on an old conflict, or a plotting device common to even top-level writers: Reverse a good but now cliched conflict.

The following are examples of story elements that in their day were new. Someone came up with them first. To know them is to learn from them.

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There was once a time when the Old West did not exist so such characters as the marshal, cowboy and saloon girl had not been dramatized. The same was later true for biologists, kung fu fighters, computer scientists and even police detectives or FBI agents. Ask yourself: What new work/field or character is there today that has not been seen on film before?

Stories supporting egoism did not exist before The Fountainhead was conceived by Ayn Rand. Does your story have an original theme?

Story locations that once never existed so were new when first used include the centre of the earth, inside the human body (Fantastic Voyage), on mars or planets called Alderaan or Tatooine.

Once there were no thrillers about such things as atom bombs (Moonraker) or serial killers (Silence of the Lambs). Or a hero who was a military cop like Jack Reacher.

And there was a time when conflicts such as a woman fighting for the right to vote or courts judging Nazi war criminals were not part of history. Nor were there villains such as the Nazis, Communists and Taliban. So put on your thinking hat and do a lot of research to find some dramatic but little used event from history or current affairs.

If you can especially devise some problem that has never before been dramatized on TV or film, that is gold that producers and viewers hunger for. There are many examples in film/TV history of the first use of a dramatic problem that can inspire and teach you. These examples are from many different genres such as action, sci-fi and drama:

Some writer first conceived the idea of quarreling lovers fighting a Marabunta ant invasion in the Brazilian jungle (The Naked Jungle) or experiencing the problems of time travel (The Time Machineand Dr. Who) or surviving a black hole.

Or scientists overcoming dinosaurs brought back to life in the 20th century. Or surviving lab-created killer viruses or invasions of the earth by aliens. Or psychological issues such as PTSD, a lack of sexual desire, or malicious envy. Or a dedicated marshal torn between his western town and Quaker wife or a mother having to choose which child to save from murder. Or a woman having to choose whether or not to sleep with an evil man to save the life of the man she loves. This last premise has been twisted and redone so many times because it is such a dramatic premise. In some later versions, the new twist on this old tale is that the man she sleeps with is a good man. (Watch We the Living and Pretty Woman.)

Without a Clue reversed the Sherlock Holmes legend in a clever way. Watson is now the true detective genius, not Holmes.

At one time, all the above story elements or premises were new. So the message here to every writer is: For your story find at least one new element never been seen or read.

You the writer can be new in such elements as your characters, premise, conflicts or plot to make your story original. To aid this fundamental and requisite creative need, ask yourself these questions:

In what ways is my story original?
How is my premise different?
Has the setting never been seen before?
Is my theme new?
Is my concept a new twist or ironic take on an old tale?
Is this a new form of hero, from a new field, period or world?
Is my villain a new take on evil?
Are some of my story problems/complications/events new to the screen?
Do I complicate my protagonist’s values in a new arresting way?
Is the big choice a lead character has to make new?

You must be new, fresh, original! And that takes serious researching, thinking and risk taking. And a lot of hard work and failure. But as many writing masters of the past have proved, including Gene Roddenberry, it can and MUST be done. To create a world for yourself as a professional writer, you must create a new world in your story.

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