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Monday, April 12, 2021

How Premise Plays into Theme

For many writers, theme is an afterthought--something they may try to figure out once the book is mostly written. But in reality, for a lot of stories, the premise actually promises a theme, or at least, a theme topic. This may not be true of all premises, but a surprising number actually have a theme already begging to be explored.

First, what do I mean by premise? Because a quick search online shows me multiple writing websites that define it slightly differently. Most will agree that a premise is the main idea of the story. It's usually 1 - 3 sentences that say what the story is about, typically the setup. This means it has a character, a goal, and a conflict. It's basically the same thing as a logline, if you are more familiar with that term.

Before we start writing, most of us have some idea of a premise, even if we haven't officially written it down and ironed it out. As we brainstorm and work on the story, that may become more defined. Here is an example of one:

When Fa Mulan learns her weakened father must go to war to fight the invading Huns, she secretly disguises herself as a man to take his place. 

So we have a character, Mulan, promised conflict with the Huns, and how that affects her family, and a sense of desire illustrated by proaction--she takes her father's place.

And would you believe it? It already has thematic elements begging to be explored!

The most obvious one is gender. The protagonist is trying to pass as the opposite gender. Just this setup already tells us that we are going to be including her personal struggles with that. How can you not? And if you didn't, the story might feel like it's lacking--like you are possibly dancing around a topic that deserves to be addressed.

So in a sense, at least one of the theme topics is already decided just by the premise.

Let's look at what else we have going on in that single sentence. We have both a personal problem and a public problem: Mulan's family life and the Huns invading China. So we will probably need to be addressing both of those. Looking at the setting and the fact that Mulan is going in her father's place, which is a no-no, we might start to get ideas for a second theme topic that should be addressed: honor.

Already, just from the basic idea, the setup of the story, we have two theme topics.

Let's look at some more examples.

When an ogre, Shrek, who craves solitude discovers that fairytale creatures are being exiled to his swamp by Lord Farquaad, he sets out to reclaim his property--while reluctantly being befriended by a very social donkey. But when Shrek meets with the lord, a deal is struck that he must rescue Princess Fiona, who is awaiting her true love in a tall tower guarded by a dragon. 

Okay, so just from this setup, we have some great things happening. As always, notice how the writers created contrasts. Shrek craves solitude, and the worst thing that can happen is having his home overrun with magical creatures AND having to pal around with a Donkey who will never shut up. To make matters worse, he has to rescue a (at this point) seemingly stereotypical princess who is awaiting her true love (and his kiss), but he's an ogre.

We have a character, with a desire, with conflict.

And look at that! Just from the setup, I see some theme topics that are aching to be developed and explored. We'll want to be addressing something with solitude and socializing, and also probably disappointing others by not meeting expectations.

Sure, this maybe needs a bit more work to nail down specific themes. But if you are familiar with the story, you'll see how these things tie into the bigger theme of not judging others based on their appearances. (Ogres are like onions!)

Here is Arrival's.

Linguistics professor Louise Banks leads an elite team of investigators when gigantic spaceships touchdown in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. (source)

Take a moment and look at that setup. That premise. Do you see any theme topics that are begging to be addressed?

The most obvious is language/communication.

Which will feed into a higher, linguistic concept that language itself affects--literally--how our minds process the world.

This is also played into not only by trying to communicate with aliens, but with "nations teeter[ing] on the verge of a global war"--communications between nations, and humans as a whole.

Premise plays into theme. 

And another:  

A penniless son of a tailor strives to eventually work his way to the top and give the love of his life the life of her dreams by putting together a show full of oddities and outcasts, in what will become the first ever circus.

Here is a premise for The Greatest Showman, but I also want to illustrate how even just concepts themselves can hint at a theme. Obviously a story about P. T. Barnum is going to be a story about the circus. What theme topics could a circus naturally invite? Well, historically, the people there were considered "freaks" by society. It seems that many people who joined the circus back then were outcasts with little chance of climbing the social ladder. Seems like a good theme topic to explore would be "belonging" and its relationship with society.

But, really, you could keep brainstorming and researching circuses and find other features that beg to be discussed, like the circus animals. What topics and ideas relate to that? The most obvious would be to discuss how animals are treated. But you could also play around with it and look at how humans behave more like animals to each other, than the animals.

Or maybe you want to explore how audiences or humans in general want to be fooled, as exemplified by them attending the circus. Or the irony that they pay to see the same people they threw out on the street.

Really, there are a whole bunch of thematic threads that could relate to circuses.

But The Greatest Showman's premise helps bring in thematic focus.

(Though, technically, you could also do it vice-versa--find the theme topic you want and then build to a solid premise.)

One thematic problem that can come up, is that the author picks a theme topic that doesn't really fit the premise. 

However, you can surprisingly get a lot of theme topics to fit a lot of premises. For example, we could have instead made Shrek explore communication--the topic of Arrival. After all, Shrek craves solitude but is paired with Donkey, who talks nonstop. He also has to learn how to communicate with Farquaad and Fiona.

But could we have made Shrek explore the topics of gender and honor? Well . . . perhaps, but not as powerfully or as apt as Mulan, which frankly begs for it.

Could we put the theme of communication and language into The Greatest Showman? Well . . . perhaps, but the story would likely change quite a bit to meet that need, and it almost seems like that would be a missed opportunity to pick a theme topic that resonates more closely with circuses, like belonging.

Now, imagine picking a topic that has little to do with the story you’ve decided to write–it’s going to create problems, probably some of the most common problems that writers run into when it comes to theme (such as being too preachy)–because it’s unnatural. 

So instead, look at the premise of your story to help you identify what theme topics you should probably explore–and troubleshoot which don’t fit in as easily.


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