SERIES / Themes & Premise

What is the Gist of Your Story? #1



A Sound Premise and Compelling Themes

Congratulations—you have defined the genre of your writing project, are creating a bond with your characters, and the plot is developing at a satisfying pace. But have you identified any themes yet, or asked yourself what the story really means? Effective book publicity relies on strong promotional messages, which are extracted from the themes contained in your writing that, collectively, make up the premise of the story. Whether you’re writing nonfiction or working on your next novel, now is the time to give some thought to a compelling proposition that would convince both an editor to publish your book and a reader to buy it.

The Scoop on Themes

A theme is defined as “the central idea(s) explored by a literary work.” For instance: Macbeth deals with ambition and guilt, Hamlet with death and revenge, and King Lear with justice and betrayal, to name but a few themes explored in these Shakespeare plays. Theme refers to a universal concept that readers identify with even if they attach different meanings to it. Whereas the theme of a business letter or technical writing is clearly stated from the outset, the themes of literary works reveal themselves gradually as the characters are transformed and the plot develops. A short story or poem might center on a single theme, but in a novel it’s not unusual for minor themes to diverge from a meaningful idea. The main theme, however, should remain central to the story and be the unifying thread that ties secondary themes together from start to finish.

Works of high literary quality are composed of themes that are universally understood yet allow for individual interpretations.

More on themes here: Men with Pens.

How to Develop a Premise

The dictionary definition of premise is “a proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.” Premise is driven by the author’s belief about something that is highly valued—an idea the author expresses as a universal truth, will defend passionately, and feels compelled to prove. To that end, a good writer will use literary devices strategically to create tension and conflict—two qualities that drive the actions of characters—to arrive at the desired outcome in a plausible way. Think about premise as a three-part argument: if this is so (statement #1), and this is so (statement #2), then surely this is so (conclusion).

More on premise here: M B T. 

My work-in-progress novel

I’m currently writing a novel that was inspired by historical events in South Africa, a legendary disaster in the United States, and a horrifying crime in Austria. The story is set in South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo and in New Orleans, Louisiana. When the baby of a troubled couple—a man seeking revenge for the atrocities of his father’s generation and a woman also feeling unduly victimized by past events—enters the world during a natural disaster, her Bushmen nanny sees this as a sign of dark things to come and calls on the Spirits for help.

The premise of my novel

Atrocities, such as rape and war, leave a legacy of emotional disturbance that affect not only individuals—families and whole societies suffer for generations. When shame and anger lead to depression and abusive behavior, a shame-violence-guilt cycle is set in motion. Though psychologists would suggest true forgiveness of self and others to heal this type of identity disturbance and terminate the cycle of destruction, the Spirits may call for a sacrifice to end the bloodline, thus safeguarding the mental health of the next generation.

The themes that drive my story

  • the Bushmen of South Africa
  • war
  • rape
  • intergenerational shame
  • post-partum depression
  • archeology
  • shamanic traditions
  • the indigenous people of North America
By Ian Sewell http://www.ianandwendy.comCreative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5

By Ian Sewell
Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5

Bushmen in Deception Valley, Botswana demonstrating how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together

Remember, effective book publicity relies on strong promotional messages, which are extracted from the themes contained in your writing that, collectively, make up the premise of the story. Since the Bushmen of the Kalahari (South Africa) is one of the themes of my story, I could align book-signing events with, and donate part of the proceeds to, Survival For Tribal Peoples, an international organization working for tribal peoples’ rights worldwide.

Creative Writing Tips

  • Read a short story, poem, or novel with the intent to identify the central theme.
  • Take note of how it is introduced and developed.
  • See if you can detect if, when, and how sub-themes emerge throughout the story.
  • Observe if, and how, the minor themes converge to tie back in with the central theme before the story’s resolution at the end.
  • Imagine you were the author of that story—what kind of promotional messages would you extract from the themes to create publicity for the book?

Join me as I discuss the themes and premises of celebrated works with published and newbie authors over the next few months. If you want to participate as a guest blogger in this series, please do not hesitate to contact me for details. You can also participate by leaving a comment to let us know what is the gist of your story, or tell us about the themes and premise of the best book you’ve ever read.

48 thoughts on “What is the Gist of Your Story? #1

  1. This makes me look at my writing in a whole new light. I’ve never thought about it like this before and find this academic and analytical approach to the writing process fascinating. For myself I have never thought of a theme for my books, I just tell the stories of things I’ve seen people I have known and events in which I participated. These are interesting enough in themselves and, since they were inaccessible to most outsiders and because of the way the modern world is now changing the places I write about, they are fast disappearing both from culture and from memory. By writing about them I preserve some small facets for others to share.
    So is that preservation my theme? Or is there something in each story? I’m not sure. At the same time it has surprised me when reviewers, especially those who have read more deeply than the superficial story, have picked out topics from my books and remarked on them as themes of interest. I’m thinking here of feminist issues that are embedded in BRIDE PRICE. Whilst I cannot deny that they are there and the comment was valid, that was not my intention whilst writing the book.
    So now it will be necessary to rethink completely the way I write. I’m not sure that is going to be comfortable but thanks for provoking the thought train.

    • Ian,

      Thanks for responding; I’m glad to know you find the concepts interesting. Please don’t ever stop writing WHAT you’re writing and HOW you’re writing. And keep in mind that those of us who have an academic background in creative writing have been trained to think more about the whats and hows of writing so we tend to convey that not only in our formal teachings but informal discussions too. Having said that, the book/publishing world is no longer what it used to be; we’re operating in a highly competitive and cluttered environment – to stand out, you need to do new things and change old habits or you’ll be left behind. It’s Darwin all over again, though now it’s a matter of ‘be flexible if you want to survive.’

      The principles are really simple and the sentiment is totally driven by the responsibility to think like a marketer right from the start and throughout the process of each and every book. It sure doesn’t get easier.

      Last thoughts: always trust your instinct, and adopt the teaching that work for you.

      I look forward to our continued liaison.

  2. Belinda, Thank you for this very informative and enlightening post on theme-a topic that has challenged me. I enjoyed the link to Larry Brooks’ post, too. My theme has revealed itself through my writing. I did start out with a general idea of the power of hope in overcoming obstacles but the story I started out writing is not the story I am ending up with. My theme has evolved through the writing process. One thing that helps me stay focused is to ask a question that the book has to answer than make sure every chapter relates to answering that question. It has been my guiding light in my work-in-progress memoir. Like Ian said “thanks for provoking the thought train.”

    • Kathy,

      Thank you for sharing. It’s okay to let the theme reveal itself; you want your writing to develop in an organic way – and yes, the story we start is seldom the same story when we’re done. Look how your instinct is leading you to test the story via questions and answers – that’s great. Our greatest development as writers comes from the process and by learning from those we admire and want to emulate.

      Last thought: ‘academic’ principles are intended to develop and not suppress our artistic endeavors. I think of learning as a series of phases: unconscious incompetence (you don’t know what you don’t know); conscious incompetence (you become aware of what you don’t know – this might make you feel uncomfortable, because your the world you know is beginning to change); conscious competence (you start doing things differently, though you might still agonize over it a bit); unconscious competence (the new skills are fully integrated and you feel a sense of achievement).


      • I like Kathy’s method of keeping her story pointing at its original goal, it makes clear sense. It’s important to lift one’s eyes to the horizon from time to time, just the ensure you’re still heading in the right direction. But this does not preclude the occasional, even frequent, lateral diversion.

        I’m not sure about wanting to emulate other writers as you suggest, Belinda. I want my own voice to be heard, not theirs. So what I learn from them is what to avoid in my own writing, rather than how to write their way. Having spent most of my working life among people who don’t read or write, I hope whatever style I use is entirely my own as I make conscious efforts not to copy others.

        Your last comment about the learning process cheered me up. I have spent much of the last 27 years teaching innumerable trainees exactly that principle. Have you secretly been on one of my training courses?

        • There’s a difference between being a copycat – which is, of course, not what I’m suggesting – and emulating the expertise of others (meaning whatever aspect appeals to you). But I don’t think we’re disagreeing on a principle, just expressing it in different ways; whether you’re learning how not to do something or how to do it still points to your development as a writer. No, I haven’t been on one of your training courses :)

          • Belinda, your point is well taken and I do admit to reading other writers’ work and thinking ” I must try and avoid doing that”.
            My question about you attending one of my courses was, of course, purely rhetorical I have detailed records and would surely have remembered you had you ever been a participant.

      • Hi Belinda and Kathy. your comments remind me of an adage I stumbled upon recently: the idea that “memoir must be written backwards.” I have taken that to mean that I once I finished my first complete draft, I had a much better idea of what my story was really about and could therefore go back and begin again. Is that what you mean, Kathy?

        • Janet, I think the process of finding one’s story is different for everyone. “Completing the first draft then going back to begin again” sounds about right as far as what I experienced. Basically, the story seems to reveal itself through the writing. Does that answer your question?Thanks for stopping by!

        • Hi Janet, and welcome at MROP.

          Although everybody’s writing process is unique, I’m pretty sure that the one thing we all have in common is a rough first draft; in that first step you have to allow yourself to let the writing flow. Then it’s advisable to let it percolate a bit, before you begin a first revision, and that’s usually when you start getting a better idea of the main thread that seems to hold everything together; you may find that each revision will have a different focus in terms of illuminating your story and refining your writing.

          I would venture to say that the “backwards” adage has more to do with structure – that memoir is all about ‘looking back’ and reporting from a perspective of better understanding on a phase of your life or a specific event or whatever it is that your story is about.

          I hope that helps. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I have a book on my shelf called “How to Read Literature Like a College Professor,” by Thomas C. Foster. It was very enlightening and similar to your post. What I learned makes me look at books and movies much more intelligently. I think it is important to spit out the first draft (or three or four) as a flow of thought and inspiration, to satisfy our individual artistic expression. If we don’t already know the point to the story, it can come out after perusing the drafts. What you’re talking about in this post, about overall themes and premise, etc., helps create literary works of art, but then not everyone strives for that or even cares a whit about that – just look at some of the top selling books last year! Regarding finding (or creating) hooks in the story, I know many may think that’s coldly commercial, but it doesn’t take much to include a hook and it sure helps when you’re sending out media releases. Art for art’s sake is nice, but if you’re moving past the hobby stage, I’d say take a look at the bigger picture.

    • Ditto! And I’d like to reiterate that we’re continuously developing as writers – how can we not? There was an earlier time in my development when I resisted the wisdoms spoken by artists more advanced than me, including my professors – but that’s okay, because to be critical is how we find our own voices. This argument is not dissimilar to the one about character- vs. plot-driven writers; while some of us lean toward the one approach or the other, in the end, both qualities are necessary to make a good story.

  4. Belinda .. what perfect timing … I’m trying to do another piece on memoir vs fiction and this essay on premise and theme has been incredibly helpful in organizing my ideas. Thanks .. big time!

  5. Reading all the comments following your original post it has become clear to me that this question of themes is perhaps more relevant to those writing fiction than to non-fiction writers whose theme is prescribed by their subject.
    I don’t write with any theme in mind, but id readers find one in my writing, and like it, I am delighted.

  6. Belinda, I’m a big fan of premise. It’s the heart of good literary work. I even try to put a hint of it in the title. I just finished a manuscript called ‘The Two Wolves Within Us.’ It helped to develop the good and evil in my antagonist. Premise is a great study for writers.

    • Hi Jim, Thanks for dropping in. Yes, one choice is to have your title be as explicit as that; I might not opt for that approach as I prefer my title to be more intriguing…to not give away the gist of the story from the outset. What inspired you to write this story?

  7. Belinda – Jim’s title is indeed intriguing but it doesn’t necessarily give away much of what the book is about. Yet it opens endless possibilities and is just tempting enough to say: “Read me” and let his readers find out what these are. Who knows, it could prove to be quite enigmatic, which might leave one wanting to read more of his writing.
    It’s neat.

  8. I find this post very interesting. My recent self-published “Red Gold” started with the theme Envy. That was the theme before I put down one word, or one plot aspect. Of course there are consequences, so once I got going, Greed, followed by Fraud emerged.By about now the plot was taking shape. Finally, I wanted it to be part of a “Future History” I was planning to write, so the setting became, I guess derived from that premise. So in my case at least, all of this started the novel, and the characters were then created to make this come together. Of course then there was a lot of additional work.

    • Hi Ian,

      Thank you for your very interesting contribution – those are all powerful themes. Your post is a good reminder that every writer has a a different process, and that’s good, that’s life, that’s because of who we are.

      The plot vs. character debate came up a lot during my MFA program. Strangely, I’ve found that character-driver writers defend their approach more fiercely than plot-driven writers. I’ve never understood that; maybe because I believe a good story needs both in equal measures.

      Like you, I was in touch with the main theme of my memoir long before I put pen to paper. Having said that, I not only respect that every writer has different styles and motivations, I find it absolutely fascinating.

      I’m glad to have you around; stay tuned, because I predict that this will become an interesting series. I’ve got my first guest writer lined up for next week Friday to discuss how his w.i.p. novel came into being. Tell me if you’re interested in participating; remember, for this series, I want all contributions to fit the same format as my article.

      Thanks again for participating.

      • Belinda, your comment that ‘every writer has a different process’ strikes a bell that has rung in my ears all my life. it grew out of an African proverb, first heard as a small child, which has been with me ever since. In the vernacular, as i learned it, the proverb says: Kila ndege hurukwa kwa bawa lake. The English translation, sadly, loses a lot of its meaning, but it comes out as: “Every bird must fly on its own wings”.
        To me, that sounds like a lesson for life, and it certainly applies to writing, whether fiction, memoir, biography, fantasy or anything else.

  9. Ah, the freedom of the novelist to make things up. What joy! You can drive your plot in any direction you like, as the mood or fancy takes you. I really must try this. As a non-fiction writer I don;t have this freedom. I am left with trying to use words to portray the energy and emotion of experiences, the colour of other people’s lives and the variety in their behaviours and beliefs whilst the direction story itself was written by history for me.
    Perhaps I’ll try fiction when I finish the current project.

    • Ian, I get what you’re saying about nonfiction, and that’s the challenge for those of us who choose the genre – to bring history to life again, or to illuminate an aspect that might’ve been neglected in the past by other writers.

      • It is so reassuring to know that someone else recognises that this challenge exists. I have encountered several would be novelists recently who told me: “It’s easy for you memoir writers, your story is already there for you; all you have to do is write it down. We have to make things up and that’s far more difficult”. They wouldn’t accept that keeping to the truth actually made the job harder because there was no latitude for invention.
        Now I feel vindicated, thank you

  10. This is such a great post. Listing my themes or central ideas and referring back to them during my writing process was super-important for me in Adopted Reality. In fact, this task of “figuring out the gist” was something I did chapter-by-chapter, asking myself, does this chapter “gel”? Well, that was how I put it :) … And then, once I felt a chapter has a beginning, middle and some type of end, I tried to fit it logically (and interestingly–if that’s a word) into the grand scheme of the memoir. AND I had to narrow my focus, too, and leave out some themes that were just too much to include. So, for Adopted Reality, I settled on:
    – mental illness, recovery
    – perfectionism (sub-theme: body image connected with being a dancer)
    – adoption and reunion (sub-theme: motherhood)
    – the intersection of Catholicism, sexuality, guilt and shame
    You are so right, being clear about one’s themes is imperative for book marketing, as well!

    • Your original post and Laura’s comment have really made me think in a new way about how I write.

      When my first draft is written I cut out all sorts of pieces that are not directly part of the story I am telling. I’ve never though to this as ‘following a theme’, but maybe this is what I have been doing. I just thought of it as keeping to the story and not wasting text getting sidetracked.

      It has the tremendous benefit that I have all sorts of removed passages saved, that could save me a lot of time writing another book to which those bits are more relevant.

  11. Hi Laura, Thanks for sharing your process of distilling themes from your memoir. It sounds like you’ve got a lot to work with in terms of marketing. Themes of a psychological nature lend themselves so well to speaker events. Are you doing a lot of those? If so, let us know when, where, and how.
    Best of luck with Adopted Reality. I’ll make sure to put if on my ‘to read’ list.

  12. Belinda, the perpetual student in me enjoyed this post very much. Theme and premise were taught hard core in my college writing classes and literature classes. I guess I’ve never forgotten the importance placed on them. As I began drafting my memoir in progress, I knew I wanted to show others who had been abused that all too often the reason for the abuse isn’t something the abuser recognizes or can do anything about. Since beginning, my focus has changed somewhat to one of forgiveness and grace in the face of painful memories but also how writing them down can achieve healing. Yet, I feel I’m still not completely certain that will be the actual them when I’m done!

    • Hi Sherrey, I just love seeing your face here; hope things are easing a bit on the home front for you, and that you’re able to concentrate on your writing again – that memoir of yours is going to be a winner :) Changing one’s focus is par for course; a work-in-progress is a living thing – we breathe life into it all the time. The writing is often part of the healing, so no surprise to that a writer’s original view has shifted. It’s all good!
      Take care,

    • Hi Charmaine, Thank you; they sure aren’t easy concepts – it took me a long time to be able to refine my understanding of the statements I put across in this article. Glad to be passing on the knowledge. :)

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  14. I just finished a novel revision work shop though UCLA Extension Writers Program. One of the things we discussed was theme and the importance of determining the theme/themes of our novels. Not an easy task.

    • No, and articulating a book’s premise is even more difficult. During my MFA program, I saw a lot of students struggle to get their heads around the concept. And it’s that very same requirement for pitching your work to a literary agent/publisher that can frustrate even the most expert of authors. Thanks for sharing, Madeline.

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  16. The comments about writing a memoir ‘backwards’ remind me that ever so many years ago when I was at school, i practiced mirror writing and did so from right to left. I used this technique to keep my diary private as the other kids couldn’t read it.
    Does this qualify me for writing my memoir ‘backwards’?

      • I did better than that in the field, i wrote half my notebooks in runes. Anyone who could identify which of the numerous scripts I had used then had to do battle with my native language which has a delightfully encoded phonetic way of writing.

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