When the great Jerome Robbins was asked to direct the original version of Fiddler on the Roof, he asked the authors a simple but very revealing question: “What is your show about?” Their first answer was that it was about a Jewish milkman and his family who lived in Russia.
Robbins challenged them to think more deeply. What was the emotional heart of their story: what was it truly about? What was its internal pulse: the driving idea that would push the action forward and make the story meaningful and memorable for an audience?
After revisiting their concept, the authors finally cut to the core of what they were trying to say and came to the conclusion that at its heart, Fiddler was about the value of family and tradition — and about how these are threatened when a whole way of life is put at risk.
Not only did this touchstone theme give the show universal appeal, it also led to the wonderful opening song “Tradition.” Identifying the core driver and staying true to it allowed the authors to turn Tevya, the Russian-Jewish milkman into an Everyman — someone audiences all over the world could connect with. It gave the show a universal appeal that’s kept it alive year after year.
Whether your goal is to write a fabulous musical like Fiddler, a heart-breaking play like The Glass Menagerie or a haunting book like The Great Gatsby, it’s vital that you eventually figure out your core premise and answer the same question that Jerome asked: What’s your story really about? Once you have an answer that feels right to you, then you have to make sure that every element of your work of art reinforces that premise. Anything that doesn’t advance it is likely to either confuse or distract your audience.
Sometimes when you start writing, you have one idea in mind — and as your work evolves, so does your core premise. I remember reading that Arthur Miller once said that he never knew what he was really writing about until he was about two-thirds through a project. He discovered his premise through the act of writing. So if you’re working on something that you really care about, but you’re not sure what it’s actually about, don’t worry. Just keep writing until you find the core. But find it!