A strong premise has elements that are both unique and relatable. One way of looking at the unique/relatable balance is the relationship between the protagonist and the world of the story.
For example, consider stories with a relatable protagonist, but a unique world:
- Jurassic Park, where Alan Grant (a man who likes getting his hands dirty, doesn’t trust technology, and isn’t horribly fond of kids) travels to an island full of cloned dinosaurs.
- Harry Potter, where a lonely, bullied boy finds out that he belongs in a hidden world of magic.
- Back to the Future, where an 80s teenager who has a difficult relationship with his parents finds himself displaced to the past, where he encounters not only a vastly different world than the one he’s used to, but the teenage version of his parents, who are different people than he expects.
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin, where it’s a unique character in a relatable world:
- A History of Violence, where a seemingly average family in a sleepy little town is turned upside down with the revelation of the father’s violent past and the further violence he deems necessary to keep his family safe.
- The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where the title character attempts to navigate the dating world and its relatable series of pitfalls, but seen from his specific perspective.
- Grosse Pointe Blank, a professional hitman going through an existential crisis attends his high school reunion while on assignment.
The clash between the relatable and unique elements of the premise gives a story narrative friction. That friction between protagonist and world gives us conflict to propel the story.
If a character and their world are both relatable, we’re not only missing out on a unique element to hook the audience into the story, but we’re losing the potential for conflict. If a protagonist has nothing unexpected to come up against, what are they going to spend their time doing?
Or, if a unique character exists in a unique world, what gives the audience a foothold to understand what’s happening? If all elements are attempting to be different from the world and the people we know, what gives the story the connective tissue it needs to grab the audience and bring them in?
This doesn’t mean that every story needs to be an easily explained high concept piece. Even in smaller, character-driven and intimate narratives you can see the friction between the unique and relatable. For example, The Squid and The Whale and Kramer vs. Kramer both take place in the relatable world of a family going through divorce, but their unique characters create two very different stories.
Look at your premise. Ask yourself what elements make your story unique and relatable. Do you see the friction? Do you see potential to make that friction more clear?