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A Few Words About Theme


By Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator StoryWeaver, Co-creator Dramatica



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Part Five


“Premise” Leads to Lack of Conflict


Many authors have been taught that a meaningful story must have a premise in the form of “Some human quality leads (or does not lead) to a particular inevitable conclusion.” Such a premise might be “Greed (human quality) leads to Self destruction (inevitable conclusion).”


One problem with the premise concept is that it contains no built-in conflict. Rather, it simply presents a starting point, an ending point, and a non-specific path that might be anything at all.

Adding conflict to your premise can provide a driving force to help move your theme through the “leads to” to the conclusion. To add conflict to a premise, consider the human quality stated in the beginning of the premise. In our example, this was “greed.” Next, determine the “opposite” of greed, which might be “generosity.” Now, restate the beginning of your premise as “Greed vs. Generosity.”

We have now created a thematic conflict between two opposing human qualities, rather than simply exploring the one. But, of course, if we left things in this condition the overall premise would not read very well: “Greed vs. Generosity leads to Self Destruction.”

Since we are now examining the relative value of two alternative thematic approaches to life, we must also provide a judgment as to the outcome of each approach. So, we might say that “When Greed vs. Generosity, Greed will result in Self Destruction while Generosity leads to Success.” Now we have a premise full of potential conflict and a comparative conclusion that brings the audience to think, rather than to simply accept the inevitable.

Of course, Generosity might also lead to Self Destruction in a particular story, illustrating that sometimes there is no way out. Or, Generosity might lead to Love, or Wealth, putting a different spin on the “proof.” It also might be shown that Greed leads to the favorable conclusion, while Generosity is Self Destructive. (For an example of this kind of approach, even though it deals with other thematic issues, view Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”)

There is much more that can be done with a premise to not only provide conflict, but create a complete thematic argument that works with an audience’s heart, rather than through its intellect.