There's a great deal of confusion among fiction writers as to how a premise differs from a moral, or a theme.
The easiest to understand is a moral. A moral is simply what a story teaches. Army training films about sexually transmitted diseases have a moral: If you don't protect yourself, you might catch something horrible. Bible stories often have morals: Obey God's laws or suffer the consequences. A fable has a moral: Look before you leap, or Never trust a fox:. Fairy tales often teach that if you don't listen to your parents, you could get into bad trouble with bears or wolves or wicked witches.
Fiction writers are artists, not moralists. A damn good novel does not have a moral in the sense that an army training film, a Bible story, a fable, or a fairy tale does. If you wrote a story, however, where love fails to save an alcoholic, you could say the novel has a moral: Never love a drunk. And most detective novels probably have the moral Crime doesn't pay. But that doesn't mean that the author's purpose in writing a detective novel is to preach a sermon about the evils of the act of murder, nor that people read detective novels for moral edification.
In modern fiction, if a novel has a moral it's probably coincidental. As an example, a single-story novel might have as its premise Alcoholism leads to spiritual growth, and its moral might be Drinking gets you closer to God, which would certainly not be a moral in the traditional sense. Alcoholism is supposed to lead to degradation and death. In traditional stories religion or right moral action would lead to spiritual enlightenment, but in modern novels religion often leads to some sort of perdition, such as incest or madness. In other words, in the modern novel the moral is the opposite of what was traditionally thought of as a moral. Often, modern novels have an immoral moral, in the traditional way of seeing things, like Don't tell the truth, it will wreck your marriage or Committing murder is a growth experience. But we don't read to improve our morals much anymore.
Okay, so much for a moral, which has to do with teaching a moral lesson. Neither a theme nor a premise is intended to teach a moral lesson.
A lot of confusion has been created by the authors of how-to-write books about the definitions of theme and premise, so much so that they've become weasel words. They can mean one thing to you, another thing to me, and something else to a third party, and we'd all be right. If none of us is willing to accept a definition other than our own, we're stuck in the Tower of Babel and we'll never get down to writing a damn good novel.
For the purposes of this book, let's settle on a definition for each. It really doesn't matter if you call a premise a premise and a theme a theme, or you call a premise a banana and a theme a nork; it's the concepts that are important.
Dean Koontz defines theme in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction as "a statement or a series of related observations about one aspect or another of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author." John Gardner says pretty much the same thing in The Art of Fiction: "by theme here we mean not 'message'—a word no good writer likes applied to his work, but to the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be World-Wide Inflation."
Okay? A theme is a recurring fictional idea. A novel might explore the following ideas: the differences between, say, filial love and carnal love; what it means to have true courage; duty to an insane mother or a brother who is a criminal; how one stands up to impending death or a crippling disease. These recurring fictional ideas are themes.
For the purpose of our discussion, themes are defined as recurring fictional ideas, aspects of human existence that are being tested or explored in the course of the novel. A premise, which is a statement of what happens to the characters as a result ofthe actions of a story, is neither a moral or a theme.
Now that we have the terminology straight, we can get down to specifics.
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