A few years back, I wrote a post called How To Focus on Your Story's DNA that identified the elements of story that never change. I use those unchanging elements to help keep my story on track. Theme is one of those important elements, and it's a tough one because most of the writers I talk to don't how to articulate their story's theme. Or they learn it as they write, which is a huge leap of faith.
What is a story theme?
Theme is the "big idea." The underlying message, or the critical belief about life the author is trying to convey. This belief, or idea, is universal. It transcends all barriers (i.e., age, culture or religion).
For myself, I like to simplify "the big idea" to a few quick words. Examples: There's no place like home, shame blocks happiness, control is illusion.
Theme as an iceberg
Reedsy made a cool graphic in their post, What Is the Theme of Your Story?Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, they created a diagram that illustrates the relationship between the theme of a book, its story, and the plot.
- Plot: the events of the narrative
- Story: internal and external character conflicts
- Theme: drives both plots and story from beneath the surface
"Like the portions of an iceberg beneath the surface, theme may not be immediately apparent to the reader — but it is implicitly conveyed through the writer's craft, using story, character conflict, and symbolism."
Writing around a theme
John August, the creator of Charlie's Angels and Big Fish penned a great post about Writing From Theme, which I've excerpted in blue below.
Note: This post demonstrated his level of awesome to me. I write to theme, once I know what it is. This guy writes from theme...as in he figures it out in advance and builds a whole story around it. There are always great lessons to learn from the awesome people.
I suspect what your pro-theme writer friends were talking about was some essence that permeates every moment of a good film. Something that’s in its DNA. You feel it when it’s there, and notice it when it’s missing — even when the script otherwise seems solid.
Think back to one of your favorite movies. Chances are, you could pick any moment in it, and it would “feel like” the movie. That is, you could take that little slice of it, plant it in some cinematic soil, and it would grow into something resembling the original.
My favorite movie is Aliens, and it meets this test easily. Pull out any sequence — even before Ripley has agreed to join the mission — and it would grow into a story that fits its universe.
I don’t know that “theme” is really the best word for this DNA quality I’m describing. But I think it’s what we mean when we say it.
Theme as the essential idea
For Big Fish: I had a lot of conversations about “what it was about.” Not the plot, really, but what the point of it all was. I talked about the difference between what is true and what is real. I don’t know that I ever articulated it quite that way, but this was definitely the underlying idea that informed every moment and every character in the script.
And for most of my projects, I can point to the DNA ideas:
- Charlie’s Angels: Three princesses must save their father, the King.
- The Remnants: The end of the world isn’t so bad.
- The Variant: You are still your younger self.
- Go: You cross a line, then your only way out is to accelerate.
For [some] projects, I remember saying these things aloud before I started writing. For others, I probably didn’t. But I could definitely feel the edges of their core ideas before I put pen to paper. I won’t start writing until I know it.
When you really understand a project’s DNA, it’s much easier to write and rewrite. You know exactly what types of scenes, moments and lines of dialogue belong in your movie, and which don’t.
Every scene in your screenplay can change, but it still feels like the movie.
John August's magic did not help me explain theme to my nine year-old and her 4th grade class. The video below did it for me, in a way that was easy for them to understand.
To summarize: Theme is the lesson the author wants you to get from the story. Themes tell us what we should or should not do to ensure happiness and success in our own lives.
How to discover theme (simple version)
- Observe what the characters in a story say and do.
- Ask yourself what were the consequences of those actions.
How to describe theme (simple version)
- Themes are a complete sentence.
- Themes never contain character names.
- A theme is true for everyone — young or old, rich or poor.
Theme help for pantsers
Laura Drake would not forgive me if I left this part out. Many pantsers have no idea what the theme is until they are done with the first draft. That is their discovery draft, when they find out all the magic that lurks below the story they were compelled to write.
That's okay, pantsers. You can put the magic into the second draft. Your theme will still be there, waiting to be defined and refined by you. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your story. You'll nail theme in the editing process.
Do you know your story's theme from the beginning, or learn it as you go along? Do your themes surprise you? Do you have themes you write about over and over again?
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By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
Everyone has seen Mr. Mom, right? My favorite line from the whole movie is when Michael Keaton is dropping his kids off at school, pulling into the circular drive against traffic, and like four moms tell him, "You're doing it wrong."
Look, I'm not saying I'm the Mother of Social Media (although I'm probably old enough to be), but I've seen and heard things there that make me mad. Not because Newbies don't know better, but because there's so much wrong information floating around out there. These poor beleaguered writers are running from one platform to another, freaking about their numbers, tearing their hair, and screaming, "BUY MY BOOK!" Then ramping up, when people don't.
I was a career business-person. Business doesn't mess around. They want results. So here's some common-sense advice:
It's NOT about the numbers.
I see people on Twitter (possibly other places too) either lamenting their dismal number of followers, or crowing that they've reached some round number they're excited about. Hellloooooo — there is no gold star, free Cracker Jack prize or even green stamps (told you I was old) given for an ideal number of followers. It's about ENGAGEMENT.
Unless you're someone super famous that people listen to, and look up to (sometimes for dubious reasons — this is SM, after all), all those people aren't going to engage with you. And numbers don't sell books — engagement does. More on this in a minute.
It's not about, BUY MY BOOK!
I don't do a lot on Twitter, but I really enjoy the #WritingCommunity — or I used to. It's a huge group of writers, talking about the process, or word count, or posting inspirational memes, etc. It was my warm fuzzy place — a place I could interact with other writers.
But in the past two months or so, it's become a billboard for selling books, writer services, and the like. UGH. That was my one place to get away from all that! I posted, asking what the deal was all of a sudden. Many agreed with me, some didn't mind it. What hurt was the one who said,
"Know what you mean, but publishers look for evidence of a strong social media presence when you pitch and they may want to take on an ebook."
That is so sad. Guys, you're doing it wrong. What agents and publishers want to see is that you have people on social media that you're "friends" with — and I don't mean you "friended" them on FB. They're people who like you, and what you post. Guess what? If they like your posts, they're probably going to like your voice, and it follows they might take a chance they'll like your book and buy it.
What do you write about? Here's an example. I write romance and women's fiction, but it is, and will always be, set in the West, usually small towns, and it may have a cowboy or two. Who do I engage with? Rodeo women, cowboys wives, farmers ... you know, country people!
Get creative. Who is huge in your genre? Who in that genre is similar to your writing? Go look at their followers. Follow them. Engage with them. After all, they're a consumer of what you write, right? That's doing it right.
Engage, Engage, Engage!
Hey, I'm not all that. I spend time thinking about how to do this better, and just a couple weeks ago, I realized I was doing it wrong too.
Seriously. I may require an intervention.
I spend a lot of time on FB. I don't use my author page much, because I believe people want a real human to interact with. I have built a following of around 4k. That's not a huge number. BUT I work hard to engage with them.
Every morning, I post: coffee memes for the Morning Brigade, a beauty pic for the day, a mom meme, an awwwww for the day (think adorable puppies and kittens, and yes, Jenny, bunnies), and something from the weird file (you'd have to see it to believe it). Oh, and SNARK! I've had over 800,000 likes, probably get 50 or more comments a day, and God knows how many shares.
That's good, right? By the way, you do follow me, right? You can, HERE.
It is, except I wasn't taking advantage of one of my strongest avenues to sell my books! Yes, when I had a release, or a cover reveal, or a great review, I posted about it. But I never gave away my books in my general feed — only the groups I'm involved with.
So I did a giveaway for three books — ONLY for those who had NOT read a book of mine. All they needed to do to enter was to comment which book they'd like. Do you know I got 200 comments on that post? That's 200 people who love my posts daily — like my voice, my twisted sense of humor. They'd like my books! Three didn't seem enough to give — so I got in touch with my publisher, who kicked in 20 more.
It's done — they're all out and, I hope, being read. I truly expect to turn most of those into fans. And guess what? My Amazon ranking went up for a week after the winners were drawn — I assume non-winners went and bought a book.
There's always more to learn — go out there and do it right, people. Sell a shit-ton of books!
Remember when we used to buy a whole album of music from an artist? If you don't remember, just roll with me anyway. (And stop making me feel so old!)
Quite a few of my albums—both vinyl and CD—are collections of most popular or beloved songs; that is, the artist's Greatest Hits. Well, today is a greatest hits day here on Writers in the Storm!
Because below are the top 11 posts of all time written by our hosts. You'll surely see one here you'll want to click on — either because you hadn't seen that post before or you want the refresher. Enjoy!
Do you long to "see your novel by the numbers?" If so, Laura Drake's method of organizing will change your life.
Tolkien never expected his books to do more than line the trash heap. Here's great tips from a man who wrote for the joy of it, and never gave up. Courtesy of Jenny Hansen.
Fae Rowen shares secrets of a writing contest judge.
Julie Glover shares quotations from writing giants to keep you going when fear and self-doubt inevitably set in.
Laura Drake shares her notes from a workshop conducted by story structure coach Michael Hague.
Deepen your internal and external conflict with Dirty Fighting. What is it, and why do you want your characters to do it? From Jenny Hansen.
Fae Rowen shares eight simple ways that characters—and real people!— can show their love.
Laura Drake shows the importance of cadence and demonstrates with examples how to use it to power up your writing.
J.K. Rowling's Top 10 Tips for Success (for writers and non-writers). Compiled by Jenny Hansen.
Julie Glover shares 4 easy edits you can make that invite the reader deeper into the story and give a stronger impact.
Laura Drake provides a "how to" on writing flash fiction, with examples.
Do you have a favorite post on Writers in the Storm? What's your vote for a "greatest hit"?
I promise this is the last in what was never intended to become a series. But it seems every time I think of "F" words, more come to mind...
My blog with the first six words can be found here. Like the first six words, these F-words are perfectly "clean" for mixed company and young ears, so no worries, no matter where you're reading this.
Let's start with a group of three words that might make life difficult for your characters: festering, forbidden, and frantic.
Is there something in a character's backstory that is like a festering wound? We all know that to avoid staying two-dimensional, our characters need a backstory. Backstory is true in the eye of the beholder, so it will have a lot more impact on your character than those who experienced the same event in your story.
You probably don't need to think deep to find something in your own past that you remember differently from a sibling or a parent. For you, it bordered on traumatic. For someone else, they barely noted it. They certainly remember it differently than you do.
If something was forbidden, that, too, can add to backstory. If it is currently forbidden, well, you've just upped the conflict in your story. Remember that the sooner you resolve the forbidden element, the sooner you've resolved the tension in that thread. To maintain reader interest, you can resolve the forbidden element then up the stakes by adding a new layer of tension.
How do you do this? Well, let's say your romantic couple each have reasons for their affections to be forbidden. She believes he loves her sister. He believes he's the bastard son of her father. When she discovers that he doesn't love her sister—that was just her sister's girlhood fantasy and revealed when her sister happily gets engaged to someone else—your female lead character believes the way is clear for her to love—and have that love reciprocated by—the male character. Oops, he still believes she's his half sister, and no matter how attracted to her he is, he's going to fight the attraction, even to the point of hurting her. For her own good.
These first two F-words can lead to making characters frantic, but so can a lot of other things, like ticking clocks, plot twists, other characters. You know...all the things that make writing your own stories so much fun. A frantic character can make mistakes take work for you, as the author, for the rest of your book. Or you can semi-resolve them and leave your characters with a worse dilemma.
Which brings us to the next group of F-words: facade, flexible, and family.
Maybe you thought of family as in F-word when you read my first blog on F-words. There is no doubt that, for many people, family is an F-bomb. There is a reason so many people dislike (even hate) the holidays. How many of your friends currently aren't speaking to one or more of their relatives?
Feel free to take out your aggressions, your feelings of being slighted or devalued, the times you were powerless to state your truth, around your family. Those experiences will make your story, and your characters, more authentic. On the other hand, you may be one of the lucky ones who had great parents and supportive siblings. That would color a character's backstory as well.
Perhaps you, or your character, or the "good child" in your family because you've developed an impenetrable facade over the years. What an effective way for one character to keep out another character. And what a wonderful way to build a relationship—it could be very rocky at first—as one dedicated person chips away at the facade of the other because they know there is something of great value below that facade.
Family and facade can lead to learning how to be flexible to survive. Of course, you can be flexible without calling on a character's facade or family. Flexibility can also be seen as a weakness particularly in male characters.
The final group of F-words can be a writer's treasure chest of ideas when wanting to throw out one positive nugget of a character. Friends, fascination, fulfillment, and the future can shade your characters with attitudes that bring readers back to your books for those satisfying endings.
How many times have you heard those sayings like friends being the family we choose for ourselves? The people we choose to surround ourselves with show a great deal about us—our strengths, or weaknesses, our likes and our dislikes.
What fascinates your characters? Do they thirst for knowledge? Do they work to perfect a craft, a hobby, a trade, a physical ability? How do they pursue their fascination? Do they bring others, like friends and loved ones, into their fascination?
How do your characters see their futures? This probability will change during the course of your story as your characters move through their character arcs. Good for you! This gives more depth to move your characters from cardboard to real. You can also use what a character wants for their future for motivation and conflict and plot-driven nuances of your story. Similarly, a character can react to a possible future in a strong negative way which helps them grow and "improve."
Finally, that leaves F-word number ten: fulfillment. By the end of your book, your characters need to have their hearts and lives filled with happiness, and probably love, even if you aren't writing a romance. I write science fiction, on the speculative fiction side of the genre, and my characters better feel that they've made their world a better place to live and learned to love themselves. If they've learned to open their hearts to another, so much the better.
Do you have another F-word to add to our collection? How has it improved your writing?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Fae's second book, P.R.I.S.M: Rebellion, will be available for pre-order in October 2019.
I'm a born pessimist — whenever things are going too well in my life, I get this overwhelming sense of dread. Because I just know that doom is right around the corner.
Obviously I'm not here to advocate pessimism, or we'll all be doomsayers and how annoying would that be?!
But sometimes, writers read motivational quotes, and rather than feel inspired, we feel cheated. For example, remember that saying, "If you can dream it, you can achieve it"? Yeah, right. Whoever said that probably didn't dream of making the New York Times bestseller list with their debut book.
So what if you're a pessimist like me? Or just having one of those seasons when the writing gig is going about as well as Alexander's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? What if the motivational quotes just aren't doing it for you?
You're not the only permanent or temporary pessimist writer out there. Let's hear from some famous authors with their pessimistic — and yet somehow inspirational — observations about writing.
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. ~ Ernest Hemingway
No wonder I keep feeling like this should be easier than it is, and yet it isn't. We're always learning, or should be.
Writing is a delicious agony. ~ Gwendolyn Brooks
Sounds about right.
To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself. ~ Anne Rice
Oh great, the very thing I tried so desperately to avoid doing throughout adolescence and my dating years, now I'm supposed to embrace. Bring it on! Let me be a fool for the sake of the story.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. ~ Anne Lamott
Too often, we compare our first drafts to other authors' final products, and then feel awful because we don't measure up. But maybe it's okay to be terrible at the beginning, as long as you're willing to polish the story and the prose to a shine.
The easiest reading is damned hard writing. ~ Thomas Hood
Of course it is! Why should we be surprised? Dancer Fred Astaire once admitted: "I suppose I made it look easy, but gee whiz, did I work and worry." Creatives must recognize that requires intense effort to make something appear seamless.
A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ~ Thomas Mann
True. Becoming a better writer makes it more likely that you'll recognize when your story isn't quite there. You know you can do better, and you will.
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done. ~ Stephen King
Only Stephen King would immediately come up with the analogy of murdering children (I hope), but he's spot-on about how much it can hurt to edit. And yet, we must accept the pain to reach that next level, the level of penning a novel readers won't forget.
I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide. ~ Harper Lee
We can't take critique, rejections, and bad reviews too personally. Even if what you write is fantastic, someone won't like it. (Though I don't know who it was that didn't like To Kill a Mockingbird.)
The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business. ~ John Steinbeck
Good information to know going in. But hey, we can do a lot to make it more likely we'll win the race, and when our horse crosses the finish line first? Aaaah, a sweet, sweet victory!
What pessimistic quotes about writing actually inspire you to keep going?
Julie Glover is a pessimist by nature, but an optimist in practice! Because no wants to hang out with an Eeyore all day—not even Eeyore himself. (Although an overly cheery Tigger would get old quickly too...)
Julie writes cozy mysteries, young adult fiction, and supernatural suspense (under the pen name Jules Lynn). Her upcoming YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®, and her co-written Muse Island Series is available now, beginning with book one, Mark of the Gods.
You can visit her website here.