A writer’s group that I belong to did an activity regarding premise. Each member posted the premise of their current WIP. It was no easy task for most of us. Our group leader cited a number of writers and gave us a detailed explanation of premise. Alas, I either had a blonde moment – or a senior one. Several of them. Strung together. For the life of me, I couldn’t get the concept of premise.
So I drudged up my trusty dictionary and various books on the writing craft, looking for something to help me “get it.” Here’s what I came up with.
Theme and premise, while closely related, are not the same. Let’s look at definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary:
Theme: an implicit or recurrent idea
Premise: a proposition on which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.
Theme is a concept
In fiction, theme is generally defined as a universal concept that readers identify with. In No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells, author and former literary agent Alice Orr provides a generic list of some dramatic themes:
Author and literary agent Donald Maass says novels are moral, and reader gravitate to novels that validate their values. He says that within the broad dramatic themes lie some examples of moral universal themes:
• Crime doesn’t pay
• Love conquers all
• Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
• Two wrongs don’t make a right
• Change is inevitable
• Hope springs eternal
• Money is the root of all evil
Orr cautions that approaching your story “from the head” makes it difficult to find the emotional truth. She says theme should emerge from story. So if you don’t have an identifiable theme when you start your novel, don’t worry about it. It’s okay to have only the idea that you want to write a “revenge” story or a “love” story when you first begin thinking about your novel.
Premise is an argument
Premise, on the other hand, is an argument – a specific point of view – that the writer sets out to “prove.” In the novel, the writer determines a “truth” and sets out to convince the reader using various devices, including setting and actions/attitudes of the characters. Premise isn’t necessarily moral, but it is created from the writer’s passion, something the writer feels needs to be said about something.
For instance, let’s say the universal theme is “love conquers all.” The writer might put forth the argument that “premarital sex leads to divorce.” The premise in this case appears to challenge the validity of the theme. Which can make for some very interesting conflicts for the characters.
Premise arises out of your story idea. It is a product of “what-iffing.” In Writing the Breakout Novel, Maass lists the key components of a “breakout” premise:
2. Inherent conflict
4. Gut emotional appeal
Author James N. Frey explains premise this way in How to Write A Damn Good Novel: “The premise of a story is simply a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict of the story.”
So let’s say you’re writing a science fiction novel with the broad theme of “duty.” And in the course of “what-iffing” you decide that your story will be about an astronaut who is extraordinarily devoted to his job. But you want a twist to create conflict. Your story premise might be: “Going into space leads to annihilation by aliens.” The astronaut determined to do his duty – consequences and conflicts arising from that determination put into action – resulting in the ultimate disaster for both the individual and the planet. That might not be a “breakout” premise, but you get the idea.
Think of premise as a one-line summary of precisely what you, the writer, are saying in your novel: Doing or believing X leads to Y.
No explanations of the who or why; save the details for your novel.
Originally posted on June 14th, 2007