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 about 1 – 3 sentences that say what the story is about, typically the setup. This means it has a character, a goal, and a conflict.
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. And 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, a sense of 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 address: 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. 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.
And look at that! I see some theme topics that are aching to be developed and explored. We’ll want to address 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.
One of the problems that can come up when working with theme, is that the author may already have a premise in mind, and then chooses a theme topic that doesn’t really fit.
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.
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 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.
September C. FawkesResident Writing Coach
September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at FawkesEditing.com. She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Visit her at SeptemberCFawkes.com for more writing tips, and find her on
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