Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The theme of this week's tip is theme.

(I just had to write that sentence because I do love the sweet taste of irony.)

When I first began to write, I didn't focus on theme per se. I wrote the stories that spoke to me, focussed on characters I cared about, and the theme would emerge as the plot unfolded.

You might be screaming, "What?!" at me right now, because theme is so critical. Theme is the guts of the story, the filling in the Oreo, the sauce on the pasta.

How dare I write a story without the theme flashing like a neon sign in my frontal lobe?

The short answer is, "It depends."

Some stories explore a theme. These stories require me to know the theme upfront.

Some stories explore a character. Thus, I begin with a sketch of the character, their problem, their strengths, and their ultimate desires.

Some stories ask a question. Usually speculative fiction stories begin the question with, What if...?. In these cases, I require that question to be formed in intricate detail in my mind before I begin to write the rough draft.

Of course, some stories combine all of these elements together: exploring a theme that is based on a character who is thrust into a world where the "What if" is a reality. Generally speaking, these combo stories are the good ones that resonate and linger long after you finish reading them.

Combo stories win awards.

At least, we naive authors hope that they will at least be nominated. Because we want our stories to matter, I mean really matter.

If you have your theme solidly affixed in the front of your mind (or stuck to your laptop with a Post-It) then chances are the prose will be infused with meaning.

What is a theme, exactly?

The theme is the point of the story.

If you are unsure as to the theme of a story, try asking the question, "What's the point? Why am I telling this story? Why do the protagonist's problems matter?"

Oh no, Suzanne, don't you dare start sounding like my high school English teacher!

Fear not, young Padawan. I used to teach high school math, not high school English, so you're safe in my hands. Really.

I will not list books and their respective themes. If you found my blog, you're more than capable of using a search engine on the web to find them yourself.

I'll wait...

Keep looking...

Okay, are you with me now? Great, let's get to the good stuff.

Choose a theme that resonates with readers. You can go with the big emotion-themes like loss, or forgiveness, or love. Or choose character-centric-themes like coming-of-age and fate vs. free-will. Or choose morality-themes like good vs. evil, greed vs. selflessness, and optimism vs. pessimism.

Many tried and true themes exist, and you can take another break and search for them later.

For now, remember this:

Theme is what matters.

And thus, the corollary:

For your story to matter, it requires a deliberate theme.

Do it now
Do a search on books and themes. Choose three that you would like to explore.

For each of the three themes, write three 1-sentence story ideas. See if you can include a chunk of character and a dose of "What if" along with the theme in the ideas.

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