‘Leanna Ellis takes a back seat to no one,’ says Debbie Macomber. But Leanna hopes she puts God in the driver’s seat as she journeys through life. Winner of the National Readers Choice Award, Leanna writes quirky women’s fiction with a splash of romance. From a long line of southerners and patriots, she lives with her family in Texas.
Recently, my kids watched all of the Rocky movies. Are there six? Or twenty-six? The music has been playing on and on in my head! When we watched the last movie, Rocky Balboa, my nine-year-old daughter said, “But Mommy, why did Adrian have to die?” Adrian, for those who aren’t familiar with the Rocky series is the prize fighter’s beloved wife. The theme of the final movie was as obvious as being punched in the nose. Repeatedly, Rocky said, “It’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard a hit you can take and keep moving forward in life.” What hit would have KO’d Rocky for the count of ten? The loss of his wife meant more to Rocky than any title belt or fight. That’s why Adrian had to die. We had to see if Rocky could recover, grab the ropes and pull himself back to his feet. In every Rocky film there’s a sequence of Rocky working out and taking his ‘game’ to the next level. So, imagine Rocky running up those steps in Philadelphia and celebrating before the big prize fight, that’s going to be you when you power up your story with premise.
What is premise? Some people use the terms ‘premise’ and ‘theme’ interchangeably. Theme is a recurring fictional idea tested or explored in a novel. Premise is a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions or conflict of a story. Theme and premise are related but not exactly the same.
A theme is broader than the actual premise. It is often a subject that has universal appeal. Universal themes touch something inside each of us that the reader can relate to emotionally. A few examples are: triumph of the underdog (Rocky), fish out of water (Wizard of Oz), innocence/coming of age (Little Women), justice versus injustice (A Few Good Men), finding love (Sleepless in Seattle), etc… A theme will help hold the author to the subject. Often when a writer doesn’t know the theme, then the story will wander. When that author rewrites a book (as we all have to do), then the author will need to figure out the theme and justify each scene accordingly.
In my book, Elvis Takes a Back Seat, the theme was ‘letting go.’ It’s a universal theme that many readers could relate to. The heroine of my story discovers after the death of her husband that letting go of an Elvis bust (which she always hated and banished to the attic) is harder than she imagined. When I first wrote that book, it took several chapters before my heroine hit the road to Memphis with her husband’s Elvis bust in the backseat of a vintage Cadillac to find the real owner. It was in the rewrite that I had to look hard at several scenes and delete them because they did not feed the theme of the book. They were wonderfully written, I’m sure, but they weren’t needed to prove my premise.
Ah, we’re back to premise. The premise of your novel is what you’re setting out to prove by your story characters and situation. In Elvis Takes a Back Seat, I set out to prove that my character, Claudia, had begun to worship her husband’s memory, like an idol, and in eventually pulling him off that pedestal, she was able to let go of him…of their life together…and move forward to find a new future.
For an illustration, let’s say you’re blindfolded and asked to navigate a strange room. You might have some difficulty. You’d probably bump into furniture, trip and stumble over a table, chair, or even another person. It’s difficult to maneuver without vision. That’s premise. It is the writer’s vision for their novel. It’s difficult to plot and write the book if you don’t have a vision.
Can an author write a novel without knowing the theme or premise? Sure. But the story will probably wander around unnecessarily. Think of it this way: If you were asked to drive from Dallas, Texas to Tupelo, Mississippi without a map, you might know enough to head east. You might even manage to find a highway that leads to Mississippi but it might take you a while. Eventually, you might stumble across a billboard advertising the birth place of Elvis Presley. And that might eventually lead you to Tupelo, Mississippi. But it will definitely take longer than necessary. You might take a few detours, have to turn around, back track or start over. You might get bored, frustrated, consider quitting. Not knowing the premise of your book is like driving cross country without a map. Now, if I said ‘we’re going to the South,’ that might be the theme. The premise is the map for your story and the actual destination.
So, premise gives you the destination of your story and can actually help you plot. What’s the worst thing that can happen to your character? If you’re not sure, keep asking, ‘why?’ That one tiny question is the writer’s greatest tool. Keep digging into your character. You will eventually discover your character’s greatest fear and the worst thing that can happen to them. Then plot out your story, which is planning the way to your ultimate destination – the end.
In my book, Once in a Blue Moon, Bryn Seymour’s worst fear is digging into her past and examining her mother’s death. Of which she feels responsible. That fear of her past has kept her from pursuing a future. As a mother herself, she longs to know more of her mother, what she was like as an adult. When she meets a man who knew her mother, Bryn must know more. It takes her on a journey of exploration. His beliefs of a conspiracy involving her mother’s death forces Bryn to face her past and prepares the way for her to have a future she never imagined possible.
But when I first met Bryn in my imagination, I didn’t know why she was afraid of her past or what exactly had happened to her mother. I kept asking why. I kept at it until I had the answers to the questions which made the book a lot of fun to write, especially with all of the conspiracies thrown in, and also made the book easier to write because it gave me clear focus on where we were going in the story…besides Marfa, Texas.
Next, and here’s what many beginning authors don’t do, go back to your theme, use that theme in every scene, focusing the story. Get rid of anything that doesn’t move your story forward to the ultimate destination. No pit stops necessary along the way. No detours please.
Finally, illustrate the theme through descriptions, analogies and symbolism. Reaching for a happy-ever-after for Bryn was like reaching for the moon. So the moon plays an important part in Once in a Blue Moon. I looked for places where I could use scientific terms or descriptions about gravity and such to emphasize not only the point but also the theme and premise.
All of these techniques will put power behind your words. It will build up the muscles along the skeleton of your story even more. Your words will have power and impact the reader. In the end, your reader won’t know what hit them.