Thursday, April 14, 2011

Premise vs. Theme

I've been thinking about premise and theme lately, and found that I need to think deeper. One of the most rewarding things about writing is that it's never boring and you never learn it all, even after you've learned it. I mean, I know what "premise" is, right? It's a story's central idea, a setup or "what if" that snags the reader and makes her say, "Yeah, I want to read this and see how it plays out." The premise of, say, Romeo and Juliet might go like this: "What if a son and daughter from two enemy families fall in love?

But is that really a premise? By some definitions, maybe not. Another definition, more steeped in the study of logic, goes like this: Premise is a statement assumed to be true and used to draw a conclusion. It's a presupposition, assumption, or postulate. More specifically applied to story, it's a statement of what happens to your characters as a result of the plot, which your story sets out to illustrate.

Which is an interesting point of view. Math major though I may have been, my definition of story premise has always been more in the first camp, the what-if question.  So what is premise? A question, or a statement? Does a premise include the ending, or  doesn't it? By the statement definition, the premise of Romeo and Juliet might be "Stubborn feuds or prejudices lead to tragedy." The statement contains "what happens to your characters"--tragedy--and the what-if question does not. If it's correct to say that the statement is the story's premise, then we can't know a story's premise when we first pick it up to read it. We can only know the premise when we know the end. I'm going to have to chew on that a little more before I buy it. If I buy it. Perhaps both kinds of premise are useful: the question as the public one, the hook; and the statement as a private one, a guide for the writer.

Both viewpoints agree that a story has one premise. But it can have multiple themes. Speaking of which: doesn't that second view of premise, in the preceding paragraph, sound an awful lot like theme? "Stubborn feuds or prejudices lead to tragedy"? If that's not theme, then what's a theme? We often hear statements such as "This book explores themes of love and loss, friendship and courage, sacrifice and honor..." and I say No. These aren't themes. These are subjects. Themes say something about a novel's subjects, and we don't have control of our work if we don't know what that "about" is. Let's go back to Romeo and Juliet. Does it explore themes of passion, labeling or stereotyping, friends and enemies, and communication? I think it explores those subjects, and makes theme statements about them.

Subject: Passion
Theme: Quick passions lead to hasty decisions.

Subject: Friends/enemies
Theme: Our enemies may not be our enemies.

Subject: Communication
Theme: Miscommunication leads to disaster.

What do you think? What's a subject? Theme? Premise? Does your brain hurt as much as mine does? :)


    Laura Pauling said...

    Great ponderings for this morning. I never realized how much theme is and should be tied up into the premise. I love how Robert McKee in Story calls theme - the controlling idea of the story. Which does sound an awful lot like premise. It's the heart of the story. And stories that have more heart stay with me a lot longer. I still love commercial stories that have great voice and action. But the heart ones stay with me longer.

    I see premise more as a statement. And what What if - more of the hook and initial idea that gets me involved in a story. But that seems to just be semantics. Good luck figuring it all out!

    Mary Witzl said...

    I'm with you here: a premise seems more complex to me than a subject or theme, and suggests the development of these. So while love itself can be a subject, the love between the children of enemies is more of a theme. Flesh this out to young lovers from enemy families who have to hide their passion and are prepared to sacrifice all for it, and it becomes a premise. I've always thought of the premise as a more developed theme.

    I could definitely use a more logical brain, but that's how I've always made sense of these. And good for you for bringing this up; I suspect a lot of us bandy these terms about without thinking hard about them, myself included.

    Bish Denham said...

    Okay I haven't given this a whole lot of thought. But as I was reading I kind of felt that I fell on the "what if" side.

    Maybe premise and theme are kissing cousins and we shouldn't kill ourselves over which side we lean towards.

    Andrea Vlahakis said...

    Interesting post. I tend to think of theme as the underlying topic (I'm trying not to say message), e.g. good versus evil. Like Mary, I tend to think of premise as more complex. Premise, to me is more the point of the story, or the central idea. I'm more in the camp of it being what happens to the characters as a result of the plot, as you mentioned.

    Like you, I need to think deeper on this.

    Jeff King said...

    I agree…

    I never know what the theme of my story is going to be; I just write like mad then try and figure it out. I am the type of writer who lives the story as I write it. I never know what’s going to happen, that is the best part of it, at least for me…

    I hate revising it drags, like watching a movie a hundred times. I sure hope I find a way to enjoy editing, because that’s what 80% of writing is.

    Thx for the post and the great info.

    Marcia said...

    I just answered all your lovely posts and then blogger ate it. Grrrrr. I'll give it another shot later. AND copy it first so I can just paste it if it disappears again. Double grrr.

    Marcia said...

    Laura -- I like the idea of theme as controlling idea. I still struggle with the thought that you have to know the ending of the story to define premise, so I think I'm leaning to the what-if as premise. Like a "Thus and so is the case; now what will follow from that?"

    Mary -- I think my concept of premise does stem from my math/logic background. The major and minor premises are givens, and the conclusion arises from them. So to me the premise is what you begin with: the opening "truth" or situation. If I buy the opening situation/conflict that the author is presenting, I'll believe in the story; if not, it all falls apart for me. And I'll probably never read far enough to find out what the theme is.

    Bish -- I think you exactly quoted the author I was reading on this subject, whose name I blush to confess I've already forgotten. She definitely said they were cousins, and I think she said "kissing" cousins. She also said something to the effect that if you so much as blow on them, they'll easily blur.

    Andrea -- I also view theme as, well, a message. Because I view it as a statement about the subject. Not that we should try to insert specific messages into any work, but any work that doesn't make it's reader say "so what?" when they're done has some sort of point to make. I think that point is often discovered in a second or later draft, and then we can start to hone it. We need to define it partly because if our work is "saying" something we DON'T want it to, we need to recognize that.

    Jeff -- I agree that themes emerge as we write. I also write my first drafts as exploration, with not a lot of plotting ahead of time. I prefer revision, though; working with material that already exists.

    Christina Farley said...

    This is an interesting thought. A premise is a huge part of what sells a novel. But I think the theme is the message the author wants the novel to deliver.

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