Do You Know What You Want to Say?

by James Scott Bell

“If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” – Samuel Goldwyn
Do you send a message in your fiction? Nothing wrong with that. You can’t read Atlas Shruggedor On The Road or To Kill A Mockingbird without picking up that the writers had something on their minds that drove them in the writing. And each of those books still sell tens of thousands of copies per year.
But good old Sam Goldwyn knew that if you get too didactic, the story suffers. You have to let the characters live and breathe and act like real people in response to the story elements. You don’t want to manipulate them so much that the reader thinks you’ve moved from storytelling to sermonizing.
Still, at the end of any book or story, an author will have left something for the reader to think about. It can’t be helped. That’s the nature of story.
Which bring us to Theme.  Theme (or as I call it, Meaning) is the “big idea.” It is what emerges once the central conflict is resolved. The famous writing teacher William Foster-Harris believed that all great stories could be explained in a “moral formula,” the struggle between sets of values:
Value 1 vs. Value 2 => Outcome.
You plug in your values thus:
            Love vs. Ambition => Love.
In other words, the value of love overcomes in the struggle against ambition. If one were writing a tragedy, the outcome would be the opposite, with ambition winning, but at the cost of lost love.
Writing teacher Lajos Egri posed a similar idea in The Art of Dramatic Writing. He called it the “Premise.” It is expressed in a moral formula as well, as in Justice overcomes deceit.
The question today, writer, is whether you are being intentional about your theme.
Not all writers know their theme when they start writing. They have characters and a plot idea, and they let the writing unfold as it will. They may not think about theme at all. They may simply write about characters involved in the struggle of the plot, knowing that struggle will eventually end. Most of the time that’s how I approach it in my own writing. But I do, at some point, identify what it is my emerging story is trying to say—because, of course, it’s really mein there somewhere.
But even writers who say they never think about theme end up saying something. It can’t be helped. All stories have meaning, whether the author is purposeful about it or not. Why? Because readers are wired for it. We are always looking for meaning, trying to make sense of the world. Indeed, one of the reasons we have storytellers is to help our fellow creatures through the mythical dark forest, otherwise known as life.
Perhaps, then, it would be wise to be a little more conscious of your theme. Whether you start out with one or find it along the way, try to identify the unifying message. Then you can go back in the revision process and weave symbols, metaphors and thematic dialogue into the tale.
It also helps to know your theme in case you get questions. I wrote a short story that stoked some controversy among a section of my reader base. I got a few emails, and one consternated face-to-face query, asking why I wrote such a disturbing and eerie tale.  
I responded that I was actually trying to write a profoundly moral tale. One that had a very clear meaning (to me, at least). I shaped the plot precisely to be disturbing (think Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents)  because the theme would not be as powerfully presented otherwise.
I would be very interested in seeing if you find the meaning I intended. That’s why I’ve made the story, “Autumnal,” free on Kindle today through Wednesday. I’d love it if you got it, read it, and told me via Twitter what you think the meaning is. Use #Autumnal for the discussion.
As for you, dear author, talk about this in the comments: Do you know what you want to say when you start a story? Are you a “theme-first” kind of writer? Or do you prefer to let the characters duke it out and leave it at that?

22 thoughts on “Do You Know What You Want to Say?

  1. Thanks for the look at Autumnal – I just downloaded it and I’ll check it out for my interpretation of theme.

    Lots of writers like to argue the theme topic. Ah, the spirited debate.

    I like to start my stories with a problem focused issue that bugs me, put my characters on the street, toss the problem at them, and see where they end up.

    • BK, it’s possible for a writer to have a great “What if?” idea and go to town with it, not knowing how it’s going to end, indeed, not caring till he gets there. Such a writer can decide to leave it to others to talk about what the theme might be. It’ll be there, but the writer in question is happy enough just dashing off an entertaining read.

  2. There was certainly no theme in my mind when I started my present WIP. It’s a murder mystery and the only idea was to present a trail of clues and present the killer at the end.

    But…it’s there. I took a look for it after re-reading, for the upteenth time, “On Writing” by S. King. I didn’t intend to work in a theme, but it slapped me in the face when I looked for it.

  3. I have to have a theme or my story doesn’t fly. Usually it’s my MC’s inner journey. Whatever they’re out to get, good or bad, drives the story, and without it the story has no legs.

  4. I don’t think I really understand the theme until I’ve finished the first draft, re-read it and go, “Oh! THAT’S what the story is about!” Then I can work on polishing the revision to make that play better. It’s as if I’ve got a story I want to write, but my brain is keeping secrets from me and I don’t really *get it* until I’m at the end. Does that sound crazy? Do I need an agent, or a shrink?

  5. Theme/meaning. I liked your phrase, …”identify the unifying message.”

    To me, theme/meaning is what holds the entire work together, what makes it resonate, what gives the satisfying feeling to the reader at the end when she thinks, “Yes, I get it. Now the whole story makes sense.”

    Is it possible that theme/meaning can affect how well the story is remembered?

    Like all creative endeavors, the artist can choose how much intention she has for the finished result, before she starts. Plot vs No plot. And theme (before writing) vs see what emerges. I know woodturners who throw a piece of wood on the lathe and start turning to discover “what’s in there.”

    Being a control freak (and a plotter), I like to have as detailed a blue print as possible, before I start, including the effect the finished piece will have on the “consumer” for whom it is created.

    • It would be interesting sometime to see how theme is approached by plotters v. pantsers. It seems pretty obvious that the former would be more intentional about it.

    • I find that I’m continually plotting and pantsing along. It’s the way I design gardens and structures, too. I’m always getting (and looking for) feedback from the “piece” and from the boys in the woodshop.

    • Theme for plotters vs. pantsers — I’m more of a pantser and theme is a guiding light for me through the whole process.

      However, I see “theme” as intimately interconnected with the emotional / mental experience of the reader. What do I want them to experience? What internal journey do I want them to take as they follow my protagonist along?

      To me, whether you’re plotting (planning everything in advance) or pantsing (constantly asking yourself ‘what comes next?’), if you’re someone for whom theme is important (consciously or unconsciously), theme drives your choices when choosing what happens.

  6. No plotter here. And, no theme in mind at the start. It’s all a voyage of discovery during the first draft. Another interesting post. Thank you.

  7. I’m kind of a hybrid plotter/pantser and the theme typically presents itself during the big picture outline.

    Although I find that most of my tales revolve around loyalty – what you will do for that loyalty and what happens when that loyalty is breached. That, and the idea that at the end of the day it is about family. Whether the one you were born to or the one you choose.

    Can’t wait to read the short story, thanks as always.


    • That’s cool, Terri. I’ve noticed that a lot of my stories have similar themes. I didn’t try to make that happen, I suspect that there are just certain things that fascinate me about life, and I’m always noodling through them in various scenarios. Nice to know I’m not the only one.

  8. I don’t deliberately have any themes in my work but inevitably they creep in (or out). When I outline (and I’m a plotter not a pantser) I focus solely on plot and character but once I’m about half way through writing a first draft a theme certainly starts to emerge – but it’s not conscious.

  9. I almost always have a theme in mind when I write a short story. For instance, my story “A Short Riff on Dying” (Shameless plug: in the current issue of Needle Magazine), the theme is clearing making amends.
    With my novel, not so much. I started with a controversial premise – a newly hired female sheriff with a male sounding name is often confused as being male until people met her.. But women can do what men can do, isn’t the theme.

    One of your fellow TKZers once responded with I’m not trying for the big message but to entertain. I’ve taken that to heart. If a theme becomes evident, then great.

  10. I’m finding that theme is present at the beginning in seed form or more open. My initial writing becomes a search to discover and learn about it. I think of that as doing Recon. Then I stir up the entire batch again, and attempt to make it palatable and entertaining for the reader.

    As always, your words of wisdom linger: “It also helps to know your theme in case you get questions.”

  11. I think of theme as being like the decoration on the cake –it’s part and parcel of the story, and it can add depth or resonance to the other elements of the story.but it shouldn’t hit you over the head with its Message.

  12. Yup! The frosting on the cake. Certainly. And not just any old frosting will do, either. It’s that sweet spot at the end–the zinger, where everything comes together–that makes it all good.

  13. This is going to sound hard to believe, but
    after months without a blog post of my own, I get busy and start writing meaningful stuff again and after a long Saturday & Sunday I finally finish my blog post around midnight on Sunday and post it live for Monday readers to wake up to and then I go to TKZ to see what I missed and … BLAMO! Sir James Bell mind-melded with me whilst I was out of my head and stole the topic of my own blog post for this week. 😀

    I’d say the whole “Great minds think alike.” thing but 1. I don’t believe that (think about it, if all great minds thought alike we’d never have gotten past toaster struedel in the technological advances of the last century…because really, what else does man kind need?) and 2. If Jim and I were put alone in a padded cell and forced into a think off I’d be tapping out in seconds, cuz if all you can do is fight against the Bell, you’ve already lost.

    Actually my blog post “Currents of Meaning: Why do you write what you write?” while using the word “Theme” several times does take a very different aspect of the topic. Below is a tidbit. Once you’re done here please do hop the fence for a few minutes and read on and let me know what you think about Theme from a different perspective.

    If my understanding of ‘theme’ is anywhere close to what the final verdict of its definition will be then I believe there is an overarching theme in everything we do. It is the the thread of purpose given to us by our own world view and to which we hold on as we run through this world, weaving the web that forms this place we call ‘our mortal life’.

    To borrow parts of a few other people’s thoughts, I think the theme is there in everyone’s book, for that matter in everyone’s life, just waiting to be discovered. It lies inside the grain of the story whether it is being carved out of a page or out of living flesh. That theme is the purpose for which we live and do anything. It will only show up as the craftsman lifts it from the less meaningful bits that have kept it hidden like seed that will grow to be a beautiful flower, yet in spring remains hidden beneath layers of manure.

    My writing has layers of themes that, like really good philo dough that gets stuck to the other layers with plenty of honey and nuts and ends up as a mouth-watering flaky, crunchy chewy baklava in the reader’s mouth.

    Mmmm…mmmmm…mmmm…that’s gooooood! Kill another bad guy for me, and hand me that star shaped baklava with the extra almonds on it….oh yeah baby….layerzzzzz!

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