What the Hell Do You Want to Say to Me?

You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation. – Leon Uris
This week I’ll be leaving for Houston to teach alongside the mythic structure guru, Christopher Vogler, and the breakout novel sage, Donald Maass. Three intensive days with a room full of writers, talking about what we all love–the craft of fiction.
So it seems apt for this post to riff on a question that Mr. Maass poses at the end of his book, The Fire in Fiction.Maass wants to know what you have invested in your story, where the blood flow is. He asks, “What the hell do you want to say to me?”
Which brings us to the subject of theme, or premise. It’s the part of the writing craft a lot of writers seem to struggle with.
I’ve been reading some resources of late on the subject. Some suggest that you must know your theme up front, or your manuscript will wander. Yet many successful authors say they concentrate on the story itself and “find” the theme as they go along.
Either approach will work as long as you let the theme arise organically out of a plot that shows a character with a high stakes objective, opposed by a stronger force.
For example, in the film The Fugitive you have an innocent man on the run from the law, trying to find the man who murdered his wife. He’s got an opposing force in the U.S. Marshal’s office (embodied by Sam Gerard, super lawman). Forced to keep ahead of the law, Dr. Richard Kimble finds resources within himself he never knew existed, and eventually proves his innocence while nailing the bad guy.

So what is the theme, or premise, of The Fugitive? You could state it in several ways:
– Dogged determination leads to justice
– A good man will ultimately prevail over evil
– Fighting for what’s right, even against the law, leads to the truth
As a writer, you probably have a sense of what your theme is simply by knowing how your character will come out at the end. And you definitely should know at least that much.
For example, when I wrote Try Dying I knew my lawyer protagonist would find out who killed his fiancé, the one true love of his life, and in doing so prevail over the bad guys. In my head, then, I was thinking something along the lines of True love will pursue justice for the slain lover, and win.
That’s what the hell I was trying to say. And I believed it passionately, which is the key to a premise that works. The reader has to believe you believe it.
At some point in your writing –– before you begin or soon after you get going –– ask the following questions:
1.  At the end, what is the condition of your Lead character? Has he won or lost?
2. What is the “take away” from that condition? What will the reader think you are saying about life?
3. Most important: Do you believe it passionately?If not, why are you writing it?
Here’s an example. In Casablanca, what is Rick’s condition at the end of the movie? He has found a reason to stop his self destructive behavior (drunkenness) and his isolation (because of perceived betrayal). He’s found the inspiration he needs to go back into the world and rejoin the fight for freedom against the Nazis.
What’s the take away? True love will sacrifice for a greater good, and restore a person to a life worth living.

Rick sacrifices his true love, Ilsa, because she is married to another man and that man is essential to the war effort. Rick knows that if he and Ilsa go off together she’ll regret it (“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”)
Coming as it did during the early years of World War II, it’s clear the filmmakers believed this passionately, because that sort of sacrifice for a greater good is what the government was calling upon its citizens to do.
So use those three power questions to find a premise worth writing about.
How about you? Do you consciously identify the themes in your stories? Do you discover them as you go along? Or do you just let it happen as the characters determine?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in detail, as I am currently working on a chapter on theme for a new collection. Let’s have a conversation. 

21 thoughts on “What the Hell Do You Want to Say to Me?

  1. I can’t imagine not knowing my theme before I start writing. Oh, maybe I can’t articulate it perfectly in just a few short words, but I definitely have to know my theme before I write–otherwise how on earth will it be anything other then just a bunch of sentences strung together?

    My primary reason for writing is to use fictional characters to examine life issues that bug me. That demands theme.

  2. In my novel Careful What You Wish For…(currently unpublished) I knew the theme organically:

    Good will triumph over evil and justice will be served.

    That’s what the hell I wanted to say, and Thank You, Mr. Maass for asking the question and asking me, the writer, to show that through character and story.

    I knew that theme organically, and watching what Evie, Nick, and all the other characters go through to reflect that theme, is still amazing to me.

    I didn’t outline the story, but I did write the last page almost immediately.

    That act, I believe, solidified the theme because I had somewhere to go.

  3. I had a really hard time with theme when I addressed the issue during my revision (in final draft). As far as I could tell, I didn’t have one at all — and no, I wasn’t having trouble spotting it. It actually was not there.

    I went off and did massive amounts of research on the topic. Most of the research turned up the same vagueness, and I couldn’t figure out what the heck theme was. Then I turned up something in the Gotham Writer’s Handbook that said that theme didn’t need to be resolved. For some reason, that made theme click for me.

    The reason I didn’t have one in the story was that I had started with “the action” or “something happening” and had started the story too late. So late that it kept theme from coming into the story at all!

    The theme evolved into the story on its own once I figured out where the story started:

    Sometimes lies are better than the truth, even if the truth is the right thing to do.

  4. Jim, You raise an excellent point, and one that’s not often in the forefront of a writer’s mind when he/she starts a story. They may know the hook, may have populated the work with memorable characters, may know how it all comes out, but a theme ties it together.

    At a writer’s conference, I heard a well-known author say that she starts with a one-word theme. Rather than a full sentence, I now start out with just a word–deliverance, vindication, renewal–and it helps.

  5. For the most part, I do not consciously go in with a theme- I am working on characters and story, and staying true to them as we go on the adventure. I think more about theme when I go into revisions and have a feel for my overall story. At that point I can tighten or polish it up a bit.

  6. Linda, a good point. I don’t think one has to start the story “earlier” to get at this, but it is essential to know about the character’s backstory before you begin, and by that I mean his or her emotional condition right before the opening disturbance (and what created it). That’s a powerful way to get the thematic context clear.

    And even if it’s only one word, as in Dr. Mabry’s formulation, your writer’s mind will see to it that the right connections are made.

  7. Interesting post, Jim. I find that in my young adult books that I’m more aware of theme, because I think about that message beforehand when I create the characters.

    For example, in IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS, I knew that the ugliness of racial bigotry would be a part of the story because it was a key life experience I had to face when I was in elementary school. Being part Hispanic in a bigoted world made it hard to want to claim my heritage, until I stood up for another Hispanic student in the school yard & finally faced who I really was. It made me proud & it was a turning point for who I would become. So when I wrote that book, I picked a half-breed Native American boy & a white girl as his only friend to be central characters.

    But in the end, my YA stories always have “theme layers” that arise organically as I “discover” the depth of my characters. And rather than hit the reader over the head with one theme, I think if an author truly explores all the main character’s motivations, he/she will find underlying layers that are revealed & connected because life is complicated. You have to peel back the layers of people’s motivations to see why this cast of characters was picked for the story.

    So my YA story had its bigotry angle, but it also had other themes that became evident as I wrote it–like the need to belong, trusting others so you don’t have to go through bad stuff alone, friendship & loyalty matter, trust your heart & your gut, & don’t be afraid to stand up for what’s right, etc. And as a writer, I find that in showing or revealing these underlying themes, it’s important to show them in a repeated fashion in different ways so the reader discovers them too.

  8. Forgot to say that in showing a theme you can also reflect that theme in other characters by showing the opposite side. In the case of my half breed Native American boy, the bigoted Sheriff put him in jail, robbing him of his freedom, but that Sheriff was more imprisoned by his own beliefs & biases than that kid. He had to face that when he realized how wrong he’d been about the boy & how blind-sided he had been by his own family who’d lied to him. So themes can be reflected in more than one character & in different ways.

    Hope that makes sense. Went to a Halloween party last night. Late night.

  9. I absolutely do consider theme in my novels. I try to use secondary characters to reflect different facets of the theme. As the main character is struggling with an issue, secondary characters will reflect variations on the same issue. I call that a “360 degree treatment” of the theme.

  10. My theme usually arises out of my story. I find that if I start with a theme, it tends to flatten my writing and make everything more heavy-handed. Instead, I start with the characters and plot, and the combination of the two usually gives me a theme somewhere between figuring out my HWYS moment and finishing the first draft. (My first drafts are pretty messy – I draft quickly and revise extensively.) Then I use the theme to guide me through the revisions.

  11. Jennie, I tend to do it that way, too. If I have a character facing high stakes and an opposing force, and I know that I want him to “win,” that’s enough to get my story going and on track. I add thematic layers as I go along.

  12. Theme is my starting point. The characters and plot spring from it. But I don’t write about the theme. I use it as the motivation for my characters and the unifying force for the plot. It all comes down to show-don’t-tell, doesn’t it? If you tell the theme, you have a treatise, not a novel. But if you show the theme, then you can use it as guide without being didactic.

    For instance, in my recently completed manuscript, the theme is two-fold: (1) The key to a lasting marriage is to marry the right person in the first place; and (2) you don’t find the right person until you become the right person. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist isn’t the right person. She’s trying to fix everyone else’s life and not dealing with her own issues. Through the course of the novel, she becomes the right person and finds lasting love.

    On the other hand, I don’t think fiction writers should be concerned if they don’t know what the theme is when they begin a novel. In my experience, the unconscious mind knows what it’s doing, even if the conscious mind doesn’t.

  13. I don’t always start with a theme, but I attempt to get it worked out as soon as possible. I see theme as something we want to persuade the reader of. The story itself is our attempt to lay all of the pros and cons before the reader and thereby show that what we are saying is correct. If we pay attention to theme, there will be a natural play between scenes that seem to support our position and scenes that appear to oppose it. But by the end we will be able to make the argument that even with those things that appear to be against our idea, our idea is sound. If we ignore theme, then we risk having a hodge-podge of scenes that don’t really do much to support each other.

  14. Vividly, I remember a class in college where the instructor asked, “What did the author intend to say?”

    I responded, “I have no idea what the author intended, but I know what it said to me.”

    For my current project, I designed the entire story using the idea Learning to love leads one from self-centered denial to taking extraordinary risks to save those who one has learned to love.

    When I finish telling the story, I will read it, and decide what I think it actually says, what it truly means, and then I will come to understand how it will change the world.

  15. And let’s not forget that “theme” without a gripping story is worthless, no matter how passionately one believes it.

    Here’s a fun one: how would you describe the “theme” of any Jack Reacher book? The words “kick” and “butt” must be included.

  16. Thank you! I’ve been struggling with the concept of theme/premise and its relationship to the rest of my WIP for a while now. The best information I found – read that as what works for me – came from StoryCharts.ca

    I recommend it and it goes right along with this post albeit deeper. It’s structural but not formulaic.

  17. There’s one part of my understanding that was missing and it’s true in both the movies Jim referenced. What is the true motivation of a man and woman? I think knowing this is essential to knowing why these movies and Jim’s book are so effective.

    My wife and I attended a Love and Respect marriage retreat this past weekend and it was wonderful! There isn’t enough space to explain what I learned in this comment (and plenty of opportunities for readers to misunderstand if I tried) but I now see through new eyes. I highly recommend it for personal reasons but also because I write. I will never write the old way again.

  18. Maybe it’s because of my past as a youth minister, but all of my books and short stories contain a vivid and consistent theme that I would have a very hard time varying from.

    Good guy falls into situation he neither expected nor desires and is forced to make decisions to save life or kill both at the risk of his own life and future. He/she must decide to do what is right/just but any movement either direction may require excessive sacrifice.

    Try as I might, I find myself unable to write without putting meaning into the stories I pen. Can’t do meaningless dribble.

  19. Excellent thought-provoking topic. I don’t really know my theme going into a story. It evolves along the way but usually has to do with the life lesson the hero learns by the end.

  20. I think to some extent I figure out the specific themes of my books as I write them. I may start out knowing one thing I want to say, but in the writing process more things emerge, and the original thing may morph or even disappear. However, I think it’s the presence of a strong theme buried within the story idea that makes it grab me in the first place. I could never get passionate about a story that had nothing particular to say.

    I recently heard Shelley Bates/Adina talk about finding your “core story,” the one overarching theme you keep coming back to in all your books. I figured out that my core story is “becoming/embracing your true self.” I can see this larger theme at the bottom of all my stories, even though the specific themes vary from book to book.

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