Five-Minute Writing Tip
The Difference Between Theme and Premise and Why They are Important in a Novel
Theme and premise are the heart and soul of fiction. Think of them this way — a nonfiction how-to book tells you how to deal with life. The lessons are upfront and straightforward, maybe even displayed in grafts, charts, and bullets. A novel shows you about life through the eyes of the protagonist. When you connect with the characters, they take you on a vicarious journey, whether enchanting, frightening, heartwarming, or deliciously funny. Without theme and premise, your story would lack substance.
In fiction, the theme is what the story is about: the concept or idea. The premise is what the story symbolizes.
Let’s start with theme. To understand theme, start by thinking of it in terms of one word: loyalty, friendship, love, loss, childhood, abandonment, revenge, forgiveness, homecoming. Or a short phrase: loyalty and friendship, love and survival, abandonment and revenge, love conquers all, forgiveness draws the family together. Theme doesn’t slap the reader in her face; it’s not spelled out in a lecture. I like to view theme as a secret message to the reader. It can be subtle, indirect, shrewd, or even cunning, but it plants a seed in the reader’s heart and makes her ponder; it gives her a feeling that something is brewing.
One easy exercise to identify your story’s theme is to write down your protagonist’s greatest fear. For example, if she is afraid of failing again, the theme could be: “Facing your demons.” If he fears being hurt by love, the theme could: be “Learning to love yourself.”
Premise can be found in the conclusion, the character arc (lesson learned or growth, change), or the moral of the story. Let’s look at five examples of each:
- Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea: The theme is survival. The premise is, “Never give up no matter what life hands you.”
- Mario Puzo’s The Godfather: The theme is family and loyalty. The premise is “Breaking family bonds ends badly.”
- John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: The theme is profound faith and loyalty. The premise is “You can’t change your destiny.”
- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: The theme is prejudice. The premise is, “Always do the right thing.”
- The theme of my book, Run Dog Run, is revenge. The premise is, “You should never take the law into his own hands.”
You might not have a clear idea of your theme and premise when you start writing your story. But, by the end, you’ll know.