Theme. Theme Statement. Moral Premise. Controlling Idea. Armature.
There are lots of names for the tool we’re looking at today. And you should probably brace yourselves because the masters have a lot to say about it. WHAT IS IT?
For Karl Iglesias, premise “is the specific truth about the human experience the writer wishes to convey to an audience. It’s the message, the moral, the meaning of what makes your story universal, and thus emotionally significant.”
Lisa Cron agrees: “Theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience.”
Larry Brooks says, “theme is what your story means. How it relates to reality and life in general. What is says about life and the infinite roster of issues, facets, challenges, and experiences it presents.”
“Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world,” says John Truby. “The theme line is your view about right and wrong actions and what those actions do to a person’s life.”
For James Scott Bell, theme is “the take-home value of your story… the lesson or insight–the new way of seeing things–that you want the reader to glean.”
Michael Hauge says, “Theme is a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It’s the [storyteller’s] prescription for how one should live one’s life in order to be more fulfilled, more evolved, or a better person.”
For David Corbett, a “premise is a combination of a moral consequence with the factors that cause it within the story.”
James N. Frey says something similar: “The premise of a story is simply a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story.”
Jessica Page Morrell says, “premise can be defined as a truth or conclusion–usually but not always about human nature–that is proven by the story’s events and ending.”
For Lajos Egri, premise is the story’s purpose, what it’s meant to do. He also cites a dictionary definition for premise: “a proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument. A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion.”
For Peter Dunne, premise, or what he calls ‘story’ (as opposed to plot) “is what [plot] does to the who it happens to.”
Stanley D. Williams says, “A Moral Premise is the practical lesson of a story.”
For Robert McKee, “A Controlling Idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.”
Dara Marks says, “Theme is what gives meaning to the activity of the plot and purpose to the movement of the characters.”
And finally, Brian McDonald says, “The armature is the idea upon which we hang our story…. It is what you want to say with your piece…. The armature is your point.”
HOW TO EXPRESS YOUR PREMISE
The majority of masters agree that you should be able to state your premise in one sentence.
For Christopher Vogler, “One form [a premise] can take is almost like a mathematical equation: X behavior leads to Y consequences.”
According to Mr. Egri and the many masters who follow him, the sentence should suggest character, conflict, and resolution.
According to Mr. McKee, however, “The Controlling Idea has two components: Value plus Cause…. Value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story…. Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the protagonist has turned to its positive or negative value.”
Mr. Corbett agrees: “The premise should identify the virtue or vice that resonates most deeply with your ending, and identify as well the reasons why that virtue or vice prevails or is vanquished.”
And Mr. Williams says, “While the Moral Premise can be summarized or short-handed in a number of ways, there is a form that is comprehensive and useful. It is comprised of four parts: a virtue, a vice, desirable consequences (success), and undesirable consequences (defeat),” with the vice and virtue being opposites.
What’s really neat is that all of these ways of stating premise are really saying the same thing.
Mr. William’s vice/virtue element parallels Mr. Egri’s character and Mr. McKee’s value elements; “leads to” suggests Mr. Egri’s conflict and Mr. McKee’s cause; and “defeat/success” parallels Mr. Egri’s resolution.
A MASTER PREMISE TOOL
So, it sounds like premise is your opinion on what people should value and how they should behave based on that value, because, according to you, embracing such values and acting accordingly leads to a happy and fulfilled life experience.
And, it seems that the most comprehensive way to state this opinion of yours is (thank you Mr. Williams):
[Vice (or forgoing your value)] leads to [defeat];
but [Virtue (or embracing your value)] leads to [success].
This, of course, can also be written with the virtue half first and the vice half second. I find that I write the form premise statement with the vice first, but when I write a specific premise statement, I tend to list the virtue first. It doesn’t matter; either order works.
HOW TO HONE YOUR OPINION AND DEVELOP YOUR PREMISE
As Mr. McDonald says, “The first thing you must do to get your point across is to understand what you want to say.” So, based on how we’ve decided to express a premise, we’re on the lookout for the virtues we value, their opposite vices, and the consequences we believe each leads to.
How do we choose?
The masters have all sorts of advice on how to find and develop premise statements.
1. Expand on your theme.
“A theme only becomes viable when a writer attaches personal meaning to the subject matter,” says Ms. Marks. “Ask yourself what you have to say about these topics,” paying close attention to any obvious symbolism or imagery in your story for these are hints about what you mean to say.
Ms. Marks adds that “Words can be a great key to unlocking a story’s meaning. Look them up in a dictionary, make a list of their similes, and reference them with some of your favorite literary passages, especially mythological or other archetypal sources…. Most importantly, ask yourself how any of this connects with personal experiences and insights that may reveal why this topic is inspiring to you.”
2. Consider your one-line synopsis.
Mr. Bell suggests, “As directly as you can, write down what questions your book is raising. This exercise may even help you find new streams to explore.”
“If you ask yourself why your story matters, or what you want to communicate through your story and characters, you’ll head toward theme,” says Mr. Iglesias. “Look deep without yourself and discover what you believe is important to life. If you have trouble finding a theme, ask yourself, ‘If I could change people’s minds about something, what would it be?'”
Ms. Cron says, “Take a second to ask yourself, What is it I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What point does my story make? How do I want to change the way my reader sees the world?”
3. Consider your protagonist.
Ms. Morrell says, “ask yourself what knowledge your protagonist has gained as a result of her growth in the story. Another trick for working with theme and premise is to understand your character’s greatest fears, and then link those fears to the premise and theme.”
Mr. Mckee agrees: “Looking at your ending, ask: As a result of this climactic action, what value, positively or negatively charged, is brought into the world of my protagonist? Next, tracing backward from this climax, digging to the bedrock, ask: What is the chief cause, force or means by which this value is brought into his world? The sentence you compose from the answers to those two questions becomes your Controlling Idea.”
“Make the theme about the protagonist’s inner need and journey to change,” says Mr. Iglesias. “What is the major emotional decision your protagonist must make in order to resolve the story problem? That’s where you’ll find the theme.”
Mr. Truby says, “focus on the actions in the story strictly for their moral effects. In other words, how do the characters’ actions hurt other people, and how, if at all, do the characters make things right?”
4. Consider yourself.
“Write about what you know about,” says Mr. Dunne. “The “what-you-know-about” which you will write about is not what you know about fixing a car or sailing a boat. It is what-you-know-to-be-true-and-valuable-and-meaningful-and-important-and-worth-living-for. The “what-you-know-about” which you must learn to write about is your own emotional truth.”
Mr. Iglesias agrees: “The common advice is to write what you know, but it’s more effective to write what makes you feel because ultimately, the only things you really know are your emotions.”
How do you do that? Ms. Marks encourages us to dig deep. “Finding the theme of a story often entails peeling back layers of meaning until you begin to see a reflection of your own life: your choices, your sacrifices, your illusions, and your pain. When it starts to hurt, when you get angry, sad, or depressed, then you know you’ve hit real thematic pay dirt. In fact, if it doesn’t touch your emotions, you aren’t there yet. This isn’t something you can intellectualize, because if it’s not touching your emotions, you can bet it won’t touch the audience either.”
And Donald Maass would prompt: “What do you care about? What gets your blood boiling? What makes you roar with laughter? What human suffering have you seen that makes you wince in sympathetic pain?”
5. Consider your world… and the world of your protagonist.
“Theme really speaks to an aspect of our human reality that is somehow out of balance,” says Ms. Marks. “To understand the theme of a story, it’s good practice for a writer to step back and assess what is out of balance in the human condition.” You can figure out what’s out of balance by looking at “which way the energy is flowing.” People often deprive one aspect of their lives of energy while saturating another aspect, thus creating an imbalance.
6. Consider other sources.
“When it comes to theme, proverbs are a great resource,” says Paula Munier. “These adages also provide a point of view–that is, they say something about the theme that reveals a particular attitude about that theme.”
You can also borrow premises from existing stories. Shakespeare’s full of good ones.
7. Do you have a few thematic possibilities?
“One way to help identify a story’s defining theme is to ask yourself: is it possible to filter the story’s other themes through it?” says Ms. Cron, who provides us with a “litmus test: the central theme must provide a point of view precise enough to give us specific insight into the protagonist and her internal issue, yet be broad enough to take into account everything that happens.”
HOW TO APPLY PREMISE IN A STORY
How do you express your theme dramatically? There are several ways:
1. Tie the premise to your protagonist’s dilemma—Will he choose the action that embraces the vice or the action that embraces the virtue?–and to his character arc as a whole.
2. Make your supporting characters variations of the theme.
3. Use thematic tools, such as symbolism and metaphor.
We’ll get to each in more detail over the next few weeks. Until then, a few more thoughts on theme:
HOW DO YOU AVOID PREACHING?
All of the masters agree that preaching or forcing a theme onto characters is bad for story.
One way to avoid preaching is to present both sides of your premise equally. To help you do this, try thinking of the premise as a question, rather than a statement: Does [virtue] lead to [success] and [vice] lead to [disaster]? This way you’re exploring rather than proving your premise… which allows your readership to form their own opinion… which is infinitely preferable to being told what to think.
How do you show both sides? “Create scenes that illustrate the positive, the negative, and different points of view of your theme,” says Mr. Iglesias. Then, as Mr. McKee says, order those scenes “by moving dynamically between the positive and negative charges,” until, at the end, vice and virtue collide and one or the other succeeds.
SHOULD YOU STATE YOUR THEME OUTRIGHT IN YOUR STORY?
The masters’ opinions are all over the place on this. Some say never to state your theme (Cron, Egri, Truby), because it comes off as preaching and the characters’ actions should do the talking. Others say it’s a good idea to have a character state the theme in some fashion early on in the story (Vogler, Bell, McDonald, Iglesias), so that the audience is clued in to what the story’s about. Ms. Munier suggests you imply your theme in the first and/or last sentence–and try writing these sentences first–so that both you and your audience (in the case of the first sentence) have a road map to the story.
Ultimately it’s up to you. But if you do choose to state your theme, all agree that subtle or implicit statements are better than explicit statements.
WHEN SHOULD YOU FIGURE OUT YOUR THEME?
The masters disagree about whether a premise should come before a draft or whether it can only be discovered after, so the answer is: figure it out when you want to.
That said, many masters make a compelling argument for why you might try to figure out your theme before you write, an argument which I think Mr. Frey puts it most succinctly: “Knowing your premise will allow you to be selective, to choose with confidence which scenes, descriptions, characters, dialogue, etc. belong in your story and which do not.”
Your synopsis and premise keep you and your story focused. They tell you where to go, and they can tell you when and why you’re off track. They make the chance of writer’s block practically nil.
Now, if you develop your premise before hand and the story veers in another direction, that’s okay. You can always change your premise. Just be sure to go back through what you’ve already written and accommodate the change. Fortunately, thanks to your premise map, you’ll know when the premise shift happened and how to adjust what came before it.
Ms, Cron and Mr. Frey caution that your premise shouldn’t be general or vague. It should be a specific point of view that’s particular to the story.
Mr. McDonald advises that “Theme beats logic…. Remember that dramatizing the armature is a way of getting an intellectual idea across emotionally.” He’s the only one who says this, but I think he’s totally right. Check out Invisible Ink.
Last Ms. Marks reminds us that, “A theme is a point of view–and there are no incorrect points of view.”
Now go forth and inspire us!
UP NEXT, ON WEDNESDAY
We’ll look at some of the themes in the novels we’re reading.
If you found this post helpful, please feel free to share it, and please join the mailing list to receive updates about new tool posts. Thank you!