The Inherently Hopeless Premise

I wrote a cranky Facebook status last week about Once Upon a Time. Even though I enjoyed it at first, before it began to go off the rails, it started off with what I like to call the Inherently Hopeless Premise.

You know it. What it means is that the show revolves around solving some mystery or a group of characters trying to make a specific thing happen. But the problem is, if you base your story on that, on the resolution of one specific problem, then you’ve set it up so that you can’t resolve the basic issue without ending the show.

Take Once Upon a Time. The premise is that all the characters from our favoutire fairy tales live in a small town with no memory of who they really are. The evil Queen cursed them all and they are doomed to live with no knowledge of their true nature. The heroine is an outsider who is actually the child of Snow White and Prince Charming who was sent to our world to save her. So, the premise is to defeat the Queen and reverse the curse, freeing everyone. Do you see the problem here? If you break the curse, no show. So, you’re left with a bunch of characters trying to achieve something they can never achieve. Which I find incredibly frustrating. And the show is doing exactly what I was afraid of, leaving the spunky and fantastic heroine never really achieving anything.

There have been many examples of the IHP.  Battlestar Galactica in both the original and rebooted versions. Though the reboot made good on its promise and resolved the IHP in the end. One of the main reasons I never watched Lost was that when I heard about it, it struck me as an IHP. Bunch of people crash on an island, are trying to get home. If they do get home, show’s over. And since most shows are intended to last up to seven years or more, that’s seven years of dangling that carrot in front of the audience’s nose. I wasn’t buying it. Now, I’m told they did transcend their premise and venture into other territory, but I couldn’t make it past that initial reaction.

Think of some of the shows you’ve loved. Examples of things I have loved that didn’t start from an IHP are things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Good Wife or the Star Trek series. Buffy’s mission was an ongoing one. There was a seasonal Big Bad, but you knew that though the BB would terrorize her world for a season, she would kick ass and the season would end with the premise resolved. The Good Wife has become one of my favourite shows. Even though it was fairly high concept (who is the woman standing beside the political figure mired in scandal) it was never an IHP. It’s a premise that mines character and situation and builds compelling stories from there.

Even something classic like Bewitched. Samantha’s a witch, Darrin knows and she wants to live her life with him in  his world. There’s no prescribed endpoint that the story says the character has to get to and therefore, the stories can go anywhere and there can be gains and losses and forward movement.

I got too tired of the Queen on Once Upon a Time always coming out on top, because if she ever lost, the whole premise of the show collapses. Not that it’s impossible to deal with. There are all kinds of interesting stories you could tell if you broke the curse. What do these characters do when they know who they are?  But the producers have to be willing to chuck the premise and have a plan that goes beyond it.

It’s a fine line when writing. With a novel, it has the benefit of being finite. The premise needs to be resolved in the book itself, or in the three books of a trilogy or however many volumes the opus contains.

You have an endpoint and you write to it. But with a series, it has to go on and if you base it on that one specific problem with the one specific resolution, you better have an amazing way to get me to that endpoint without frustration.

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