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Theme and Premise

Understanding Theme and Premise
by
Susan J. Letham 

Find links to more articles on fiction writing at the end of this article

 
 
 

Holly Bayling-Fields asks: My writers' group is working on the basic fiction writing topics like plot, setting, theme, and premise. I'm still confused about theme and premise. Can you explain them and outline the differences for me?

Response: Relax, Holly! Many writers have the same problem you do when it comes to
understanding theme and premise.

Writers have an insider "craft" language and use terms in very specific ways that can differ from the ways laypeople use them. The confusion you feel about
theme probably stems from this difference in understanding. Premise can be confusing, because it's a term that most folks don't use in their daily conversation, so for many writers, premise is an "empty shell" word: you see it, but it's hollow. You can read it, but you don't really know what it means. What you need is a simple explanation of both points in writer's terms, so let's see if we can give it to you here.

-------------------------------------
Theme
-------------------------------------
I know you're American, so let' take an example from your life: You celebrate Thanksgiving each year. You may also go to Fourth of July celebrations and Valentine Day parties.
These celebrations revolve around what most of our laypeople would call a
theme. They'd say, the themes were:
- Thanksgiving
- Fourth of July, and
- Valentine's Day.

What the people are actually naming is the expression of the
theme, the story if you like. They are talking about the particular way a theme is expressed in a specific case.

When we talk about
theme in connection with writing, we mean something different--something more fundamental.

Let's go back to our celebrations, because each one has a real
theme, the kind of theme we talk about in writing, too.

To find the
theme of each celebration, ask yourself what it is you actually honor on each of these days. What is the celebration (or the story) about? What's the issue? You may then decide that:
- the underlying
theme of Thanksgiving is gratitude,
- the underlying
theme of July Fourth is independence, and
- the underlying
theme of Valentine's Day is love.

The clothes, songs, flags, food, rituals, parades and all the other celebration props are what you use to express the
theme--what you use to tell the specifically American version of your story about gratitude, independence, and love. People in other countries also celebrate feasts with the themes of gratitude, independence, and love, though the
way they do it, the props and rituals they use, may differ considerably from those you know in America. The same is true in fiction: many stories are about the same
theme, but each story has a different setting, other characters, objects and an individual way of looking at the topic.

-------------------------------------
Activity Break:
Theme
-------------------------------------
Here are some events. What do you think is the
theme of each of these events? (Some events can have more than one theme.)


- Easter
- Christmas
- Halloween
- Your birthday
- Kwanzaa
- Diwali
- Chanukah
- Pessach
- Spring equinox
- Winter solstice
- Singing your national anthem with a crowd
- University Graduation
- Wedding

Though you may start off with a sentence to describe what you see as the meaning behind the feast, keep going, and reduce your
theme to one word, as I did above with
gratitude, independence, and love.

After a few stabs at the activity, you may discover that
theme is almost always an ideal: an abstract noun.

An abstract noun is the name of a quality, state, action or emotion. The thing named cannot be seen, heard, tasted, or touched in the real or everyday sense, though you do experience its effects on your life.

Some examples are: wisdom, truth, justice, talent, love, belief, faith, envy, courage, dignity, beauty, compassion, hunger, joy, responsibility, wealth, poverty, and nobility.

In short, the
theme is the underlying idea, the event or story is the individual expression of that idea.

-------------------------------------
Premise
-------------------------------------
Now you've got a handle on
theme, let's see if we can get to grips with premise as well. We can use our celebration days for that, too. We've already agreed on the themes of each of our celebrations. To get at the premise, all you need to do is ask yourself about the specific message attached to the theme (gratitude, independence, love) in each case. What kind of gratitude, independence, and love are we talking about in each case? What value judgment do people make about them? What do people believe about theme in each story or
celebration context?

Fill in the blanks in the following:

- The underlying
theme of Thanksgiving is gratitude for _(this)_. Being grateful for _(this - same as before)_ leads to _(effect)_.

- The underlying
theme of July Fourth is independence in the sense of _(this)_. Independence in the sense of _(this - same as before)_ leads to _(effect)_.

- The underlying
theme of Valentine's Day is _(this kind of)_ love between _(these people)_. (This kind of) love between (same people as before) leads to _(effect)_.

The second statement in each case is a
premise. A premise is a declaration of belief. It usually says or at least implies that one specific thing leads to or causes another specific thing:
- With love, anything is possible.
- Faith can work miracles.
- Trust in yourself and you're sure to succeed.

-------------------------------------
Premise as a takeaway message in fiction
-------------------------------------
In fiction, the story you write will illustrate the way in which your
premise turns out to be correct. Each story will leave the reader with the premise you created as a takeaway message.

Premises can also take the form of sayings. In fact, many of the fables and parables we heard as children existed simply to teach us the way in which the story message was true.

Theme: Pride
Premise: Pride comes before a fall.

Theme: Honesty
Premise: Honesty is the best policy.

Theme: Wealth
Premise: Wealth spoils the character.

-------------------------------------
Activity Break:
Premise
-------------------------------------
Here are some themes. Write down a
premise (statement) you
believe to be true about each
theme.

Examples:
Premise: The wages of SIN is ...
Premise: Without LOVE there can be no...
Premise: Where GRACE is present, all
Premise: BEAUTY is in the eye of the...

Theme: beauty
Premise:

Theme: brotherhood
Premise:

Theme: compassion
Premise:

Theme: courage
Premise:

Theme: dignity
Premise:

Theme: envy
Premise:

Theme: faith
Premise:

Theme: hunger
Premise:

Theme: joy
Premise:

Theme: justice
Premise:

Theme: love
Premise:

Theme: nobility
Premise:

Theme: openness
Premise:

Theme: poverty
Premise:

Theme: questing
Premise:

Theme: responsibility
Premise:

Theme: sin
Premise:

Theme: talent
Premise:

Theme: truth
Premise:

Theme: wealth
Premise:

Theme: wisdom
Premise:

-------------------------------------
The value of defining
theme and premise
-------------------------------------
The value of defining
theme and premise before you write is that knowing them will help you keep your story on track. If you know the message you want to share (premise) and the background against which you want to make it (theme), you'll
be able to feel confident about the focus and direction of your writing.

-------------------------------------
Activity Break:
Theme and Premise
-------------------------------------
1. Below are some themes.
2. Create 2-3 premises for each
theme.
3. Write some sentences to show how you'd tackle each story.

Example
theme: Love

Example
premise 1: Love conquers fear
Example storyline: Carly is afraid of flying. Tom, the love
of her life, is on a business trip halfway around the world.
He has an accident and is in coma. Carly must take a plane
so she can pull him back from death's door in time.

Example
premise 2: Love is eternal
Example storyline: Romeo and Juliet go through incarnation after incarnation on a search for each other. Most lives are near misses: they know the other is or was there in the same lifespace, but don't meet up. Finally, in 4003, they find each other again and are granted joint incarnation rights for the rest of eternity.

Theme: Love
Premise 1:
Storyline:
Premise 2:
Storyline:
Premise 3:
Storyline:

Theme: Freedom
Premise 1:
Storyline:
Premise 2:
Storyline:
Premise 3:
Storyline:

Theme: Independence
Premise 1:
Storyline:
Premise 2:
Storyline:
Premise 3:
Storyline:

Theme: Truth
Premise 1:
Storyline:
Premise 2:
Storyline:
Premise 3:
Storyline:

Theme: Justice
Premise 1:
Storyline:
Premise 2:
Storyline:
Premise 3:
Storyline:

Try out a few
theme and premise exercises to get a feel for the issues. When you've done that, see if you can explain what you've learned to your writers' group. Doing that will help all this gel in your mind.

2002,2003
Susan J
.
Letham ham
 

More Articles About Writing Fiction

Theme in Fiction

In The Beginnings, Capture your Editors Attention

Turning Ideas into Books

A Common Pitfall: Expository Dialogue


Character Creation

 

Five Steps to Concrete Creative Fiction




Susan J.
Letham  is a British writer and Creative Writing lecturer. Visit Inspired2Write for articles and prompts and creative writing courses: http://www.Inspired2Write.com/
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