What’s Your Book About?

I’m dreading that question. Because the way I want to answer it is to start listing a blow-by-blow account of everything that happens. And the action, the plot points, aren’t what the book is about. So if it’s not, how would I answer that question? This confusion took me back to one of my favorite books on writing, Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell. I ended up reading about theme and premise, and here are some quotes from the book.

‘Theme is not the message of your story, nor is theme a moral as stated in Aesop’s Fables. Instead, it is the central concern of the story and it gives the story a focus.’

‘Theme is not the same thing as the story’s subject.’

‘Imagine theme as an invisible thread that links the disparate elements of a story together.’

‘Theme can evolve organically as it emerges from the character’s actions, or it can be the basis from which you write.’ (Jessica had a lot more to say about this subject, including the pros and cons of both ways. For me, theme evolves organically without me being aware of it. In other words, I finish the story and say, ‘Theme? What theme?’)

‘Premise is linked most specifically to the story’s conclusion.’

Premise is defined as a truth, or conclusion, usually but not always about human nature that is proven by the story’s events and ending. It often reflects the protagonist’s journey of understanding and ramifications of the character’s actions. Most often it can be summed up in a simple statement such as ‘true love never dies’.

‘Premise is sometimes confused with story concept which is basically a one or two-line summary.’

‘Premise also connects the character arc because at least one character must be changed by what the premise proves.’

‘The premise and the ending of the conflict must always reinforce each other.’

So with all that floating in my tea-soaked brain, what is the theme of  The Memory Keeper? What’s it about? Well, the emotional bonds of family I guess.

And what’s the premise? Well, that family is not just those of blood relationships, history impacts the present, and the bonds that bind can also free.

Honestly, that premise stinks. The theme is okay, but I have to put some more thought into this before someone asks me the dreaded question. How would you answer that about your stories?

The photo below is the view from my desk at work, just for your enjoyment.

4 thoughts on “What’s Your Book About?

  1. I never answer this question right. We writers spend so much time thinking words in our own heads we forget how to speak them– or at least that’s my problem. Probably (at least partly) why I don’t have a agent.
    Also, when we talk about themes, I think we get vague and abstract and forget how to frame things with our own style/personality.
    (Good luck with your answer. Talking and writing is like trying to eat a burrito and knit at the same time.)

  2. Very good point about keeping theme in our voice. I get bogged down when I start thinking theme doesn’t sound ‘literary’ enough, that I need to come up with something that’s writerly. I know that’s not a word but it should be! But you’re spot on reminding us that this should be in our voice just like our stories are. By the way, I crochet instead of knit because trying to figure out and keep track of two needles was way too confusing. If I can’t knit by itself I sure can’t knit and eat! Love that mental image.

  3. Wow. I may have come late to this post because I’m struggling so much even with my 100 word stories. How would I answer this question for one of those? It’s an exercise I’d like to try on a day that doesn’t seem so physically and emotionally dreary as this.

    Thanks for the definitions of theme and premise. I had no idea really, and what I thought was off the mark.

    Let’s see, for my novel that I wish was in progress: Theme – How do we survive and find fulfillment in a society that doesn’t value the idividual who has less and tends to reward the individual who has much money, status or power?

    Premise – Life is unceasingly hard and often violent but the people we love, and how we show that love to them, can bring out our true strengths and help us thrive.

    My attempt at writing it out doesn’t sound very specific. But if you ask what my ‘book’ is about, I’d say: “A young woman is faced with a strange all-encompassing change that she can’t ignore– a handful of super powers that change her and her father’s lives, not necessarily for the better. Her determination to make them an asset, use her intelligence and keep her sense of right and wrong threaten to consume her. But while her life remains tough– unlikely alliance, and romance, come unexpectedly and show her she doesn’t have to take her journey alone.”

    I can’t tell if that’s nearly good or awfully bad. Aren’t you sorry you asked? 🙂

    • I think you need to hang on to what you’ve written here about your book because it sounds to me like you just came up with a synopsis! Theme, premise, and synopsis all in one; I’m impressed. The book, Between the Lines, has so much good information on writing, but just the sections on theme and premise made the book invaluable to me. Hope your day is less dreary. Lisa

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