Theme, Premise & Conflict
by Lisa Paitz Spindler
Theme is an implicit or recurrent idea or a motif in a story. It is the overarching concept, issue or view of life highlighted by a story. Christopher Vogler in THE WRITER’S JOURNEY defines theme as ". . . ‘something set before,’ something laid out in advance that helps determine a future course. . . an underlying statement or assumption about an aspect of life."
Finding Your Story Premise
If you’re like me, then you have no clue what the theme of your story is and were thoroughly lost in this part of high school english class. It’s usually easier to first figure out what is the basic story idea or premise — what I call the ‘story kernel’ — before arriving at the theme. In other words, you don’t always know what you’re trying to "say" with a story until you’ve tried to say it.
The premise of your story is inherent in the ‘story kernel’ — which is the very first idea you have about a story — because this single scene or character idea is what initially drew your attention. Embedded within this kernel is an idea that you feel deeply about or you wouldn’t want to write the story in the first place. This is the subtext or premise. If well-developed it may even be your theme.
Defining Basic Conflict
Once you understand the story premise or subtext, you’re ready to consider the basic conflict. Your story premise and basic conflict will be closely related. I’ve found that conflict is strongest when it comes from character, so the first step is to get to know the people in your story. One way to do this is to interview your characters.
A good guide to character interviewing can be found at Alicia Rasley’s web site: http://www.wire.net.au/~melinda/biaw/interview.htm.
You also can download a character biography worksheet from: http://www.applewarrior.com/peregrine/character_bio.doc (32 KB).
Conflict, or drama, is what makes a story interesting. According to William Noble in THE ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING: CONLFICT, ACTION AND SUSPENSE, drama is "taking facts and making them live, developing characters so they become memorable. . . so a pedestrian set of circumstances can become interesting. . ." The beginning of your novel should start with a shock, the drama that piques the readers’ interest.
Uncovering Your Theme
Once you’ve established your premise, met your characters, and have an idea for at least one scene, you’re ready to uncover the theme to your story. For some writers, all of these pieces may be evident from the beginning, but for others it may take some digging. For some lucky writers theme comes first and story ideas afterward, but I think for many writers an idea presents itself before we can see how it can evolve into a theme.
To build the theme from your story premise, separate theme into two parts: (1) the concept, issue or view of life highlighted in the story, and (2) your approach, attitude or comment as the author about that concept, issue or view of life. (Clue: Your attitude may be evident in the subtext of your story kernel.)
For example, Denise Domning in her article ‘Premise and Theme: Or How Socrates Can Help You Write a Romance,’ cites the theme of Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET as "Great love defies even death." The concept is ‘love,’ but Shakespeare’s take on love was that it ‘defies even death.’ (Note from Lisa: I didn’t particularly follow Reid’s example about Elvis, which is why I used Domning’s example instead.)
You can have more than one theme to a story, but as the writer, it’s probably best to have one main theme with subordinate themes — instead of competing themes. All of these help to build character, but are also demonstrated by character. Like we did above, it’s often easier to work backwards and look at a few scenes to see what subtext you wrote into them, albeit unkowingly. This is demonstrated by what’s ‘stressing out’ the main character in your scene(s). Once you’re aware of your subtext (your premise), then you can build on that in subsequent scenes.
For example, if the main character is a doctor under the oath of ‘do no harm’ but possessing the knowledge of biological warfare, he or she would be unable and unwilling to use their power for destruction. A character placed in a situation contrary to their values creates conflict.
It all boils down to these two equations:
premise = story kernel + conflict
theme = premise + author attitude
1) Create a profile of your main character(s) or interview your main character(s). Cut out pictures from magazines that resemble your characters.
2) In ten-minute intervals, write the scene(s) that immediately come to you. If you’re working on an existing project, identify what are your most powerful scenes or the scenes you wrote first. What is the basic conflict in these scenes? What is powerful about these scenes? How is the main character torn between one ideal/environment/person and another? What does this say about people or society? Can you find the subtext in what you’ve written? (Read Reid’s "Setting Up Basic Conflict" and Setting the Stage" for ideas: http://www.reporters.net/jbreid/novel10/one10weeks.htm)
3) Using the subtext you have uncovered in your initial ‘kernel’ scenes, explain what your story is about — in a single sentence. What attracted or inspired you to write this story?
4) Reduce this sentence to a one-word concept. This is your premise.
5) What is your attitude toward this premise? Why do you want to write this particular story?
6) In one sentence, take your one-word premise and add to it how you feel about that premise. This is your theme.
1) What is the theme to the movie THE BREAKFAST CLUB? What about CASABLANCA? KING LEAR? What is the basic conflict in these stories?
2) How easy or difficult was it for you to articulate your story’s theme? What specifically was difficult and why? Did you use a different method than the one suggested here?
3) Share your story’s theme with the group. Was is what you expected or were you surprised by the answer?
4) Looking back at your previous writing, do you see a pattern of themes or basic story premises? Does this pattern point to issues or overarching themes that are important in daily life?
Domning, Denise. ‘Premise and Theme: Or How Socrates Can Help You Write a Romance,’ Desert Rose RWA Writer’s Guide, http://members.aol.com/DRose60WG/domning.html
Noble, William. The Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict, Action and Suspense. Writers Digest Books, 1994.
Reid, Joanne. Write a Novel in 10 Weeks: Theme, http://www.reporters.net/jbreid/novel10/one10weeks.htm
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Michel Wiese Productions, 1998.