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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Theme vs. Premise

I tried posting this last night, but alas, Blogger issues cropped up again. :-(


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.

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Blogger mernitman said...

Hey, Joel, thanks -- I needed that: both of your ital'ed premise/theme sentences are sharp and concise (and I'm going to rip them off and use them from now on, crediting you whenever I um, remember to, of course)...

7:12 PM  
Blogger Warren said...

I was going into Fun Joel withdrawals, man! Great post of the differences between premise and theme. And of course, unspoken but implied in your post is the fact that the premise should be the perfect instrument to prove the validity of the theme. Sometimes, in a poorly written script, the theme feels tacked on to a really cool, but totally unrelated, premise. And no, plenty of time until you're up in the group script project. I think Webs and Ted are still up before you are. No worries!

10:15 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Hey Mernit --

Make sure you read the footer of my blog, about the copyright! ;-) Nah, but it's all good.

Warren -- good to see you there. Glad you're still here. it is nice to know my readers come back even when I neglect them (temporarily speaking, of course).

In honesty, I haven't even read the pages yet. Was kind of holding off until it was my turn. But maybe I'll take a peek, now that it's substantially moved along.

And yes, thanks for pointing out that unspoken point. You are totally correct on that.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

Ah, what I'd give to be in a 'New York' state of mind. I would love to live there, but alas, I live in Bradford, West Yorkshire, dull old England.

I guess if I want to make it as a screenwriter, I should want to live in LA. Perhaps I 'need' to, but I 'want' to live in New York. There is a difference between want and need.

What's the rule? If you live in Manhattan for ten years, you can officially call your self a 'New Yorker'? I'd love to get that far. Oh well :)

10:21 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Welcome Chris!

I don't think being a New Yorker is about an amount of time of residency, but rather a feeling in your blood. It's about knowing what car of the subway to board so you will be right at the exit when you arrive at your stop. It's about being able to argue the best subway combinations to take to get from one place to another. Not feeling pity for drivers because NYC should be a pedestrian-only city. Knowing all the best places to catch live music of any variety on any night of the week. Having a favorite bar/bagel store/coffee shop/burger/deli/etc., and mroe importantly having one to hate as well!

But yes. I'd say that to succeed as a screenwriter, LA is really the best place to be. And hey, life is pretty good here too (I'm now back in LA).

10:28 AM  
Blogger Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

Has Ney York lost its touch with the screenwriting world?

I thought it was acceptable to be a screenwriter living in The Village. I thought you could accomplish a lot from New York.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Chris --

I'd say that while it is of course "acceptable" to be a screenwriter living in The Village (or anywhere else for that matter), your life will be MUCH easier if you are in LA.

Bottom line (and this is something you'll hear from nearly anyone you ask, which is why I never posted about it), the business of screenwriting is largely a people business, and the people you need to see, meet, etc., all live in LA.

Especially before you are established, you pretty much need to be here if you are serious about making a career for yourself. It can be done elsewhere, but it will be significantly more difficult.

12:10 AM  

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