In screenwriting terms, ‘tracking’ refers to being able to follow or ‘track’ the logic of a premise smoothly. The moment the audience starts to think that the story does not make sense – that the logic of the premise being presented to them doesn’t “track” – their oh-so-fragile suspension of disbelief risks shattering.
The world of the main character or the situation they find themselves in can be as extreme as possible, provided that the writer has given the audience enough information to make the consequent storylines seem plausible. When developing a logline (and then later on when the writing process has actually begun), ruthlessly interrogating whether the logic tracks smoothly and withstands this level of scrutiny is absolutely crucial.
BREAKING BAD – a show constructed from a premise which truly tracks – constantly interrogated its characters’ motivations, and indeed the plausibility and credibility of the whole narrative.
We’ve compiled a list of the best examples of films or TV shows with a great promise that tracks logically all the way to the end. For the purposes of comparison, we’ve also uncovered examples of poor tracking, that ultimately resulted in illogical and unbelievable story lines…
1. House, M.D
The popular and long-running TV series HOUSE is centered around the premise of a misanthropic medical genius who, although troubled and difficult to deal with, is able to diagnose the rarest diseases that baffle other doctors. The show takes an unconventional approach to medical drama by focusing on a largely unsympathetic anti-hero.
The premise relies on the main character House being addicted to pain medication and being unpleasant to those around him. The continued success of the show rests on House’s abrupt and rude demeanour and on there being a new patient that only he and his team can diagnose.
It is logical that the chronic pain from House’s wounded leg, which necessitates the constant pain killers, makes him angry and difficult to deal with. His unconventional approach to treating a patient’s symptoms before he has properly diagnosed them is both risky and often morally ambiguous, making it believable that no other doctor would do the same.
The premise tracks throughout all eight seasons as House largely stays the same. Although House’s diagnostic team varies, the dynamic between House and his employees remains the same, and so the show always retains the core source of tension and conflict.
The only personal growth that House shows is in the final episode of the show, when he sacrifices his own life and career, by faking his own death, in order to accompany Wilson on his last adventure before he dies of cancer. The final episode destroys the premise in order to provide closure and to give the audience a definitive ending from which there is no return.
2. Breaking Bad
The premise of BREAKING BAD is a fantastic example of a well thought out idea that tracks logically, despite taking the main character into extreme territory. It makes sense for the audience that a middle-aged man who is given a death sentence due to his inoperable terminal cancer, would experience a profound personal crisis.
It also follows that as a family man, Walter’s primary motivation would be to leave some money for his family. The fact that the audience has already been told that Walter is a brilliant chemist, through his work with the Gray Matter Technologies, makes it believable that he would be able to cook the best meth. As a man in a very desperate situation his foray into the drug trade is not too far-fetched for the audience to accept.
Walter’s devotion to his family becomes the emotional anchor that keeps the story in check. No matter what Walter does, or how far he strays, the audience is always able to track his motivation. Walter himself explains at the start of the show:
Skyler, you are the love of my life, I hope you know that. Walter junior, you’re my big man. There are… there are going to be some things, things that you’ll come to learn about me in the next few days. I just want you to know that, no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart.
The premise of Breaking Bad is special in that it allows for extreme character development. It is more than likely that an ordinary yet talented family man would be changed by his experiences in the covert drug trade. It tracks that Walter is out of his depths in a business that is comprised of terrifying and largely criminal characters.
It is no surprise to the audience when Walter develops a toughened exterior and undergoes negative personality changes. It is also believable that Walter’s story will end tragically, if not from his terminal cancer, then because of the dangerous situations his illegal activity lands him in.
3. Sliding Doors
SLIDING DOORS is an ambitious film based around an intriguing concept and a solid, logical premise. The story line alternates between two alternate universes, based on the different paths that the protagonist’s life could take depending on whether or not she catches a particular train.
The film is believable because it poses a question that is impossible to answer. The audience cannot contest that a few moments could alter the outcome of someone’s life, nor can they determine how subtle or drastic the consequences of one small action might be.
The overlap between the two story lines and their eventual amalgamation at the end of the story is equally believable. It makes sense that there would be elements of Helen’s life that are similar in both scenarios, such as her pregnancy and confrontation with her unfaithful boyfriend.
After the audience has accepted the initial premise of two separate and simultaneous story lines, each half of the story follows its own logic. Each story develops in a traditional method according to the conventions of a romantic comedy/drama.
Although the duality of the plot is relatively rare within this particular genre of mainstream box office films, the film is successful because the premise is clearly stated at the beginning of the film. It is easier for the audience to adapt to narrative complexities at the start of the film, as it gives them time to accept the premise and follow the story. The film would not have been as successful or easy to follow if the narrative division had occurred much later in the film, without a proper set-up.
Based on Elmore Leonard‘s short story Fire in the Hole, JUSTIFIED follows the charismatic U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens as he is reassigned to his home town of Harlan, Kentucky after killing a mob hit man in Miami. Givens gives the criminal twenty four hours to leave town or he promises to shoot him on sight, and he promptly kills him in a crowded restaurant when the hit man refuses to comply.
Givens is one of a long list of maverick law enforcement officers, such as Vic Makey in THE SHIELD and Seth Bullock in DEADWOOD, with his signature white Stetson alluding to the wild west sheriff tradition. Givens is firm in the belief that his morally ambiguous approach to law enforcement is ‘justified’ by the results he achieves.
The premise of the series is that Raylan and Bowman ‘Boyd’ Crowder, the local criminal mastermind, are two sides of the same coin. They share a history having ‘dug coal together’ in their formative years. They both originate from prominent local crime families, with ruthless and unscrupulous father figures who they resent, and they both share the same love interest in Ava Crowder.
Raylan chooses to oppose his father by enlisting as a U.S. Marshall, while Bowman although still in opposition to his own father opts to remain an outlaw, effectively becoming the polar opposite of Raylan. The series is built around the central conflict between Raylan and Boyd, with the rivalry for Ava a constant thread.
The premise holds throughout all six series, with Raylan choosing to spare Boyd’s life in the first series and again in the season finale. Graham Yost, the series creator, who issued ‘What would Elmore do?’ bracelets to everyone in the writers room, articulated the philosophy of the series and highlighted the need for a story to track; when he explained to an interviewer that
‘the thing in Elmore is people end up doing the same thing over and over again’,
with the primary characters locked in ‘some version of this dance’.
The protagonist Bryan Mills has a unique skill set and unparalleled motivation to complete the seemingly impossible mission. Having spoken to his teenage daughter via mobile shortly before she was abducted, Mills is the only one who has any information directly from the victim. Although admittedly, the information Mills has at this point is minimal, consisting of a vague description of the attackers given by his daughter and a two-word voice recording from the attacker.
The moment the audience starts to think that the story does not make sense – that the logic of the premise being presented to them doesn’t “track” – their oh-so-fragile suspension of disbelief risks shattering.
Mills’s previous background and his dedication to his daughter means that he is willing to go beyond the law and track down his daughter’s abductors through any means necessary.
This action thriller is successful partly due to the simplicity of the premise. Although there are several obstacles that complicate Mills’s mission, the motivation and the goal remain the same throughout the film. The sound logic of the premise tracks, making it easy to follow.
The premise of the film is neatly summarised in Mills’s now famous speech:
‘I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.’
6. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is a film in which the main character’s situation changes drastically, but is still perfectly believable as well as incredibly dramatic.
Protagonist Mac Murphy starts the film wanting to attain a more comfortable setting for his remaining prison sentence. It makes sense that Mac Murphy would want to avoid the hard labour in prison, and it also follows that Mac Murphy believes a transfer to a mental institution is the most effective way to achieve this.
Mac Murphy’s anti-authoritarian disposition together with Nurse Ratched’s cruel treatment of the helpless patients also justifies his desire to act out against her. Murphy’s character development also makes sense given his circumstance, as he becomes a natural leader of the oppressed patients and develops a desire to help them.
The premise tracks as Mac Murphy’s mission to end his sentence and be free remains the same throughout the film. The carefully constructed outline of the premise also allows for important change that simultaneously strengthen Mac Murphy’s determination as well as making his escape increasingly more difficult.
The turning point in which Mac Murphy realizes that Nurse Ratched has the power to dismiss him whenever she wants, rather than receiving automatic dismissal at the end of his sentence, is in keeping with the logic of the premise. Although Mac Murphy assumes that transferring to a mental institution is his easiest route to freedom, the conditions of leaving the mental institution are not clarified at the beginning of the film.
It is logically sound that Mac Murphy has made an oversight, and is forced to alter his anti-authoritarian behaviour in an attempt to please Nurse Ratched. It also follows that Murphy’s efforts are ultimately unsuccessful as the vindictive Nurse Ratched is unwilling to forgive his previous transgressions.
7. 12 Angry Men
The 1957 drama explores the process of deliberation before an American jury of twelve men can reach a consensus to determine the guilt or the acquittal of a defendant. The premise considers what role reasonable doubt can play in a seemingly open-and-shut murder trial case with a supposedly solid set of facts.
The premise of the film tracks as the drama is based, from start to finish, on the complexities of the deliberation process. Given an initial problem, the film explores all of the logical considerations that would come into play in trying to reach a conclusion. The story is an important example of a premise that successfully incorporates significant moral, political, legal and personal questions, all within a captivating dramatic format.
The decision not to name the jurors, the defendant or the witnesses is crucial to the tracking of the premise, as it forces the focus to be on the deliberation rather than encouraging the audience to form a personal attachment to the individual characters.
Throughout the course of the film the jurors are forced to go over the evidence and the facts involved in the case and to reassess whether or not they are plausible. Given the rules of needing a unanimous verdict in the jury and the severity of a case with life or death consequences, it is believable that some jurors would be more hesitant than others to make a swift decision.
Not only is the initial vote believable, with one juror within twelve voting ‘not guilty’, but it also seems likely that concerns over reasonable doubt would spread throughout the group. As well as discussing the validity of the witness statements, the film also explores the prejudices and emotional motivation that is swaying some of the juror’s votes.
By exploring the occasionally flawed reasons behind the juror’s ‘guilty’ votes, the film provides a clear logical progression of events. The in-depth discussion coupled with the slow pace of the story allows the audience to track the thought process of the jurors, exposing the logic behind their decisions.
8. The Office (U.S)
The premise of this long running sitcom is derived from the question: what would you do if you had the world’s worst boss? The show revolves around the awkward and often hilarious situational tensions that arise from having an incompetent boss in a mundane work environment.
The key to the show’s success is the childish incompetence of regional manager Michael Scott. Even though the main character experiences small personal growth over the course of the series, and becomes a much more likeable character, his inability to do his job remains at the centre of the show.
Michael never seems to do any work nor does he have any of the skills necessary for his role at Dunder Mifflin. One of his employees Jim Halpert explains that Michael spends 80% of his time in the office distracting others, 19% with procrastination and a generous 1% with critical thinking.
Some of the show’s best moments are when Michael must interact with higher management, as the audience witnesses each senior figure discover for themselves how uniquely incompetent Michael is. The show cleverly works around Michael’s lack of skills, with changes in senior management as well as an outstanding fluke performance by his employees, to ensure that it is believable that he never gets fired.
THE OFFICE is one of the rare examples of a show that can survive without its main character. The premise of the show is so strong, that it survives with replacement incompetent bosses after Michael’s departure at the end of season seven. By this point it is also believable that the regular employees would not be able to work under any other type of efficient management, after having grown accustomed to Michael Scott.
9. Little Miss Sunshine
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE follows a clear premise, in which a family take a road trip with the objective of getting their daughter Olive into the finals of a beauty pageant. The black-comedy/ drama is an interesting example of an ambitious film that combines multiple genres, all the while with a simple premise that tracks throughout the story.
While the original premise relates mainly to the plot, it also leaves room for significant emotional development amongst the characters. Over the course of the film, the group of oddball characters come to terms with their individual challenges and re-define what Olive getting to the beauty pageant means for them as a family.
At the start of the film the central family is undeniably dysfunctional. Each of the characters seem to be preoccupied with their own unconventional concerns, such as Dwayne’s vow of silence until he can become a test pilot and Richard’s desire to build a career as a motivational speaker.
At first it seems as if their separate personal goals will continue to divide them. However, as most of the family members suffer a disappointing turn in relation to their personal goals, they miraculously start to grow closer together.
The most pivotal moment of unity and support comes after realizing that Olive is ill-prepared and ill-suited for the beauty pageant which has served as the overarching goal of the family’s journey. Olive’s unsuitable dance routine in particular leaves her family feeling certain that she will be mocked and ridiculed by her fellow competitors and judges.
However, the fact that Olive seems oblivious to the inappropriateness of her routine and her evident joy in performing it, shows an admiral acceptance of her individuality. Her family are inspired by her confidence and join her onstage, despite the audience’s general shock and dismay. The premise tracks as the family do attain their goal of reaching the pageant and the scenes during the beauty pageant also provide a unifying moment for the otherwise dysfunctional family.
10. Fawlty Towers
Although this much loved British sitcom only enjoyed a twelve episode run, the show has a very successful and memorable premise. The sitcom is based around hotel manager Basil Fawlty and his inability to deal with his guests.
The core conflict is between Basil’s personality and the demands of his job. Basil is a snobbish and cynical misanthrope who struggles to hide his distain when dealing with guests he dislikes. The conflict between Basil and the other staff members is also key to the success of the show.
The trouble that Basil encounters with his guests usually escalates due to his conflicts with his bossy wife Sybil and the hapless waiter Manuel. The fact that Basil is scared of his wife Sybil means that he often has to go to extraordinary lengths to try and hide his failings from her.
The fact that Basil’s manners do not improve and his hotel keeps on receiving a steady flow of challenging guests means that the show’s premise continues to track logically. The show would have also continued to work as long as Basil never started to receive the class of clientele that he so desperately hoped for, and as long as he remained incapable of interacting smoothly and calmly with others.
There are several reasons why a story does not track logically. With films the logic of the premise often does not track when the story takes an unexpected turn that forces the story into a different and conflicting genre, or when the main character acts in a way that is not in keeping with their established capabilities or morals.
A common reason why the logic of a TV show’s premise does not track is because it outgrows the original set up. It is also possible for TV shows to resolve the initial problems established in the premise of the pilot too quickly, and so the writers are forced to adjust the premise, usually taking the show in an unsuccessful direction.
1. Nikita (U.S)
Many versions of the NIKITA story have been told across both film and television, all with a very similar premise. The 2010 US TV series starts with a very strong premise that believably caries the characters until the end of season two.
Unfortunately, at end of season two the series resolves the initial problem established in the pilot. The altered premise of the third season is not as strong and the show remained close to cancellation ever since, enjoying a heavily truncated fourth season of only six episodes.
In the first season Nikita is introduced as a uniquely skilled assassin trained by the government in a now rogue secret training facility called Division. Division recruits young criminals often without a family, in order to train them and give them a new purpose in life, to kill. Nikita, one of Division’s brightest stars is the only agent ever to escape the facility. Once on the outside, Nikita vows to destroy Division.
The premise, although extreme, makes perfect logical sense. Only one of Division’s own could destroy it, after having got to know the key players who run the facility and studying how Divison operates. Alex, a girl who Nikita saves from a life or drug abuse and sex trafficking, helps Nikita by working as a double agent and mole within Division, feeding her information about the new Division missions.
The first two seasons have clear goals, as Nikita needs to discover the location of a series of black boxes which hold all of the encrypted secrets of Division missions. She plans to use the information in these boxes to destroy Divison and its leader Percy.
However, the premise runs its course at the end of season two when Nikita succeeds in killing Percy. After this point, the show tries to introduce a new main villain and Nikita’s team of allies take over the running of Division, hoping that it can be used to do good. By giving Nikita a regular team of dedicated allies and forcing her to try and save Division, the show compromises the original conditions that made it a success in the first two seasons.
2. Cougar Town
COUGAR TOWN is a comedy show that semi-unsuccessfully tried to change its premise. The show was originally intended as a sitcom about a newly-single oddball 40 year-old woman, trying to navigate the next chapter of her life. However, the main character Jules’ life stabilizes reasonably quickly, after she settles down with neighbour Grayson.
The story then revolves about the odd and funny antics of her group of regular and dysfunctional friends, dubbed the ‘cul-de-sac crew’. The title is perhaps the most misleading element of the show, as it quickly stops being a show about a middle-aged woman trying to date.
The self-referential nature of the show, as well as the writer’s self-mockery arguably contributed to the survival of the show following the shift in premise. Although there were plans for a name change as early as season two, the producers decided to stick with it. The writer’s regularly mocked the inaccurate title of the show in the opening sequence, with makeshift titles such as Welcome to the ‘(Badly Titled) Cougar Town’ and ‘It’s Ok to watch a show called Cougar Town’.
Although the show found a temporary middle-ground in which it was able to focus on the central group of friends and their recurring jokes, it was not a solid enough premise to carry the show for more than six seasons. Seasons three to six also comprised of significantly fewer episodes, ranging between thirteen to fifteen in comparison to the first two season’s twenty-plus number of episodes.
The 2013 dark fantasy horror film HORNS puts an interesting twist on a well-known crime format. The main character Ig is accused of a crime that he did not commit and undertakes a mission to clear his name and find the true perpetrator behind the rape and murder of his girlfriend.
The film explores a dark fantasy twist, with Ig developing a set of horns that forces those around him to tell him their deepest darkest secrets. So far, the premise does track, as it makes sense that Ig is able to harness the power of the horns in order to work out the truth about his girlfriend’s murder.
However, the film becomes increasingly more muddled, with heavy religious themes and increasingly complex supernatural motifs developing later on in the story. Several film critics agree on the tonal confusion of the story, with Eric Kohn explaining:
‘Predominantly a failure of tone, HORNS has plenty of admirable traits and yet dooms itself from the outset. It’s an admirable conceit stuffed into far less subtle material’
and Peter Debruge claiming that the film ‘benefits from the helmer’s twisted sensibility, but suffers from a case of overall silliness’.
The strength of the premise is also compromised by the changing power of Ig’s magical horns. The audience is initially only introduced to the horns ability to extract truth from others, and so it is not entirely clear how they help Ig survive, after he is trapped in a burning car that is driven into the bay.
The premise fails to track when the story introduces increasingly complex new supernatural ideas too late in the development of the plot. The film suffers from not having defined the parameters of the supernatural and religious themes clearly enough at the start.
4. The Happening
THE HAPPENING is a science-fiction thriller film based on a largely unconvincing premise. The film explores the idea of a widespread natural disaster/ pandemic that originates from the dangerous neurotoxins released by plants.
The neurotoxins bring about death in a strange way, as they cause those affected by them to commit suicide, first in large groups and then on an individual basis. It is supposed that the plants release these chemicals to defend themselves from threats, although these larger threats remain unknown throughout the course of the film.
Not only does the original premise of the film not make complete logical sense, but it also does not track logically as the film progresses. There are large gaps in the premise that prevent the story from developing a suspenseful or even coherent structure.
It is largely ineffective not to explain what the greater threat is, that is causing the plants to defend themselves. There is also an inconsistency in the premise, as it is never explained what the greater threat could do to humans, that is worse than death.
The weak premise and poorly executed story lines were reflected in the reviews of the film, with critic Justin Chang claiming that it
‘covers territory already over-tilled by countless disaster epics… offering little in the way of suspense, visceral kicks or narrative vitality to warrant the retread’
and critic James Berandinelli claiming that its environmental message is ‘way-too-obvious and strident’.
5. New Girl
NEW GIRL is a successful sitcom that arguably outgrows its premise within a handful of episodes. The show is based around the idea of a quirky, eccentric, newly-single mid-20’s girl moving into a flat with three male roommates. The main character Jess answers an ad from Craigslist after having broken up with her long-term partner, and is forced to move out in a hurry.
The comedy is derived from Jess’s zany but endearing personality as she struggles through a break-up, whilst surrounded by emotionally challenged men who have never had to deal with anyone like Jess before.
However, the initial premise does not last long, as Jess quickly moves on from her previous partner and starts dating again. The initial concept of the show is limited, as is the title, as it no longer stands once Jess becomes real friends with her roommates.
As soon as Jess becomes an integral part of her roommates lives, she is no longer the ‘new girl’ and is instead a valued member of the friendship group. Jess quickly becomes the core of the show and it becomes difficult to imagine the supporting character’s lives without her, after the first half a dozen episodes.
The initial contrast between Jess and her roommates is also quickly adjusted, as they start to get used to her quirky habits. Jess also begins to gradually tone down the extent of her zaniness, so that by the end of the season each of the roommates has a handful of characteristic quirks.
The show remains a success because it is largely character driven, and often focuses on the character’s oddities and idiosyncrasies rather than on snappy punch lines or dramatic plot points. Even the altered premise is limiting, as it only continues to work as long as Jess and her roommates still live with each other; which may not make as much logical sense as the characters progress through their 30’s into married adult life.
Working on your own snappy premise? Find out if it tracks effectively and get a second opinion. Alternatively, if you’re looking for more ideas and inspiration, why not see what other articles we have to offer.
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