WHAT'S YOUR NOVEL REALLY ABOUT?
Wait! Don't stop reading.
Theme isn’t the scary beast that stalked you in your high school literature class. The concept is easy to understand and provides a wealth of benefits in structuring your novel. If the word " theme" still bothers you, call it “the why” of the novel as Michael Seidman does in his book, Fiction, or the “controlling idea” as Robert McKee does in Story, or the “meaning” or “point” of a novel as I sometimes label it. Call it whatever makes sense to you, but make the concept your friend.
The dictionary says theme is the subject or unifying idea for a discourse, discussion or artistic work. It’s the answer to the question, “What is your novel really about?” But isn’t that what the plot is? No. The plot establishes the series of events that you choose to show your story. The theme is the subject of your story.
Okay. So, then, what is premise? If theme is the subject -- betrayal, love, revenge, entrapment, for example – the premise is the position the author takes on the subject. It's the statement or proposition that forms the basis for an argument.
Theme is usually a single word or short phrase, such as “love” or “the power of love.” Premise is a statement. Let’s say the theme or subject of a novel is “intolerance.” Then the premise might be “One person committed to eradicating intolerance should try to change the beliefs of an entire town even though he may not succeed.” (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Or the theme is “war.” The premise might be “A spoiled girl who is willing to give up her childish ways can become strong and determined enough to triumph over the vicissitudes of war.” (Gone with the Wind)
Let’s look at William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for its theme, premise and plot. It’s a fairly simple plot about young “star cross’d lovers” from two feuding families in fair Verona. After they unite in a secret marriage, their parents separate them by force and they die by their own hands, believing they will meet again in another world. Their deaths heal the families, a tragic irony for Romeo and Juliet.
The theme is "love.” The premise or the position Shakes-peare takes on the subject could be “Keeping lovers apart in life will bring them together in death.” Lajos Egri says the premise is, “Great love defies even death.” Michael Seidman says, “The price of love is too high.” There is no one cast-in-concrete premise, and with the exception of the author, no one has a monopoly on assigning it. However you word it, the premise should state the author's opinion on the theme.
If we can agree that the theme of Romeo and Juliet is “love” and Shakespeare’s premise is “Great love defies even death,” the plot must – I repeat, must – prove the premise. A well-crafted plot does not include events that don’t validate the premise.
I can hear you say, “I don’t need a theme or a premise. I’m just writing to entertain.” Do you think Shakespeare wasn’t writing to entertain?
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that theme and premise apply only to literary novels. Genre novels have something to say, too. Mysteries make a point about justice. Romances show something about the power of love. Science fiction and fantasy novels not only concern the possibilities beyond our world, the authors are writing something significant about that "other place."
All successful novels have a higher meaning to them. Donald Maass, author of The Breakout Novel, says that “breakout novelists,” those authors who have made the leap to “new, more powerful ways of story construction,” write for a reason. According to Maass, a powerful theme is “a novel’s animating spirit.”
Have you ever finished a book or walked out of a movie and said, “I have no idea what that was about”? That’s because it didn’t have a clear theme and a plot that was structured to prove a specific premise.
Here’s what theme and premise can do for you:
1. They give your novel focus, direction and cohesion.
They unify your fiction and give it meaning. Once you’ve determined your theme and then your premise, you’ll know what plot points to choose. Let’s suppose you want to write a novel about family (your theme) and you’ll take the position that family is more important than country (your premise). Now that you know what you’re writing about, you can better organize your thoughts and your plot.
2. Theme and premise help you plot.
You show only the important events you need to prove your premise. If you’re tempted to write scenes that don’t pertain to your premise or actually contradict it, you’ll have a standard to judge whether or not they’re necessary. Every scene should dramatize your premise in some way. Scenes that don’t do that have no place in your novel.
3. An original plot can breathe power into an old theme.
Authors often use the same theme and premise of a successful story but alter the plot. Shakespeare himself borrowed the Romeo and Juliet storyline of forbidden love from an old Italian tale: The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet, and the story has been adapted many times over since Shakespeare penned his play. Two memorable film versions are the 1961 West Side Story with Natalie Wood and Richard Bemeyer and the 1996 Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes.
4. Premise gives your novel passion.
When you feel strongly about something and readers feel that fervor and excitement, you’re more likely to grip them. Passion is contagious.
If you’re the sort of writer who prefers to tell the story first and believes theme and premise will emerge, go for it. I wrote my first published novel, The Starlite Drive-in, and didn’t know what point I was trying to make until I read the following review in Publishers Weekly: “A story of confinement and entrapment, and of events that can free the spirit at long last.” That’s it. That’s what I was trying to say.
I realized I had expressed that theme throughout the book, even to the extent of using the literary motif of a turtle trapped in a cage. But how did I manage to have a theme without knowing it? I probably picked it up through osmosis. I would like to think I had read so many well-crafted novels that I had internalized the concept.
Some writers will say they don’t need to concern themselves with such contrivances as theme and premise. They hypothesize their writing will be more natural and pure if they let the words flow unfettered. Some writers even believe they should write until they “find” their stories. That’s okay if your natural inclination is to construct a well-crafted novel that has inherent meaning. But, without some direction, you’re likely to get lost. One of my friends – a beautiful prose writer – wrote a thousand pages trying to find her story, only to discover it was more elusive than ever. When asked what her novel was about, she said it was about “a man trying to get back to his home,” but the plot itself didn’t illustrate that. It was a collection of adventures without any clear meaning or direction.
Ignorance is not bliss. A professional knows exactly what he or she is doing while still allowing for artistic discovery. I’m sure that, when Michael Jordan steps onto a basketball court, practice and knowledge of the game tell him where to throw the ball. You can sometimes get by on talent alone, but knowledge of your craft is a better guarantee of consistency. After I published The Starlite Drive-in, I was offered a contract for two more novels. I panicked because I didn’t know how I had written the book. I have a better understanding of the craft now and can point to specific ingredients that made the novel successful, but at the time I was lost. There was nothing blissful about that ignorance.
As you write your novel, you may find your theme changes and that’s okay. Elizabeth George said that in her book, For the Sake of Elena, she planned to write about the effect obsession has on creativity, only to discover halfway through that she was writing about “the decisions women face and how they ricochet through their lives.”
Let’s assume you’ve come up with a story that excites you and you have a general idea of the theme, but you’re not sure how to develop the premise your novel.
Number one: Don’t preach.
Readers want a story, not a lecture. They’re looking for thrills, chills, and romance. They want novels that affect them emotionally.
Number two: Show your premise; don’t tell it.
Robert McKee says, “A master storyteller never ex-plains. They do the hard, painfully creative thing – they dramatize.” Bring your theme and premise to life through the events and characters in your story.
Number three: Plunge your protagonist into conflict.
The choices she makes and the action she takes will prove your premise. If it doesn’t, you need to change your premise or change her behavior.
Number four: The conflict, the character arcs and the ending should complement each other.
Suppose you’re writing a novel about “love versus career.” You’ve decided your story will show love is more important and the foolish man who believes otherwise will suffer pain and loneliness. Every time your protagonist rejects love in favor of his work he will support your premise. When he has an epiphany and realizes he’s wasted his life because he made the wrong choice, he will again reinforce it. And your premise will determine the ending to your story. If you’ve decided his poor choices will bring him pain and loneliness, you must show those consequences. You can’t suddenly reverse your premise and give him a happy ending. However, he can learn from his epiphany, change his behavior and redeem himself, earning a happy ending – but he must work hard for it and deserve it and you must make his character transformation believable.
When a novel’s theme applies to all people, we call it universal. The idea that “people are more important than things” applies to everyone, no matter what the culture or era, and novels have proved that premise over and over in widely varying stories. The advantage of having a universal theme is that all your readers can recognize the truth in it and relate to it. The broader your audience, the more likely your novel will get published.
Stop a moment and consider the most recent novel you’ve read. What do you think the author was trying to say? Did it make some point about justice or love or betrayal or some other important theme? As McKee states in Story, the real meaning of a story is to learn “life’s great lessons.”
Now, think about the story you’re writing. If you’re having difficulty identifying your theme and premise, ask your writing group to help. They may be able to pinpoint them better than you can. Or, try working the premise in reverse. Ask yourself what your plot points and your characters’ actions prove. If you can’t come up with an answer, you may be wandering the landscape. Be careful. Don't get lost in the trees.
HERE'S AN EXERCISE TO TRY:
(Please let me know how it works for you.)
1. What is the theme of your novel?
2. What is the premise?
3. Explain three actions in your novel that support your premise?