I’m often asked what the difference is between theme and premise. Here’s my take—with a comment or two from others:
What is theme?
A story needs to be unified around something, and that something is theme, a recurrent idea or motif. You can begin to identify your theme by coming up with ONE word to sum it up. That one word is usually a human quality: Friendship. Love. Trust. Fear. Redemption. Abandonment. Freedom. Motherhood. Truth. Ambition. Justice. Revenge. Confidence.Or a universal quality: Duality. War. Confinement.
But the theme of a novel goes deeper. Theme in a novel is not just that one word, say LOVE, but the statement the author makes about the motif with the story.
FROZEN: sisterly love is greater than power.
Generally, theme is linked to the emotional growth of the protagonist, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist.
Sometimes you don’t know what your theme is up front. You might change it, or discover it in the course of storytelling. It evolves. And that doesn’t matter because it isn’t stated anywhere in the narrative. It’s a sense we come away with, a flavour, a key.
Theme can also be several statements/explorations around a human quality. For example, an author could explore different kinds of LOVE through different characters: brotherly love, love of self, absence of love, parental love, love of money over people, love of country etc.
What is Premise
Premise, on the other hand, is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about, the basic idea and foundation for the plot.
John Truby suggests premise is the simplest combination of character and plot: Some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character and some sense of the outcome.
Author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff talks about the premise being “the pitch” for the story. That works too. After all, a pitch is the one-liner distilled version of your book and introduces us to the main character, what obstacles he must overcome, and why.
HARRY POTTER: When boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts wizard school are threatened by the Dark Lord, Harry must find his magical power to overcome him and become a man and a great wizard.
Premise out of theme
Chris Vogler agrees that premise is the basic idea and foundation for the plot but also that it is “a more developed expression of the “theme” idea, beyond just one word. It’s a sentence that you pull out of that one word.”
First be specific. “LOVE” isn’t specific enough. What kind of love? Brotherly love? Blind love? Love of country? Loving yourself? What kind of trust? What kind of faith?
And then restate it as a kind of formula:
X behaviour leads to Y consequences
MACBETH: ruthless ambition leads inevitably to destruction
Why does it matter?
Premise is useful as you write because it holds the ultimate character transformation in the front of your mind, so you are conscious of your character’s actions and reactions being in step with where he is along the character arc. For instance Harry Potter could never have faced the dementors at the beginning of the series, not only because he didn’t have the wizardly skills, but because he had not yet found his confidence or his loyalty.
As you write, theme doesn’t matter, but when it comes to editing, it provides an umbrella measure to decide which scenes and characters can get cut. Does this scene support the theme better than this one?
One last word
Screenwriter Andrew Oye sums the whole thing up very nicely. He says premise and theme are cousins not twins. That the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story.