Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 2 – The Premise

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

In our kick-off article for Developing Themes In Your Stories, we explored character arc themes and how planning your protagonist’s arc in advance can help determine possible themes. Today, we’ll focus on a second way to consciously nurture themes in our stories: the premise.

Like last time, this discussion includes brainstorming and writing activities you can work on during any point in the writing process. Even if you’re still in the planning stages, the exercises below can help you recognize your story’s themes before you start drafting.

What Is A Premise?

Most likely you’ve seen that word before. However, if someone asks for your story’s premise, what would you give in response? A 30-second elevator pitch, the general story concept, or the 140-character Twitter sentence you’d post for #PitMad? The most accurate answer is (*drum roll*) the third option.

A premise is a single sentence that describes what your story is about. It takes the idea that set your creative gears turning and adds enough information to identify the protagonist and hint at the internal and external conflicts. Think of it as a teaser trailer before the main trailer (i.e., the novel’s jacket copy or cover art) is revealed.

Here are some examples of premises:

  • A 16-year-old girl in post-apocalyptic America fights for survival and rebels against her government in a televised battle to the death. (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games)
  • A young Slovenian woman who appears happy with her life attempts suicide, then wakes up in a mental institution and is told she only has days to live. (Paolo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die)
  • A young musician struggles to keep a dangerous secret as she assists with a murder investigation and uncovers a plot to destroy the peace between humans and dragons. (Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina)

Capturing the essence of a 60,000- to 100,000-word novel in one sentence isn’t easy, but it’s part of the publishing process. So, it never hurts to start practicing your premise early. Doing this will also help you determine your novel’s premise theme, or the literary theme reflected in the premise.

Practice Your Pitch by Drafting a Query Letter

All writers should practice writing query letters to hone their story pitch. This is the meat of a query, since it needs to convince agents to read your manuscript. And quite often, this pitch is repurposed as the blurb that will hook readers when the book’s released. Even if you choose to self-publish, drafting a “pretend” query is the first step to writing the copy you’ll need to grab your audience’s attention – and to finding the premise theme.

The challenge, of course, is pitching the story without overwriting or revealing too much. You’ll only have two to three paragraphs (roughly 10 sentences) to establish the following:

  • Your protagonist, hinting at what makes him / her unique
  • The inciting incident
  • The external conflict
  • The internal conflict, or your protagonist’s emotional connection to the external conflict
  • The choice your protagonist has to make as a result of the internal conflict

This may seem like a broad way to dig for a premise theme. However, sometimes we need to start with the big picture (in this case, the story pitch) before narrowing our focus.

Activity #1:

Draft a potential query letter for your story, concentrating on the story pitch using the above guidelines regarding length and key elements. If you need more pointers, check out previous DIY MFA articles here and here, as well as our recent “query critique” podcasts with agent Jeff Kleinman. You can also study blurbs of your favorite novels and recall how each one hooked you into reading the story.

Simplify Your Pitch Into a Single Sentence

Notice anything that the story pitch and the premise sentence have in common? They both introduce the story’s protagonist and offer clues about the external and internal conflicts. So, by starting with a story pitch, you can pare down the information presented to these basic elements by answering three Premise Questions:

  1. Who is the protagonist?
  2. What is the external conflict?
  3. What is the internal conflict (or the protagonist’s emotional connection to the external conflict)?

Then, using your answers, build your premise using our Premise Sentence Equation:

Premise Sentence = Protagonist + Internal Conflict + External Conflict

The trick is keeping your premise as concise as possible. Limiting each answer to a few words or a short fragment can help. If the result is still too long or wordy, try eliminating filter words or unnecessary details. Also, by listing the internal conflict before the external conflict in the equation, you’ll emphasize that the stakes for your protagonist are personal in some way.

Want to see this “simplifying” process in action? Let’s use the blurb for Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina as the story pitch:

In the kingdom of Goredd, dragons and humans live and work side by side – while below the surface, tensions and hostility simmer.

The newest member of the royal court, a uniquely gifted musician named Seraphina, holds a deep secret of her own. One that she guards with all of her being.

When a member of the royal family is brutally murdered, Seraphina is drawn into the investigation alongside the dangerously perceptive—and dashing—Prince Lucien. But as the two uncover a sinister plot to destroy the wavering peace of the kingdom, Seraphina’s struggle to protect her secret becomes increasingly difficult… while its discovery could mean her very life.

Now, let’s deconstruct the pitch into a premise sentence using the Premise Questions:

  1. Who Is the Protagonist?: A young musician named Seraphina
  2. What Is the External Conflict?: A murder investigation of the country’s crown prince, which uncovers a plot to destroy the peace between humans and dragons
  3. What Is the Protagonist’s Internal Conflict (Emotional Connection to the External Conflict)?: Keeping a dangerous secret as the investigation continues

Finally, combine your answers as shown in the Premise Sentence Equation and edit until it contains only the most necessary words. Here’s the premise we showed earlier for Seraphina, broken down into its three elements.

Premise: A young musician (protagonist) struggles to keep a dangerous secret (internal conflict) as she assists with a murder investigation and uncovers a plot to destroy the peace between humans and dragons (external conflict).

Activity #2:

Take the practice story pitch from Activity #1, and answer the three Premise Questions in a clear and concise manner. Then, combine your answers using the Premise Sentence Equation, and edit as necessary.

Extract the Concepts or Lessons Representing Your Themes

According to DIY MFA’s working definition, theme can be a lesson or a high-level concept that a character learns as a result of her internal journey. So, when looking for possible themes that rise out of your novel’s premise, consider what lessons your protagonist might learn during the story – or what you might learn if you put yourself in her shoes.

Let’s look at the premise for Seraphina one more time. What lessons might Seraphina learn as she fights to keep her secret? What would you learn if you endured a similar situation? Trust, fear, and truth are all strong possibilities. (Remember the saying, “The truth will set you free”?) Also, if Seraphina is hiding a secret about herself, she might learn more about her true self (identity) as part of the story.

Activity #3:

Review the premise sentence you created in Activity #2. Ask yourself, “What lessons will my protagonist learn during the story? What would I learn if I went through the same experience?” Write down any high-level concepts, ideas, or morals that come to mind.

Chances are you’ll find multiple premise themes when distilling your premise. However, don’t be alarmed if you can only pick out one or two. Remember that the premise is one of several methods for discovering themes in your stories. Come back in June for Part 3 of this series, when we’ll take a closer look at how themes emerge from the external conflict.

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.


Sara Letourneau 1 croppedSara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing a fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a guest contributor for Grub Street Daily. She’s also a published poet whose works have appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

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