In all of the frenzy to lock down the elements of story craft, we often forget what we’re talking about in the first place. That is, what is your story about? Not plot-wise, but thematically. What is your theme, premise, controlling idea, the core, the heart of your novel?
Don’t know? Can’t state it simply? That’s a prescription for a wandering story, one that can take off in different directions, hijacked by a new idea, a splendid side-canyon where you will stagger around happily until you die of thirst. (Not to scare you or anything.)
Your book’s premise imposes a pattern on experience, giving the story meaning and unity. When we are tasked with what to write next we do not have all the world to range in. Nor is it enough to ask what is relevant to the plot, or believable action by the character. Those are good questions, but add to them: how does this scene argue my premise? How does it relate to my theme–or if theme is too 8th-grade-composition for you, try Brian McDonald’s term, armature.
We aren’t talking about some didactic lesson that we hammer at. In fact the reader shouldn’t be able to easily discern your theme at all. It’s for you alone to know. Why? Because it is an underlying web that keeps a story focused; too obvious and it becomes a polemic.
A premise might be as every day as this one from The Wizard of Oz: You already have everything you need. (From a recent workshop given by the brilliant Brian McDonald, who blogs on screenwriting and fiction at Invisible Ink. And think about this premise from Oz. . . you never identified that theme, did you? Did you think it was There’s no place like home? –Me too!) Or from The Godfather: family loyalty leads to a life of crime. (From James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel.) Or from Kay’s novel in progress: To love the world we must accept imperfection.
If you’ve written novels without overtly knowing your premise, you may not have sold them. If you did sell them, you dodged a bullet, in my view. You might have been working from such strong convictions you never looked at them. As much as the unconscious can churn up marvelous material for stories, however, depending upon it is like hoping that you’ll come into an inheritance. Might, might not–with the odds on the latter.
How do you craft a theme? Look to your main character and her story arc. How does she change? What in herself does she overcome, surpass, transform? Here are the seeds of your controlling idea.
Find or establish a theme, thereby creating a firm platform where your story can unfold. For more on this aspect of story craft, check out Story (Robert McKee), How to Write A Damn Good Novel (Frey) and Invisible Ink (a blog but also a book by McDonald.) Whether you conceive of this principal as a proposition needing proof (Frey) or the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through action and emotion (McKee), you need to know what your story’s theme is.
You need, at the deepest level, to know what your story is about.