Understanding premise and theme in stories

23 Mar 2018

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Certain creative writing lingo tends to cause confusion for many writers. Two words that are deeply embedded in this lingo are premise and theme. What exactly are these two and how do you differentiate?

If you do an online search, you’ll come up with the following definitions:

Premise: an assertion or proposition which forms the basis for a work or theory.
Theme: …the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, exhibition, etc.; a topic.

It can feel like we cannot sum up our stories in two sentences. We need at least two pages to explain the overlapping themes and the various premises of our story. These, of course, are just excuses that we need to get past.

Every story has a premise and a theme. The following explanation should help you figure it out for your story.


The premise is devoid of actual character names, locations or specifics. In fact, it’s the most skeletal your story can get. The premise is what drives forward conflict.

Let’s make up a few fictional premises.

An old man finds a bottle with an inscription that reads “One drop will reverse your aging”. He takes a sip.

A teenager realizes that he’s actually dead, and he knows because Death forgot to wipe his memories.

Do you see how both premises drive a conflict? Conflict is the mystery juice that gets readers all excited!
The first premise sounds simple, but the story can become extremely complicated. (We’ll see how in the explanation for the theme.)
The second premise automatically brings up so many questions:
Is there an afterlife? What does it look like? What does Death look like? What does Life look like?


The theme is how you execute your premise.

Think about it this way – “The Great Dictator” by Charlie Chaplin could have been a serious, dramatic movie with violence, gore, and disturbing scenes. Instead, it was a profound, dark humor. It made you think, but it made you laugh too.

Quite opposite to this is “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg. Also set during the war; this movie is serious, unforgiving and often disturbing. It makes you think, but it doesn’t leave you in splits for sure.

Let’s see how we can execute the two premises we came up with before.

In Reversal, we could portray the old man to be struggling with his finances due to poor health. His family could be unsupportive and make him fend for himself. The process of reversal would bring about a theme of transformation.
On the other hand, if this potion has a bad side effect that the old man did not foresee then the theme could be regret.

For the Heaven example, let’s put the story into a fantasy world where the boy is surrounded by different creatures in the land of the dead. The theme here would be innocence and subsequently, discovery. If, on the other hand, the boy is actively looking to get back to the world of the living, the theme could be resurrection.

You can check out the types of themes in this fantastic blog post.

You can think of it this way:
The premise tells you what will happen.
The theme tells you how it will happen.

Premise and themes in famous books

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

Premise: A young boy finds out that he is a famous wizard and that he will be going to a wizarding school
Themes: Innocence, Friendship

And then there were none by Agatha Christie

Premise: Ten strangers are invited to stay on an island, and they start dying off, one by one.
Themes: Vengeance, Fate

To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper

Premise: A black man is falsely accused of rape and a famous white lawyer decides to defend his case
Themes: Racism, Justice, Equality

Check out our fantastic list of books!

Here are a few questions to help you write the premise and theme of your story.


1) Which incident leads to the development of the entire story?
2) Which lead character(s) are involved? (A group of friends, a girl, an old man, a monkey, a blue whale, etc.)
3) What action will they perform to drive the story forward?


1) What does your protagonist feel?
2) Does the story change them in any way? (It should!)
3) What emotion would you like to leave your reader with?


I write stories and poems and compose songs when I’m feeling inspired. I love meeting artists and creators and collaborating with them. Talk to me about books, movies, music, food, cats, dogs and coffee!

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