Theme versus premise – is there a difference?

Your story must have a premise.  The premise is the core, or if you like, the frame upon which all else is built.  The premise is often called the theme but in fact, they are two totally different things.  For instance, the premise of the film The Sixth Sense is “a small boy sees dead people” but the theme is “unfinished business”.

While your theme must be present in all your scenes/chapters, the premise is about the purpose of your story.

What does this mean?  It’s a bit of a Catch 22 thing – in order to decide what your story’s purpose is you need to know your premise but in order to know your premise it helps to know your story’s purpose!  Phew!

So how do you discover what your story’s premise is?

Believe it or not, it is actually very easy to do this.  But only after you’ve decided who your protagonist is – but I’ll get to that another time.  To discover your premise simply work out the most important characteristic of your central character.  Then discover how they react to the ‘conflict’ in his or her story.  Then how your story concludes.

Character + Conflict = Conclusion

An example is from my novel – my central character is Mis’ka.  Her most dominant characteristic is that she is courageous.  What must she do with conflict?  She must try to overcome it – succeeding sometimes, failing at other times.  In the end the conclusion is that her dominant characteristic allows her to beat all obstacles.

Courage (character) Overcomes (conflict) All Obstacles (conclusion)

In The Sixth Sense the premise is “a small boy (character) sees (conflict) dead people (conclusion)”.

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense (poster image from

By the way, many people think that ‘conflict’ involves physical fighting but in fact, conflict is anything that is an obstacle for your character.  Again, in The Sixth Sense the conflict the small boy Cole experiences is that he ‘sees’ dead people – and it terrifies him, preventing him from leading a ‘normal’ life.

Here’s why the premise is important…

The reason why you need to know your story’s premise right up front is so that when your hero reaches a conflict you, as the writer, will know how your character will react – or even if you want the hero to act out of character knowing the premise allows you to play around with your character’s behaviour without confusing your audience..  The outcome doesn’t matter because any good story has ups and downs in the hero’s journey (otherwise it isn’t a story!).  This allows you to let your character ‘grow’ during their journey.  In fact, the only reason why your character is on a journey is so that they can grow and go back to their life (when the adventure is over) as a ‘better person’!

Premise = character, conflict, conclusion…

Back to the premise – by having this premise (usually written on a post-it note and taped somewhere for quick and easy reference!) if you find that your story is stuck and doesn’t appear to be going forward – or worse, you are writing and writing and it’s just not feeling ‘right’ – it is because you’ve strayed from the premise.  Always sit back and ask yourself “what would my hero do now?” and check that post-it note – because your hero only ever behaves in a way that is true to his or her nature.  This way, your hero will get to the end of his story exactly as you want him to – and your story will flow.

Ultimately, your premise can be described as a thumbnail synopsis of your story.

So don’t change your premise half way – if your story isn’t working it is because you have forgotten your premise – return to your premise and your story, like magic, will start to flow.  And if you have more than one story thread with more than one hero, each must have their own separate premise – but it does help to have the same theme for all as this will keep each story tied together.

About mamiller

author of young adult science fiction/fantasy
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6 Responses to Theme versus premise – is there a difference?

  1. Marg says:

    I am here a little early for the Blog Jog. Just thought for the fun of it I would check in. I love to read new blogs and yours is very thought provoking. I certainly need to read more of your posts and digest them. Take care and I will be back on the 21st.

    • mamiller says:

      Hi there, your comment has been hiding in the spam filter! I am appalled that I didn’t find it sooner – so many apologies (however, it has taught me to double check these things so thank you!).

  2. WhiteCoinc says:

    Man, really want to know how can you be that smart, lol…great read, thanks.

  3. Elva Anson says:

    Interesting information for novelists. I am a Marriage Family Therapist and my books are about relationship, parenting, management, subjects not as fun maybe as novels.My blog has been fun. I have nearly 200 relationship tips which should be helpful to anyone. The premise of my most recent book, “Becoming Soul Mates” is you don’t find a soul mate you learn to become one. I have been working with couples for 31 years and have been married 55 years. Your blog is very attractive. I wish you well.

    • mamiller says:

      Hi Elva, checked out your blog – in fact I have bookmarked it for future reference as I am just at the beginning of a relationship which I hope will go far. I shall be sure to stop by and read your insightful entries.

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