writers' guide :: section b

Denise Domning Explains Premise & Theme

Premise and Theme: Or How Socrates Can Help You Write a Romance

- by Denise Domning

How many times have you picked up a book, become engrossed with well-drawn characters only to be disappointed by a plot that takes a ridiculous turn, or even disappears altogether? I've thrown up my hands in frustration and even thrown the book. While we all know there's no book without good, strong, real characterizations, no character—or for that matter, no situation or idea—is strong enough to carry a plot to its logical conclusion. What you need is a premise.

Premise describes the purpose of the story. By creating a single sentence that places a value judgment or creates a point to your story (beyond "they all lived happily ever after"), you describe why they're involved in this story in the first place. Also, the premise will always be a value judgment made against at least one of your characters.

After you have your premise, you consistently employ it throughout the story and create a theme. Remember that word from high school? Your teacher was right, you do need a theme. Finally, when a premise is divided into its three parts and applied to each situation in the story, you create the action that drives the story forward.

 

THE FIRST STEP: CREATING YOUR PREMISE

Let's start with the first step, creating that single sentence that will somehow encapsulate all the action of your book. Here are some premises dissected from Shakespeare. For Romeo and Juliet it's great love defies even death. King Lear is blind trust leads to destruction. MacBeth, ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction, while Othello's is jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

The Three Parts of Premise:

As you can see, each premise has three parts: emotional value, action and outcome. Jealousy (emotion) destroys (action) itself and the object of its love (outcome). Like foreshadowing, your premise hints at how your character will be changed by the upcoming events.

Easy, right? I wish. Some of you may already be using a premise without realizing it. I understand from other writers that this can be an intuitive process. That isn't how it happens for me. Anyway, those who have this gift always know when they've lost the premise of their story. It's that sense of being off course or of characters who are doing or saying things that make no sense in order to fill story gaps.

Here's an example of how to look for premise taken from my second book, Summer's Storm. The premise is: Dishonesty (even loving dishonesty) leads to exposure.

Dishonesty (emotion) suggests character. It means one of my main characters (my hero in this case) is being dishonest with himself and will behave dishonestly for love's sake. Leads to represents the action the plot will take. This is the conflict caused by the character's dishonesty.

Exposure is the final result of his dishonesty. I know that by the book's end my character's well-meant but dishonest actions will ultimately result in his exposure. It's through this exposure that he will finally be changed by the story's action.

Once you've hashed out your premise, write it down. Refer to it while you're writing. I keep mine printed just beneath my page heading while I'm working on a book, so it stays fresh in my mind. You'd be surprised at how much your premise can help you determine the plot events. If you're stuck in a chapter or scene, reread your premise. Does what's happening in this part of the story reflect the action in your premise? If not, you either need to change the story line to reflect that simple sentence or rethink your premise.

Changing Your Premise:

That's right, don't be afraid to discard a premise that no longer fits. This happened to me while I was writing Winter's Heat. I was absolutely mired after the first four chapters (I was stuck there a very long time, from 1979 until 1991), until I realized my premise was wrong. This story wasn't about a woman discovering her emotions, it was all about how intimacy destroys her husband's emotional barriers. Suddenly, I knew what my characters had been trying to tell me all along. This was a story of physical, emotional and mental walls that come tumbling down.

 

MOVING ON TO THEME

Now that you understand the concept of a premise, here's how you apply it to create theme. Theme is the continuity that binds your story's many bits and pieces into one, cohesive tale. It's the premise as that simple statement is reflected through each individual character, no matter how insignificant the part that character plays in your story. It's also how premise roots each of your subplots to the main story, so they support rather than detract from your plot. Since I have to use what I'm most familiar with as an example, I'll return to Summer's Storm and the premise Dishonesty leads to exposure.

The Emerging Theme:

Subplot #1: The heroine's husband has lied about an inheritance. His dishonesty is revealed (exposed) in a bishop's court, causing him public humiliation. When he continues to be dishonest, other characters use his dishonesty against him, leading him to believe his wife is dead. After his remarriage, he discovers she's still alive. He seeks to kill her before any one else learns of her existence (fearing exposure again), but is killed instead.

Subplot #2: The hero's common half brother is dishonest with himself about his feelings for the hero and heroine, which leads him to expose the two. Later, when he's over his anger, he regrets exposing them. When what he's done results in a threat to the hero and heroine, he again lies (dishonesty once again, although this time for love's sake) to the villain. By doing so, he exposes himself to physical violence.

Do you see how the theme emerges from these different facets of the story? All of a sudden you've got purpose and continuity in your story. So, what about plot action?

 

NOW IT'S TIME FOR SOCRATES: THESIS

Creating action in a story is the function of thesis. This is the active application of the premise to the plot, which will either prove or disprove its truth. Socrates called this dialectics. Abelard used dialectics in his Sin et Non, his proof that God exists. Dialectics divides thesis into three parts (just like premise): thesis, antithesis and synthesis. All three directly relate to your premise.

  • THESIS: Thesis is the original emotional stand your character or characters took at the story's opening, as my hero did in Summer's Storm by deciding dishonesty, if it was done for love's sake, is acceptable.
  • ANTITHESIS: Antithesis is the opposite of that emotional stand. In the case of Summer's Storm it is the truth revealed. It's the conflict of thesis against antithesis that creates the energy of the plot and leads to synthesis.
  • SYNTHESIS: Synthesis is the change that occurs because of the constant battle between thesis and antithesis. Here's a demonstration of how this works using the premise from my first book, Winter's Heat, the premise of which is: Intimacy destroys emotional barriers.

Thesis: The Emotional Stand

Rannulf, the hero, was devastated by his second wife's adultery with his youngest brother. He creates emotional barriers to protect himself against any such further pain. When he must wed again to Rowena, my heroine, he's determined not to let marital intimacy destroy his carefully erected barriers and further damage his heart. He has taken his stand; there will be no intimacy.

The Opposite: Antithesis:

Now, you apply the antithesis: intimacy. Rannulf has forgotten intimacy can be far more than just emotional. When, on his wedding night, he becomes physically intimate with his new wife, his emotional barrier is lowered, ever so briefly.

The Result: Synthesis:

This leads him to the synthesis, or the result of thesis versus antithesis. For those few moments after their lovemaking his heart is free and he's changed, just a little bit. This pattern repeats each time the two of them interact. No matter how determined Rannulf is to remain unaffected by their intimacy, his emotional barriers keep slipping. It's his struggle to hold onto his walls that drives the plot forward, until his barriers are tested one last time and his walls crumble. Intimacy has destroyed his need to protect his heart.

THE PROOF IS IN SHAKESPEARE

Okay, premises and theme worked for my books, but how will it work when applied to someone else's writing, let's say someone who never attended a writing class or seminar? Shakespeare, for example.

Let's try Romeo and Juliet (or is that Ethel the Pirate's Daughter?). The premise is great love defies even death. Does this work in the main plot? Well, it's obvious the story is about love, but these two kids must have had a great love because they defied a family tradition of hatred to marry. When they FACE the possibility of being separated forever, they again employ defiance, this time against the Catholic Church's strictures about suicide so they might be united in death.

How about subplots? Let's start with the friar. His love for the folks of Verona leads him to defy his patrons by ignoring the blood feud and marrying the two lovers in the misbegotten hope of creating peace. His love for these young twerps grows so great he participates in helping Juliet defy her parents in escaping a bigamous marriage to Parris. He goes on to help her commit potential suicide against his own Catholic beliefs and everything he should hold dear. I'd say that fit.

Let's try another subplot, the one of Juliet's nurse. The nurse loves Juliet so dearly, she defies the Capulets' plans and helps the girl marry Romeo. Do you think the nurse would die for Juliet? You bet she would. Even sub-characters like Parris participate in Shakespeare's premise. Parris defies the superstitious Elizabethan fear of graveyards to visit Juliet in her tomb and pays for it with his life. Nuances of this premise can be found in almost every character in the play. The audience is lead to the inescapable conclusion that there is no way out except death. We might be saddened by the results, but we are certainly not surprised; we saw it coming again and again and again.

If you use the actions of premise and theme, you'll never get lost in your plot again. The story will flow logically from its beginning to the very end.

Copyright © 1999, Denise Domning. All rights reserved. You may reprint this chapter in whole or in part provided credit is given to the author.

Hailed by critics as a "first class writer on her way to the top", Denise Domning's is a Cinderella story. Her first book, a medieval romance, sold to the second publisher who read it, then went on to win the Romantic Times' coveted award for Best First Historical Romance of 1994. Since then, she's written two novellas and four more medieval novels and has recently started a new series of books set in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The first, Lady in Waiting, was recommended by Publisher's Weekly as "well-written, well-researched, with an accurate portrayal of [Queen] Elizabeth". You can visit Denise's website at www.denisedomning.com.