Premise vs. Theme

Have I ever mentioned before how much I love writers’ conferences? Well, love is probably not a strong enough word. The speakers, the learning, the sharing, the networking… it makes me shiver with excitement!

Today is the first day of When Words Collide, a Calgary-based writers’ conference, run entirely by dedicated volunteers. I got a sneak peak at the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association’s workshop. It covered a number of topics, but the one I took the most away from was on theme. Below are some of the key learnings on theme vs. premise and how you can use them to enhance your story.

What is theme vs. premise?

I often struggled with this one. When someone asks what your book is “about” I would always struggle – much like how I despise writing a synopsis. It’s about… so many things! Ultimately, though, I learned that the one word you can use to describe what your book is about, that word is the theme. Theme describes the emotion or the heart of the story. I thought long and hard about my first novel, Girl Tries Life, and was psyched when the lightbulb went off. My debut novel is about resilience. Resilience is the theme.

Premise is the one or two lines that describe the plot. Diana Cranstoun described this in her presentation at WWC (which you can access for free for one week here). For example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is about a young boy learning that he’s a wizard, and going to wizarding school. That’s the plot in a nutshell of Book 1.  Titanic is about a couple falling in love on the fated journey of the Titanic.

How can I show theme in my book? 

Cranstoun explained that a great way to show your theme is to show the opposite. For instance, in my novel where the theme is resilience, I have to show  weakness, or letting something defeat my character. Only then can my main character bounce back. 

Twelve Years A Slave is about freedom, or the need for it. Being enslaved and the horrific experiences that come with slavery. But, those scenes make the freedom that much sweeter. To an extent, I believe that Titanic is also about freedom. Rose feels trapped, not just by her social circumstances, her arranged marriage, but in something as simple as her restrictive corsets. As a writer, you don’t need to explicitly say “the corset took away her freedom”… that would sound a bit funny. By adding the imagery, your reader will pick up on it, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Once you identify your theme, think of some examples of the opposites to insert or highlight in your novel.

Theme as  Brain Storming Tool

Now, this is something I don’t feel comfortable sharing on my blog, so I encourage you to download Diana Cranstoun’s workshop. She came up with a phenomenal tool to help brainstorm ways to show your theme in your novel. When you see the tool, it’s so simple you wonder why you’ve never thought of it yourself, but I don’t want to steal her thunder.

What do you think? Was that helpful? Do you struggle with theme?

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One Response to Premise vs. Theme

  1. dianacranstoun August 11, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    Many thanks for such a positive review. I’m glad you enjoyed the workshop.

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