I was asked this question by an esteemed subscriber this week and thought it might make an interesting article.
In the publishing and movie industry the terms theme and premise are bandied around liberally - and it's assumed that writers know the difference, even if agents, publishers, and marketing people are not so up on the precise meanings.
Basically the premise to a story is your starting point, the idea behind it - its reason to be.
I've heard members of writer's groups ask the question: "Can you write a story without a premise?"
I would have to say you could try - but fairly soon you'd run out of things to say. You need a premise to give a story legs.
Besides which, most writers are able to sum up what their story is about - or going to be about - in a short sentence of two.
So what makes a premise?
Mostly an intriguing idea, a what-if scenario or a juxtaposition of two disparate notions fused together.
The premise is usually an 'original' idea - in that it's sufficiently different from other ideas - already written and explored - to warrant further interest.
Theme is altogether different.
The theme is the overall thrust of the story - what it explores. It's the end result and may have little to do with the premise.
Unlike the premise, your theme doesn't need to be particularly original - there are only around a dozen or so themes to explore anyway.
How about some examples - to help clarify all this rhetoric?
Take Romeo and Juliet. The premise is two young people from warring families fall in love. The theme is star crossed love leads to tragedy.
What about Harry Potter? The premise is a young boy discovers he's a wizard. The theme is anyone can become a hero.
The Da Vinci Code: the premise is that the Catholic Church has a secret agenda. The theme is that it's time to change the way we feel about organized religion.
Pride and Prejudice: the premise is that a feisty young woman needs to find a husband. The theme? Love conquers all.
The premise to Crime and Punishment: a young man kills an old lady for her money. The theme: sin leads to redemption.
As you can see, theme and premise are usually related but not always in a way you'd expect.
When people ask you what your story is about, they normally want you to explain the premise first, followed by your theme.
Writers have a tendency to think in themes - especially when they're working on a story - but themes are fairly dull to relate. The premise is the interesting part - the thing that excites a listener or reader.
When pitching a novel or a screenplay to a publisher or producer, focus on the premise.
Consciously write and rework a sentence or two to get the premise into a short and snappy description of your story.
If you don't have a compelling premise, chances are you won't generate much interest in your story, no matter how good it is.
That's the reality of the modern world: distillation.
Learn how to distil your story ideas into sound bytes, and you'll go far.
This practice has a downside.
Sometimes you'll be talking to a movie producer and she'll say "Got any ideas for stories?" So you pitch the premise to your most beloved story.
Time passes while she considers it.
"What else have you got?" comes the eventual reply.
This is not because the idea is bad but more to do with their personal bias or commercial expertise. You can pitch another premise and she'll like that one - and will then listen with interest to its theme.
The modern media focusses primarily on the angle - the sidelong glance at a topic that piques the interest quickly. This is not such a bad thing for the writer, so long as you understand it and use it to your advantage.
It's not unusual to end up working on a project where you pitch a premise that you haven't begun writing yet.
You're encouraged to develop the idea because the premise is compelling.
You may, like many writers, have only one or two themes that you explore in all of your work.
But the trick is to make those themes seem fresh and exciting by having a premise that makes readers want to read on.
I hope this helps your understanding of theme and premise.