One Plus One Equals Three

James Scott Bell

Joe’s recent post about theme put in mind this quote from The Boss:

“I’ve always believed the greatest rock and roll musicians are desperate men. You’ve got to have something bothering you all the time. My songs are good because … it’s like in art and love, hey, one and one makes three. In music, if it makes two, you’ve failed, my friends. You know, if you’re painting, if all you’ve got is your paint and your canvas, you’ve failed. If all you got is your notes, you’ve failed. You’ve got to find that third thing that you don’t completely understand, but that is truly coming up from inside of you. And you can set it any place, you can choose any type of character, but if you don’t reach down and touch that thing, then you’re just not gonna have anything to say, and it’s not gonna feel like it has life and breath in it, you’re not gonna create something real, and it’s not gonna feel authentic. So I worked hard on those things.” – Bruce Springsteen
We need to get that. Your book, if it’s going to go anywhere, has to be about more than what it is about. It has to dig deep somewhere, so the readers think there’s a “there” there, something the author really cares about.
An “inner ferret,” as grandmaster thriller author David Morrell puts it. Others might call it heart. Still others, like the late great Red Smith, say, “Just open a vein.”
But your novel should be something that moves your insides around.
How do you find it?
Start making a list. Make a list of things that bother you, that get your juices flowing. I often ask writing students what is something that would make them throw a chair out the window? Write about that thing. Put that feeling inside your Lead character.
Or make a list of memories that are vivid to you. Why are they vivid? Because your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Find that thing.
Ray Bradbury started making a list of nouns of remembrance when he was young. He came up with nouns like THE LAKE, THE CRICKETS, THE SKELETON, THE NIGHT, and so on. Each one of these referred to something from his childhood. He went into those memories and mined them for stories.
Childhood fears seem to play a big role not only for Bradbury, but also King and Koontz. Figuring out why justice is worth going for in a world that seems dead set against it animates Michael Connelly . . . and me. That seems to be a consistent thread throughout my novels.
Maybe that’s because I was brought up by a dad who was an L.A. lawyer who often represented the poor accused of crimes. He had a passion for the Constitution and criminal justice. I guess I absorbed that.
So what about you? Is there some “inner ferret” that drives your writing? What equals three for you?
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13 thoughts on “One Plus One Equals Three

  1. Good question. I wrote down the various novel concepts I have in the hopper and jotted a few different themes but they all had one major connection:

    The Esther 4:14 principle—that “for such a time as this” people are called to do difficult things that often lead to a greater good. Instant story fodder—there is sacrifice and suffering, controversy and conflict. The darkest hours of a person’s life often contribute to a greater good.

  2. The “third thing” is precisely why Dean Koontz is my literary hero. He can write about the most depraved characters, the most horrific events, but each of his stories serves to lift up the reader by the last page. There is always a message of hope, no matter how grim things get.

    That’s what I hope to bring to my stories every time I sit down at the computer. I don’t want to leave the reader–or myself–down in the gutter.

    Great topic!

  3. Excellent post, Jim. The Boss certainly nailed it. I like to think of that third element as the “third rail”, the one that carries the power. Rails one and two are the characters and plot. But number three is the essence of the story.

    All my novels have a third rail. It doesn’t necessarily reveal itself right away during the writing process, but at some point it emerges from the page and syncs up with my subconscious to from the “theme”, the message, the third element.

    Once I fully grasp it, I search for a quote that sums up the theme and insert it into the beginning of the book prior to the first chapter. Many authors do this. Most times, the quote means nothing to the reader as they begin the journey. But when they’ve finished, if they go back and read the quote again, they’ll discover that the third rail was revealed right up front.

    I’ve used William Shakespeare (three times), the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, John Milton, and in my current WIP, a line from Genesis. I figure that those guys are pretty good so I’ll let them open the show.

  4. Characters dealing with various forms of post traumatic stress disorder, in various guises, seems to be a theme with me. My ferret must have been beat up as a kit.

  5. BK, I like that. It goes along with a trope I often use, the ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances…and coming out with that greater good at the end.

    Laura, I’m with you on Koontz. Thanks.

  6. Joe, anybody who quotes Anaxagoras is aces in my book. Good point, too, about theme “emerging” from the subconscious. I was just at Bouchercon and heard five top authors (including one of my faves, Reed Farrel Coleman) all say the same thing. They find it after they’ve written it.

  7. Kathryn, I would think the “beaten up ferret” is great fodder for deep fiction. Someone who really had that was Cornell Woolrich. His fiction came from that place, and later in life (he was a recluse) someone got him to open up a little and he said that “a search for a father is a search for God.” That’s a big clue to his fiction’s emotional impact.

  8. JSB – Very interesting. I hope and feel the thoughts and suggestions you laid out may act as fertilizer for creativity (a pre-emptive ‘no’ to any thinking of certain organic substances frequently used to promote growth).
    The driving theme in my work under revision is man’s role as caretaker and protector of those he or she loves. It feels to me that it is,for some,instinctive and selfless. It can give rise to true nobility.
    I appreciate your instruction – thanks.

  9. This is a really deep concept when you think about it, as you Jim obviously did…and everyone else here.

    I wonder how many of us think it out when we do the writing, or like Joe said discover it in the after.

    In my own work the theme always seems to be trying to forget the past and make something newer and better…and with less violence. My main characters are always around my age, coming out of one career with a lot of regrets as they try to start something more pleasant. But unable to let go of their violent addictions no matter how hard they try. They just can’t let someone else do the dirty work they themselves loathe.

    hrm….this is getting deeper as I type…time to go into my closet and think…

    ….maybe I need to see a shrink…

    Thanks Jim…you just set the tone for my next podcast show at
    “Basil’s Alaska Weekly News Review”
    This week’s title: Basil really Doesn’t Want to Kill You…But…

  10. So I opened the childhood memory box and, wham, out popped the ferret. So >that’s< what’s been chewing at the edges of my WIP.

    You should teach this stuff. Oh yeah…:)

  11. I guess for me it’s equality and justice. Being the parent of a child with a disability kind of makes this a given, but it’s also about women’s rights. Another big theme for me is identity – how it’s formed, the importance that a sense of identity plays in a person’s life…

  12. Great post, Jim. I went to see the Springsteen exhibit at the Constitution Center last spring here in Philadelphia and my greatest take-away was that he wrote out 50 pages of lyrics to come up with Born to Run. And that song still beckons with that elusive something that keeps me reaching towards its meaning. I think sometimes what words we write on the page don’t challenge us writers as much as evoking those ideas and emotions to which we have chosen not to directly apply words.

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