What is the Gist of Your Story? #1

The hallmarks of great writing: a sound premise and compelling themes

Congratulations—you have defined the genre of your writing project, are creating a bond with your characters, and the plot is developing at a satisfying pace. But have you identified any themes yet, or asked yourself what the story really means? Effective book publicity relies on strong promotional messages, which are extracted from the themes contained in your writing that, collectively, make up the premise of the story. Whether you’re writing nonfiction or working on your next novel, now is the time to give some thought to a compelling proposition that would convince both an editor to publish your book and a reader to buy it.

The Scoop on Themes

A theme is defined as “the central idea(s) explored by a literary work.” For instance: Macbethdeals with ambition and guilt, Hamlet with death and revenge, and King Lear with justice and betrayal, to name but a few themes explored in these Shakespeare plays. Theme refers to a universal concept that readers identify with even if they attach different meanings to it. Whereas the theme of a business letter or technical writing is clearly stated from the outset, the themes of literary works reveal themselves gradually as the characters are transformed and the plot develops. A short story or poem might center on a single theme, but in a novel it’s not unusual for minor themes to diverge from a meaningful idea. The main theme, however, should remain central to the story and be the unifying thread that ties secondary themes together from start to finish. More on themes here: Men with Pens.

Works of high literary quality are composed of themes that are universally understood
yet allow for individual interpretations.

How to Develop a Premise

The dictionary definition of premise is “a proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.” Premise is driven by the author’s belief about something that is highly valued—an idea the author expresses as a universal truth, will defend passionately, and feels compelled to prove. To that end, a good writer will use literary devices strategically to create tension and conflict—two qualities that drive the actions of characters—to arrive at the desired outcome in a plausible way. Think about premise as a three-part argument: if this is so (statement #1), and this is so (statement #2), then surely this is so (conclusion). More on premise here: M B T.

My work-in-progress novel

I’m currently writing a novel that was inspired by historical events in South Africa, a legendary disaster in the United States, and a horrifying crime in Austria. The story is set in South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo and in New Orleans, Louisiana. When the baby of a troubled couple—a man seeking revenge for the atrocities of his father’s generation and a woman also feeling unduly victimized by past events—enters the world during a natural disaster, her Bushmen nanny sees this as a sign of dark things to come and calls on the Spirits for help.

The premise of my novel

Atrocities, such as rape and war, leave a legacy of emotional disturbance that affect not only individuals—families and whole societies suffer for generations. When shame and anger lead to depression and abusive behavior, a shame-violence-guilt cycle is set in motion. Though psychologists would suggest true forgiveness of self and others to heal this type of identity disturbance and terminate the cycle of destruction, the Spirits may call for a sacrifice to end the bloodline, thus safeguarding the mental health of the next generation.

The themes that drive my story

  • the Bushmen of South Africa
  • war
  • rape
  • intergenerational shame
  • post-partum depression
  • archeology
  • shamanic traditions
  • the indigenous people of North America

Remember, effective book publicity relies on strong promotional messages, which are extracted from the themes contained in your writing that, collectively, make up the premise of the story. Since the Bushmen of the Kalahari (South Africa) is one of the themes of my story, I could align book-signing events with, and donate part of the proceeds to, Survival For Tribal Peoples, an international organization working for tribal peoples' rights worldwide.

Creative Writing Tips

  • Read a short story, poem, or novel with the intent to identify the central theme.
  • Take note of how it is introduced and developed.
  • See if you can detect if, when, and how sub-themes emerge throughout the story.
  • Observe if, and how, the minor themes converge to tie back in with the central theme before the story’s resolution at the end.
  • Imagine you were the author of that story—what kind of promotional messages would you extract from the themes to create publicity for the book?

Join me as I discuss the themes and premises of celebrated works with published and newbie authors over the next few months. If you want to participate as a guest blogger in this series, please do not hesitate to contact me for details. You can also participate by leaving a comment to let us know what is the gist of your story, or tell us about the themes and premise of the best book you've ever read.