Let's talk about the theme and premise of your novel.
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)
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?
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 a 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.
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.
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.
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.
Show your premise; don’t tell it. As screenwriting guru Robert McKee says, “A master storyteller never explains. They do the hard, painfully creative thing – they dramatize.” Bring your theme and premise to life through the events and characters in your story.
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.
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.
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. 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.