Questionable: Premise, Central Story Question, Theme

S asked:

‘Premise’. ‘Theme’. And the ‘Central Story Question’. Always hear these terms and blank out. Are they the same thing? How do you use them practically to make your work better? Are they things you think about upfront or try and pick out from a completed rough draft? How do they involve the characters?

1. Not all the same thing.

Premise is the idea you start the story with, often stated as a “What if?” As in:

“What if a retired CIA agent was marked for death and assembled his old team and a new girlfriend to bring down the man who was trying to kill them all?”

Remember, you want your what-if to describe the conflict inherent your story. That is, not “What if a retired CIA agent assembled his own team and brought them out of retirement?” because that could be a story about everybody going to the diner for lunch and telling war stories. Get the antagonist and the conflict in there.

The Central Story Question comes from Michael Hauge, I think. The idea is that you take your protagonist’s name and goal and your antagonist’s name and make a question from them, as in “Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get his goal” or . . .

“Will Frank defeat Dunning and save himself and his friends?”

When the reader asks that question, the story begins (so you don’t want to put too much story in front of that realization) and when the reader knows the answer, the story ends (so you don’t want more than a couple of pages after that realization). It’s really a revision tool, an exercise to help you know when to start and end the story more than anything else, although it also useful as a touchstone; that is, when you look at your scenes and subplots, do they help answer the central story question in some way? If not, they can probably go.

Theme is the abstract idea underlying the story, the statement about the human condition that the story makes. It has no moral element; it can be “Crime doesn’t pay” or “Crime does pay.” It’s not a question, and it has no details about the story in it; it’s an abstract idea that powers the narrative.

Teamwork and loyalty will always defeat isolated megalomania.

2. How do you use them practically to make your work better?

They’re not all the same thing, but you use them all the same way, to revise and tighten your work. Both the premise and the central question are touchstones; as you begin to tighten and focus a story in the rewrite, you can keep both or either in mind to cut or tweak scenes that seem weak or that don’t move the story and/or arc character. It’s easy to get lost when writing a novel, so it’s good to stop every now and then ask yourself, “What the hell is this story about anyway?” Premise and central story question are just shorthand ways to keep your plot in line. Theme is a little trickier; you use it in the very last rewrites, to tighten the subtext of your story, especially things like metaphor and motif for unity. Most writers skip that part so they don’t fall victim to theme-mongering. A lot of the time it’s better to just leave theme in the hands of the Girls.

3. Are they things you think about upfront or try and pick out from a completed rough draft?
The way you use premise and the central story question depends on how you work. There are people who start with an outline, so they’d have premise and central story question up front. There are people like me who just start to write as characters talk in their heads and then sort out what the hell is going on in the rewrites. So the answer is “Any way that works for you,” including not worrying about premise and central story question at all. Those things are tools, they’re not necessities like protagonist, antagonist, and conflict.
Theme you do not touch until the last draft or you can get self-conscious and start illustrating theme instead of writing story.

4. How do they involve the characters?

Characters drive story. Story happens because this character was part of this event, and that event changed that character and made him or her do this action, which caused this event, etc. So the premise is the protagonist/main character struggling with the antagonist/other main character. The central story question is that character struggle put into the form of a question. And the theme is what the struggle between the two characters represents, which is why you write the story/struggle and then figure out what it means. It’s okay to think you know what your theme is as long as you shove it to one side when you’re writing the story and then are very open to rethinking it when you’ve reached the final drafts. While I was writing Welcome to Temptation, I thought the theme was going to be about sexual freedom for women. When I finished it, I realized it was about mothers. Go figure.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

23 thoughts on “Questionable: Premise, Central Story Question, Theme

  1. This was great! I love it when you give concrete examples of all those writing terms that I do in practice, but which make my eyes cross in the abstract.

    And also,
    RED!!!!!!!! (Do I win something?)

  2. So the Central Story Question serves the same purpose as a thesis statement statement or statement of purpose in a high school term paper? To use to determine what stays and what goes in the rewrite? Do you also, as I occasionally advise HS students, sometimes revise the CSQ? Sometimes I get a paper that’s so far from the stmnt of pur. that it’s practicallya different topic, and I say, “Maybe you’d really rather write about this than what you thought the paper would be about.” Since that generally means almost starting over [Not quite, because the research is done.], most kids choose to edit the paper and stick with the original. But I sometimes think, “Too bad, because the paper you could be doing would be a lot more fun for you to write and for me to read.

    1. Nope.
      The thesis statement says, “This is the idea I’m going to argue.”
      The Central Story Question says, “This is the conflict that powers the story.”
      Probably closer to thesis statement is theme.

    2. I had an English professor suggest that about one of my papers freshman year (take the idea in this paragraph and make the paper about that instead). It meant doing half my research over again, but she was right, it was SO much better in the re-write.

      1. The thing about first drafts is that they’re discovery drafts. You don’t really know what you’re writing until you see what you wrote. It’s why all good writing is really rewriting.

      2. One of the wonderful things about using a word processor rather than a typewriter in my last years in college was the ability to go back and change my thesis to fit my conclusion.

  3. Love this. And as I’m wrestling with the WIP that has been a major pain in the butt, I’m going to look at all three aspects very carefully. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Jenny. But I have a question: what if the premise and the central question are not as tightly connected as in your examples. What if the premise – the reason for the hero to start on his journey – has nothing to do with the central question. Sometimes, the hero embarks on a journey wanting to achieve goal A. In the course of the story, his goal switches to B – not what he wants but what is necessary to do, for him or for the others.
    Is such a story invalid? Should it be changed, so the premise leads directly to the central question?

    1. Generally speaking–your story may be very different–a character’s goal is one he can’t abandon, it’s a life-or-death (physical or emotional) pursuit. So if the protagonist can switch goals, the original goal wasn’t something he’d pursue to the end, and it wasn’t enough to power the story. If the B goal is that strong, that may be where your story starts, the pursuit of a goal he can’t abandon.

      But I actually have no idea since I don’t know your story. That’s abstract theory. Only you know your story well enough to decide how to shape it.

        1. Probably too late to add anything: but I wonder whether your hero’s real goal, Olga, is something he’s not conscious of at the start of the story (but you, as the storyteller, are – or at least will be at the revision stage). So he thinks his goal is A, but really it’s B (or perhaps there’s a unifying ‘C’ underneath both conscious goals).

    2. Olga, could your story A actually be the McGuffin? The thing that kicks your hero into action and into Story B?
      I’ve never used a McGuffin in writing, but they seem to be common in movies.
      Best example I can think of (and I watched this movie once 20 yrs ago so if I remember the plot wrong please forgive me!) is the movie Psycho – the writer needed a reason a woman would stay for several days in an isolated creepy motel. So he had her steal money, then she was on the lam, she saw the isolated creepy motel and thought Bingo! there’s the place for me to hide out. Then the real story kicked in.

  5. Definitions + examples = awesome. This post helps me see where my struggle with fiction writing really comes from: I’m stuck at the pre-premise… I can imagine situations but not usually conflicts. How do you invent an antagonist once you get a idea of a character and her setting or situation?

    1. The first thing is to figure out what your character wants. In the story world that you’re thinking about, what does the character need that he or she doesn’t have? What’s her goal? Then you figure out who’s keeping her from getting it, and that person is your antagonist.

  6. So both premise and CSQ are a shorthand version of the conflict. Is the premise always more detailed than the CSQ, like in your example, or are they just different ways to do the same thing?

    1. The premise is the starting point. The CSQ is the central dynamic of the story. They’re often the same thing, but not always, and they’re always one sentence. The minute you start adding detail to either, you’re defusing the focus they bring to the understanding of the story.

  7. This is wonderful – thank-you. It’s the first time it has been explained in a way I can understand! I’m sending this to my critique group (with attribution, natch)!

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