"If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme."
I’ve found as I read about the craft that words like theme and premise have a wealth of multi-colored definitions floating lazily through the ether that is the internet. Let me guess—as soon as I said that, you reached for your definition to tell me what they really are. Okay, maybe not. You’re much cooler than that, right? I get it.
Rather than try to sort out the one-true Holy, I’ll just grab a dictionary and run with it like a pair of rusty scissors. (Because what the dictionary says isn’t always what is meant in the contest of the craft, but in this case, it’s a start.)
This isn’t my definition so much as my label that I’m stamping on some ideas so they can be discussed a little.
So, a couple weeks ago I delved a little into what is good fiction, and how I think there is a handful of ways a story might be good. One of those was philosophy—an idea or motif that binds it together. Kind of sounds like that theme stuff above, huh?
In that post, I suggested that a story that strikes multiple notes in the “what is good” chord should have a better chance of being noticed, so a theme (and premise) is your way of striking that note and letting it sing.
Your story might be about zombies or alien invaders, but the theme is the idea it presents, like maybe “unity” when the humans band together and fight off those bastard aliens.
You don’t need one when you start, though. Loads of writers have found their theme while writing.
And hell, half the time, your critiques and readers will find one that you missed anyway.
When you do identify it, you can build upon it. Your story will feature some key moments. Your characters will face some tough choices. Knowing theme, you can find ways to enhance it as you revise and polish.
Lajos Egri, a playwright and guru, suggested that a premise should hint at a character or characters (some people lacking unity), a conflict (leads to), and a conclusion (victory against outside forces).
That Egri fellow is highly regarded—and one hell of a dry and long-winded read. I’m not so strict in my thinking to put forth a single way of doing anything, but I see premise as a refinement of your theme, a step further, a sharpening of a blade, a first tink on the big block of granite. We not only can say it’s about something on the abstract side like “unity,” but we can see other dramatic elements coming out in the clay. (Yep, I just tossed a whole bunch of metaphors into a bag and pulled those out at random.)
I see that Wikipedia makes a distinction, when it comes to theme: what the work is about, and what the work says about the subject. (I just gave them different words, sort of, to avoid confusion.)
I suppose a work can go without one, but what I think is more common might be a jumble of disconnected themes never fully formed, and that can be like splicing movies together, or mixing metaphors, or making three kinds of cookies from one batch of dough. You might do it, but if you do it well, you knew what you were doing and had some experience at it.
"If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea." —Elizabeth Bowen
"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it."
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.