What’s It All About?

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.

8 Responses

  1. Brian McDonald says:

    Thanks, Kay, for mentioning my book, Invisible Ink, as a good source for people to learn more about theme.

    I think theme is one of the most misunderstood and overlooked aspects of storytelling. And teachers often make it hard to understand.

    But it really isn’t that hard and when people learn it it really elevates their stories. A strong armature also helps one with a consistency of story quality from one project to the next.

    People are often afraid that it will make their work stilted or preachy, and that can happen if one’s execution is poor. But as I tell students, anything can be done poorly. This does not mean that the underlying principle is flawed.

    I hope the books mentioned in this post helps people understand how having a strong theme at the beginning of your process can you craft better stories.

  2. Chris says:

    Kay – I couldn’t agree more with your points on theme, especially your point on “dodging a bullet” if you sold a book without conscious awareness of your theme.

    While I haven’t personally worked with her, I know of at least one editor in the YA genre who explicitly asks her authors to prepare a write-up on the themes, meaning and purpose of their books following acquisition but before the first editorial letter.

    Her reasoning – as I’ve been given to understand – is that by (a) forcing the author to explicitly consider their themes, and (b) gaining insight into the author’s thematic goals, the editor is then better able to help the author achieve her goals.

    This sounds like a pretty enlightened editorial philosophy / methodology to me. Going through that kind of exercise *before* writing a book would only help authors, especially those (realists) who recognize that writing is as much a conscious act as art.

    Have you heard of other editors doing this? I have only heard of one or two who do this as a “standard practice”, but they strike me as the kind of editors I would love to work with.

  3. Kay says:

    Brian, when I first heard you talk about the armature of a story I was riveted–even though I had at that time sold ten novels. I completely agree that this piece of the craft is seldom given the attention it deserves. I love your term, armature. It is such a strong word, both in its sound and its meaning.

    Do let me know when you’ll next be presenting and I’ll do what I can to drum up interest. Our Write on the River attendees were knocked out by what you had to say.

  4. Kay says:

    I have never heard of an editor engaging this subject with an author. It so completely smart to critique a manuscript based upon what the author was trying to say. Sadly, most editors don’t have the luxury of time to help a story fulfill an author’s vision; they just have to help make it better in bits and pieces, with the best editors relying on their instinct of the whole.

  5. Josh says:

    Thanks for this, Kay. I used to resist focusing on themes in my stories, partly because in my mind, “theme” meant the story had to be preachy, or harp on some moral lesson the whole way through–and that sort of writing is a turnoff to me, so why would I want to write it? But having the perspective of that invisible web, an underlying network that binds the story together, that’s a great way to look at it.

    If I might ask (and if you’re willing to share) what are the themes to your Entire and the Rose books? Are they different for each book, or is there a central one throughout the series?

  6. Kay says:

    I had to think a bit before answering you, because theme is so powerful and underground, something may be lost by knowing it before reading. But I still think it’s a fair question to ask, so here goes:
    Bright of the Sky: Redemption. Love can redeem us.
    A World Too Near. Loyalty. A warrior cannot fight with a divided heart.
    City Without End. Sacrifice. The world is saved when we sacrifice our personal hopes.
    Prince of Storms. Honor and Corruption. To achieve honor we must relinquish power.

    Overall, I’m not so sure. I started out by wanting to explore love of family in time of war. It seemed more realistic as I went along to give each story a fresh theme. Looking back, I might say: For a great man, love and honor brings supreme tests. But that was subconscious as I began.

  7. Josh says:

    Thanks for sharing, Kay. I can definitely see those themes playing out through your stories. Having already read them, it’s more hindsight for me. Hopefully folks who aren’t exposed to that series won’t find this post until afterwards.

    I can understand hesitating to point them out so clearly. Kind of like not wanting to tell anyone the full story before it’s at least in first draft form, otherwise your might lose that subconscious motivation to tell the story.

  8. Kay says:

    Yes, and not revealing your story to keep the flame alive… that’s another subject that’s tricky. Every now and then I blurt out what I’m working on, and I Always regret it!

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