Okay, admit it. Your eyes rolled back in your head when you saw the word ‘theme’ in this post’s title, didn’t they? If so, it’s not surprising. Many writers, genre writers in particular – of which many of us here are – are often taught to disregard theme, at least in the early drafts. We’re told a story’s theme will emerge as we revise and dig deeper on later drafts, if indeed it need ever emerge. Who really needs theme anyway, other than your boring high school English teacher? After all, who wants a heavy-handed moral lesson or the author’s worldview shoved down her throat when she’s just trying to immerse herself in good fiction?
According to Lisa Cron, probably everyone.
As Cron discusses in Wired for Story, Story Genius, and workshops (for those of us lucky enough to attend one!), our brains are hardwired for story because story helps us decipher the world around us, and to discover ‘what would happen if’ without physically putting ourselves in harm’s way. In that way, stories are tied to our very survival as a species (sounds pretty cool to be a writer nerd now, doesn’t it?). Other cool things that happen to our brains on fiction are an increased capacity for empathy (through bonding with a protagonist and walking several miles in her shoes) and a willingness to challenge our own world views. And all that cool stuff happens because somewhere under all the scenes and character arcs and plot points and cause and effect trajectory, a story has a specific way of looking at the world, a message, a theme.
Instead of thinking about theme as some sort of moral imperative or high-brow statement to be made at the expense of good story, what if we think about theme as the beating heart of our story? Sound more appealing now? And now that you’re thinking about it that way, consider whether it’s really something that can wait until the second or fifth or umpteenth revision to emerge. Can your story really survive, even through the early drafts, without its very heart?
Think about the story you’re writing now (or should be writing now, as the case may be). Most writers will tell you ideas are not the hard part of writing. For instance, at any given time, I have about a dozen ideas with characters and inciting incidents and varying numbers of plot points rolling around in my head, waiting to take a more corporeal form on my page. I know the approximate number because I keep a ‘notebook’ for every plausible idea in my Evernote app. And don’t get me started on the implausible ideas that float in and out of my head that don’t even warrant a notebook. So why, at this moment, am I focused on a story about two ex-best friends in Kentucky, one of the friend’s ragamuffin stepdaughter with a bedraggled three-legged poodle, and the really bad ombre from their hometown who’s pursuing them? Why is this story calling out to me? And this is where the questions get really important: What, of all the things I want to say to the world, is the specific thing that shines through in this story?
Analyzing My WIP
In one of Lisa Cron’s workshops at the WU UnConference, she took us through a six-step analysis to help plan our stories. The very first step is about the story question. What question do you pose on the first page that your character’s journey will answer by the last page?
Lisa asked us to answer these questions about our WIPs: What is my point in telling this story? and What does this mean to me/why does it matter? She had us do this on the spot, in real time. This should not be a long and agonizing exercise. Often the first thoughts that occur to you when you answer the questions are the truth. If not, if your answer doesn’t feel true or doesn’t hold up as you develop your story plan, you can go back to the story question, adjust the answer, then carry that through the story. That last step is important! If your story question shifts, so does every other aspect of your book.
Using the WIP I mentioned above, titled Take the Money and Run, here’s how I answered.
What’s the point of the story (also known as the answer to the story question)? Real emotional safety comes from connection with others, not isolation from them.
Why does this story question matter to me (look at my own life experience)? As a true introvert, I have always craved time to be alone to work out all of life’s problems. But even for an introvert, that eventually gets lonely, and I need to reach out to my loved ones (husband, child, mother, siblings, friends). The harder the problem, the more likely I’ll need to lean on someone else to help me get through it.
Taking this many steps further (which actually gets done in Lisa’s additional story planning steps), how will you express this through your antagonist and her journey? My protagonist, Frannie Willets, recently paroled from prison (sent there for burglary) wants to be a loner, the way she was as a child, but her ex-best wants to reconnect. Each time Frannie tries to go it alone, things go awry and she slowly and begrudgingly has to accept the help of others. By the time she reaches the story climax, she’s assembled a ‘team’ around her and uses that strength to right the wrongs in her world (and that’s all you’re getting – too many spoilers if I give you specifics!).
Does my analysis of the protagonist and her story journey personify my theme? In this case, I’m going to say yes, which means my story plan is aligned to my story question, which – as we’ve now said many times – is the heart of my story.
Analyzing Someone Else’s Story
We’ve all heard the old adage: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, too, is story theme. As a reader, you can’t answer the Story Question step the way the writer would. We bring our own life experience to each story we read or watch. We can only interpret the story and the writer’s theme through our own lens. That’s not to say good fiction won’t shift that worldview at least a bit. In fact, Donald Maass would argue exactly the opposite as he implores writers to change the world with our stories. BUT with each story, we meet each reader where they are in their own lives on that particular day. And I’d argue that while we’re likely to glimpse what is important to the writer, as readers we need to process and internalize what is important to us.
As an example, a few days ago, while my daughter was visiting, we watched a marathon (okay, three episodes) of the television show Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit. I haven’t seen any episodes from the L&O franchise for many years for various reasons, and I was just enjoying hanging out with my daughter for the afternoon with no intention of analyzing story. But it’s hard to turn off the writer’s brain. One of the episodes we saw was number 3 from season 12, and was titled Behave. The story opens with an unconscious, possible drunk woman (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt), being harassed by a ‘sidewalk preacher’ on the subway. But the woman isn’t drunk. She’s bleeding, disoriented, and has obviously been attacked. When she’s taken to the hospital, the staff call our heroes from the SVU squad, as it’s pretty apparent the woman has been raped. But she’s terrified, uncooperative, and runs away before they can take a victim’s statement or run a rape kit.
When Detective Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) tries to track down the woman to see if she’s okay, she learns the victim gave an alias at the hospital. Through detective work (of course), she realizes the woman has covered her tracks, just like someone who has something to hide… or who has a stalker. And sure enough, when Benson finds the victim, named Vicki, she learns that not only does Vicki have a stalker, but that stalker, who is a stranger to her, has raped her numerous times. Eventually, Benson convinces Vicki to go back to the hospital for a rape kit, and it’s here that we start to see the story theme emerge. In what I assume is unusual in SVU episodes, we watch Vicki go through the trauma of submitting to the rape kit. It’s network television, so much is implicit as opposed to explicit, but Vicki must strip naked and have photos taken of her entire body. The nurse picks glass shards out of her wounds, then swabs every orifice of Vicki’s body. Vicki shakes and cries. At times, she yelps in pain. And through all of this, she tells Benson her story, the story of all the rapes, and of the multiple times in the past that she did this same thing – went through the pain and retraumitization of a rape kit – but to no avail. Her attacker is still on the loose. And the SVU squad has uncovered dozens more women who’ve been attacked the same way, probably by the same man. Detective Benson goes in search of the rape kits in these cases so they can arrest the man they suspect, but in case after case, state after state, city after city, she learns these kits, along with thousands of others (more than 7, 000 in LA alone) have never been tested.
As confirmed by the episode’s writers, this episode is a discussion about the travesty of a justice system that has DNA evidence at its fingertips, but lets violent criminals go free because they simply don’t take the next step of testing that DNA. But for me, there was another layer of theme buried in there. I kept thinking of the victim’s face as the nurse performed the rape kit, and hearing about how many times she’d gone to the police, told her story, begged for help. She did all the right things, things that could have and should have resulted in her attacker going to prison, but he didn’t, and finally she’d gotten to the point where she just couldn’t cry out anymore and face being ignored by the system. As someone who has spent time as a volunteer working with victims of abuse, including sexual abuse, I know this is one of many, many reasons some rape victims don’t report this horrific and violent crime. Hopefully, anyone who has watched this episode will never again ask ‘why didn’t she just report it’, and will also say about any victim who does report a rape, ‘that is amazingly brave’.
Analyzing Your WIP
Now it’s your turn. Think about your WIP. What does it say that you, as the writer, are trying to say to the world? What is the truth about life as you know it that you want your readers to know, as well? Why does this story matter to you? Base this answer on your own life experience. (But don’t be surprised if, at some future point, a reader takes that idea, melds it with her own world view, and gets a life-changing meaning of her own out of your work.)
Once you’re able to answer these questions, congratulate yourself, because you just found the beating heart of your story. And don’t be shy – feel free to share that heart with all of us in the comments.