Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Knowing the Difference

A few weeks ago I read a post by Nathan Bransford  that challenged the casual definition of plot, premise, and theme. It got me thinking.  What *is* the difference between the three? Do the differences matter?

I’ve read novels with wonderful, amazing premises, but a plot that left you feeling cheated. I’ve seen books where after a great first few chapters, the author halted the plot so he could delve into the theme. And one of my biggest faults is that I like starting a story based on a premise—it takes me half a novel of struggling to realize that I don’t have a plot.

I think these differences, however subtle, are important; especially when you get around to crafting pitches and queries and such.



In general, theme is a recurrent idea or motif, such as the theme of a party or the theme of an art gallery. But the theme of a story has a deeper meaning. It’s what the author it trying to explain to the world.

In general terms, it could be something like “true love,” “justice,” or “revenge.” Terrorisim is a popular theme nowadays, along with things like pollution, overpopulation, and racism. You might say that theme is the emotional growth of a MC, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist. Some authors create characters with the single purpose of talking about theme—politicians, vigilantes, serial killers; the like.

Sometimes theme is also what the author is trying to discover, to understand, so writing about it becomes cathartic. A lot of literary novels focus on the theme more than anything else. This is where the illusion comes from that literary writing is more sophisticated than genre. (Not to start a spitfight; I’ll cover that some other day.)

Theme gives a story a sense of purpose, but can also make your writing preachy. Look out for that.



One dictionary described the premise as “a proposition for a conclusion.”  When writing, it’s what usually comes to me first—the idea that sparks my writing, the thing I’m writing my story about. It’s the spark of magic that makes a book come alive.

Another way to think of this is as the questions writers’ ask themselves: what if you had a time machine? What if aliens were real? What if you got sucked into a black hole?

When you write a query letter or a pitch, the one-liner is a distilled version of your premise:

“Get Real” is about four young, angst-ridden writers liberating themselves through fiction, unleashing a monster they never knew existed: themselves.

Your pitch would be a little different, but somewhere along those lines.



Okay. This is where I and the rest of the world seem to look at things differently. I’ve heard lots of definitions for “plot” and I’ve only liked a few of them. Nathan had a good one – he said that the premise is like opening a door, and the plot is what keeps it open. That’s nice, if not a little vague.

I can tell you what plot is—a series of events, the roadmap of a book, the outline, the architectural plans—but if you try to give me your plot in 25 words, I bet you won’t get it right.

“A man and a woman are being chased—”


“Todd and Steffi must escape—”

Nope again. They both sound like plots, but technically they’re not. They are premises. This is plot:

“A man kills people. He goes after a woman. She runs for help. Cop tries to save her. They stop the killer. Cop and victim fall in love.”

There you have it. A series of events. Nothing more, nothing less.

I hate to say the obvious, but you can’t write a story without a plot. A plot is the execution of your premise. Your synopsis is a 1 – 5 page breakdown of your plot – not the premise or theme, but what actually happens inside a story.

Sometimes you may want to use your plot as a pitch, but all the pitches I’ve seen tend to read more like premises. 

If you’re querying, look at what the particular agent/publisher has to say about it and then follow their guidelines.


So to recap: A theme is the sense of purpose in a novel, the lesson learned. Premise is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about. And plot is a series of events that make up the story.

Pop quiz: who can describe their plot, theme, and premise each in 25 words? And get them right? Brownie points to anyone who posts theirs in the comments section.  -.-


-Creative A

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Now see this is where majoring in English gets in my way sometimes. I remember being told over and over that a theme was not the subject (true love) but the statement the author made about the subject with the story (true love overcomes everything). I agree with you on the difference between plot and premise, though. I've never had trouble coming up with premises, but expanding those premises into viable plots is another thing altogether.

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