‘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.