Vicki's Book News and Articles

Craft: Theme and Premise

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

What importance should a writer place on theme and premise in his/her novels?
This varies from writer to writer. Some get an idea on what the book is about. Others, a character whose story the writer must tell. For still others, they’ve recognized their “author theme” and write within it.
A caution: all writers develop their own quirks about writing—our own special methods and styles. And we have to constantly remind ourselves to be open to new methods, styles, and approaches. It’s very easy to delude ourselves into believing that we can only work one way.
Years ago, a writer friend and I were discussing other writers’ works. And a light bulb went on in my mind. Every writer has an author theme–a recurring theme to their books. Mine is healing. The friend’s is protector. When I respect that author theme and write books compatible with it, it shows in the writing. When I venture outside my theme, unfortunately that shows, too.
So author theme has my utmost respect. A novel’s theme does, too. The creative process of deciding what to write is different for all authors. As I mentioned, some get an idea, others a character, still others a situation. For me, it’s usually a social issue that body-slams me, or a situation that I deem unjust or dangerous, and I want to bring to others’ attention.
This makes the novel theme second only to author theme. The premise is more flexible, because once I know the title of the book–that, for me, has to come before I know what the book is about, and is essentially a statement of theme–then I can search for the premise I feel will have maximum impact.
Usually, having the theme (the blurb that would appear in TV GUIDE about a movie, or the short, two or three sentence “blurb” about a book) sets the premise. Then it becomes a matter of the characters. What kind of person, with what kind of background and experiences would most effectively live this story? Who has the most to lose? Who risks the highest costs?
This is important because it helps define the setting (what those particular characters in this specific situation would encounter, how they would respond to it). It also forms the foundation for credible, reasonable, and intense conflicts.
In developing these characters, I literally interview them. I don’t nail down a plot until after these interviews because in going through the characters’ histories, reliving experiences with them, always feeds the plot. This is a terrific asset for layering and depth in characterizations, and it’s fantastic if you know your theme when you interview the characters because you automatically filter that interview through the perspective of the characters’ story purpose. You see in them the assets, liabilities, the obstacles and risks, their goals–and you know why these things hold the specific position for the. Why this asset will help. How this obstacle–which might not be an obstacle for someone else is a formidable one for this particular character.
During these interviews, gems spring up and the goals, motivations, and conflicts of the characters become evident–all in perspective of best serving your theme.
Let me give you an example. I started writing military theme novels because I overheard a young airman and his wife in the commissary (a grocery store on
a military base) debating between buying a can of tuna and a jar of peanut butter. They couldn’t afford both.
That stunned and enraged me. I thought, here we ask him to put his life on the line, we ask his wife to take up the slack while he’s gone, and they have to debate between a can of tuna and a jar of peanut butter. It was disgraceful. Shameful. And it totally frosted my cookies.
I went home, did some research and found many of the lower four pay grades of our military members were eligible for food stamps. That did it. I was thoroughly outraged and completely emotionally involved. I couldn’t not do something.
Around this same time, my son (who had been in Iraq during the Gulf War), got
a letter from the Army stating that he had been exposed to low level biological warfare. Needless to say, I got engaged on that topic. I researched everything I could on it–and every day I thought of that airman and his wife, that tuna/peanut butter debate. The more I thought about it, the more angry I got, and I wondered if that young airman had received a letter about exposure, too?
Now, I had to write a story that dealt with biological warfare (because we are all so vulnerable to it) and show the obstacles and sacrifices many military members and their families make for us. I didn’t want the black and white of these issues. I wanted to delve into all those gray areas. Shades of Gray was born. So far, four other novels of a similar nature have followed. So far…
So the theme and premise came from my emotional reaction to a conversation overheard in a grocery store and a letter from the Army to my son. Theme set the premise, and that set the characters and determined the setting. Is it a healing book? Yes, indeed.
Similar issues spawned outrage for Duplicity, which deals with chemical warfare. If a Japanese terrorist group had applied the chemicals properly, hundreds of thousands would have died–during a routine morning commute to work. Vulnerable. I coupled this with the honor and integrity of a soldier being falsely accused of god-awful crimes, yet still doing all he can to protect those he vowed to protect–Americans. Honor.
Additional outrage brought Acts of Honor. The media strongly assisted in riling my temper during the Kosovar conflict. By giving out personal information–weaknesses, vulnerabilities, personal history–the media hand-fed the captors information used to torture our POWs. The theme? Psychological warfare.
And then there was the Fox and Friends program where corruption in politics was discussed, and while everyone was sick and tired of it, no one saw a solution to it, only more corruption on the horizon. That made me angry and sick. I knew we could change this if only we determined to do it. We could raise the bar—let our leaders know that we expect—demand!—more and better conduct from them. Well, we best learn by example. Lady Liberty, a leader we can respect and admire was born. And that book spawned another, that I’m working on now: Lady Justice. The themes in both are evident.
I went into detail on how this works for me personally because I hope that in
reading it you will recognize the patterns in your own writing. For me, social injustices lead to outrage, outrage to that “do something constructive about this!” attitude.
That’s what I need to be immersed in a book. What’s important is recognizing what you need to become immersed in that book. Something constructive and not destructive. What makes you eat and breathe the story?
It’s so very important to determine that because you can’t get out of a book (nor can your readers) what the writer doesn’t first put into the book. Look at what you’ve written. Determine your author theme. Respect it. Knowing your purpose for writing a specific book really does give you more patience with it, more determination to do it well.
How important is theme to the writer? That depends on the writer.
How important is theme to this writer? It’s vital.*


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