Theme vs. Premise
A steel cage match? No, just a little delineation.
But first, a brief update. So it's been nearly a week since my last post, and I'm still in a New York State of Mind, as I have not yet returned to Los Angeles. Which explains the lack of posting. My apologies, but I figured since I'm actually currently in New Jersey, at my parents' place, I had a bit of downtime in which to post. But to sum up, the trip has been great, though packed and hectic. I've caught up with tons of friends (including my bi-coastally seen friend and blogger extraordinaire Esther), imbibed plenty, and slept very little. I also neglected my work on Hell on Wheels, though I hope to get some done on my flight back. That is if I don't get too absorbed by the trivia game on Song. And I've got the rest of the week to get it done as well. Plus, I will probably be up for Warren's round robin screenplay as well, if I'm not already. I should read those emails, huh?
Okay, so on to the topic at hand. One posting topic I've had lying around for a couple of weeks now is this theme vs. premise question. It was posed to one of the panels I heard at the Writer's Faire. Someone asked, "What is the difference between theme and premise?" In honesty, I didn't really think much of the question when I first heard it posed, but then I thought more about it and found there may be some interesting material to examine more in depth here.
In brief, firstly, the premise of your film is a summary of the plot. It is what happens in the film. The theme, on the other hand, is basically the subtext of that plot -- the message you're trying to deliver. So why then are the two terms even confusing to anyone in the first place? Because in a certain way, both terms are what your film is about. When someone asks you, "What is your screenplay about?" are they asking you about your underlying points or do they want to know what they'll see on screen? Generally the latter. However:
While the premise is what the film is about, the theme is what the film is really about.
Another way of looking at it is by distinguishing between action and significance.
Premise is what happens; theme is what it means, and why we should care.
Thus, the premise for 40 Year-Old Virgin is that the character described in the title has friends who try to help him escape the film's title, while he dates a woman he likes and tries to tell her the truth about the title -- his (lack of) sexual history. The theme, however, might be seen as "take things at your own pace." Or "who you are is more important than what you've done." You might be able to come up with a better statement of theme for this movie. I'm just throwing those out off the top of my head. But the point should be clear. Those thematic statements didn't mention the details of the film's plotting. Instead they presented statements that expressed a message that the film delivers subtextually.
Tags: screenwriting, theme, premise, The+40+Year+Old+Virgin