The Basic Formula of Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Many writers are not content merely to write a good story. They want to “say something.” This is not a bad impulse. We are awash in a culture of the trivial, the trite, and the downright stupid. It is part of the writer’s calling to stand against all that.

I can’t recall who it was, but one novelist said, “A writer should have something on his mind.”

That something is the theme, or meaning, of a story. It is the moral message that comes through at the end. The noted writing teacher William Foster-Harris believed that all worthy stories can be explained as an exercise in “moral arithmetic.” In The Basic Formulas of Fiction he expressed it thus:

            Value 1 vs. Value 2 = Outcome

For example, 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 out at the cost of love.

This is true even if you write without a fleeting thought about theme. Your story will have one, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Each story has only one primary theme, which can also be stated as “Value X leads to Outcome Y.” James N. Frey says in How to Write a Damn Good Novel: “In fiction, the premise [or theme] is the conclusion of a fictive argument. You cannot prove two different premises in a nonfiction argument; the same is true for a fictive argument. Say the character ends up dead. How did it happen? He ended up dead because he tried to rob the bank. He tried to rob the bank because he needed money. He needed money because he wanted to elope. He wanted to elope because he was madly in love. Therefore, his being madly in love is what got him killed.”

So, “mad love leads to death” is the theme.

It is crucial, however, to realize that theme is played out through the characters in the story. In high school my son was tasked with a book report. He read (at my suggestion) Shane, the classic Western by Jack Schaeffer. One of the questions on his report sheet was to state the theme. He asked me for help, because he had never thought about books this deeply before.

With a little prodding, he was able to see that the homesteaders represented civilization, while the ranchers who hire gunmen represent brutality and lawlessness. Shane, of course, is the enigmatic figure who helps this moral equation become: “Civilization (a community of shared values) can overcome the forces of lawlessness.”

Look to the characters and what they are fighting for, and you will find the theme of your story.

But there is a common problem writers face when they have “something on their minds.” And that is simply that they often begin with a theme and try to force a story into it. This can result in a host of issues, among them:

  • Cardboard, one-dimensional characters
  • A preachy tone
  • Lack of subtlety
  • Story clichés

The way to avoid these is to remember: Characters in competition come before theme.


Develop your characters first—your hero, your villain, your supporting cast—and set them in a story world where their values, aims, and agendas will be in conflict. Create scenes where the struggles is vivid on the page.

Yes, you can have a theme in mind, but make it as wispy as a butterfly wing, and subject to change without notice. If you write truly about the characters, following the wants, needs, and desires, you’ll begin see the theme of your story emerge. At first it may be like the faint glow of a miner’s lamp deep in a dark cave. You may not have full illumination until the end, but it will be there.

So give your characters full, complex humanity, and then a passionate commitment to their own set of values. Even the villain. No, especially the villain. All villains (or antagonists) think they are right, and they are the drivers of the plot.

Sometimes, the theme may surprise you. That’s when writing becomes a wondrous act of self-revelation. Your story is revealing who you are and what you really care about.

Do you think about theme when you write? Or after you write? Or at any time? Have you ever been surprised at yourself when you finish a story and find a meaning you hadn’t anticipated?

35 thoughts on “The Basic Formula of Fiction

  1. Excellent topic, JSB.
    ❖ Do you think about theme when you write? Or after you write? Or at any time?
    ❦ My screenwriting instructor at Harbor College defines theme like this:
    Theme is a single statement or question about the human condition, looked at in the work from all angles.
    I don’t recall sitting down intent upon developing a theme. A theme will appear, as JSB states. Here are some of mine:
    Even the worst of us can find salvation.
    Self-will requires boundaries.
    Loss of a parent creates problematic behavior that requires healing.
    An arbitrary world evokes desperate measures to achieve justice.
    Gender differences are not fair.
    Hitler’s hatred was due to projection of his own incestuous genetics on others.

    ❖ Have you ever been surprised at yourself when you finish a story and find a meaning you hadn’t anticipated?
    ❦ There are always surprises. Sometimes a second theme appears. Scott Myers believes in multiple themes in film. I think each additional theme weakens the effectiveness of the previous theme(s).

    • I agree with you, J. One major theme. Sure, it’s possible to take secondary characters and subplots and find a thematic thread in them, but if done right those threads flow from or into the primary theme.

  2. I don’t tend to think about theme when I plot or write except in the most generic sense. Even when I plot a story, the journey with writing the characters usually doesn’t go exactly according to the plan that was first in my head, so theme might go in a different direction than I thought, or perhaps another theme might become a more emphasized theme than the one I thought it would be.

    • Yes, I suspect it’s that way for most writers, even those with a theme in mind. The characters struggle can, and usually should, result in some surprises and changes of path, if not outright direction.

  3. I suppose I could go back and re-read my books for theme, but then it would feel like that book report assignment your son had. Good vs. Evil for my mysteries, perhaps, and Love Conquers All for my romantic suspense, although they’ve also got a Good vs. Evil thing going one. Sometimes a reader review touches on a theme, but otherwise, I’m working with the characters and their conflicts and obstacles as I write.

    • Character and conflict, as I noted, are the primary considerations. But someday some high school student is going to do a Terry Odell book report and surprise you at what she finds!

  4. I do think about theme, starting with the plotting process and the mirror moment. I try to link the theme with the MC’s flaw and character arc. But I can imagine the process is different for pantsers and plantsers.

    • Thanks for mentioning the mirror moment, Vera. For me it’s the primary thematic indicator for every book, and I get to it as soon as I can. It’s subject to change without notice, but usually it’s solid and holds the through-line of the story together. Whether you plot or pants, finding the mirror moment is a key part of the process.

      • Since the topic of mirror moment (MM) has been raised in conjunction with theme, I’ll share an odd quirk I had recently in addressing this point. In my current wip, I had the original MM in early Act 2 (as you and other writing coaches advocate.) But it also resolved a primary hook I wanted to appear later.

        I moved this scene out of chronological order to a point near the end as a flashback. Fits great there. Oops, now my MM comes too late to have the emotional shift component needed near the middle.

        Solution was to find another scene that had potential as a MM and amplify it to meet that need. Result is, I think it brought out theme in a more subtle fashion.

        • Good story sense, Lars. It’s true that when the MM comes too early or too late everything feels “off.” That’s the power of it. Make a few adjustments, like a good mechanic working on a Rolls, and things will run more smoothly.

  5. I love formulas. Thanks for a great discussion of theme.

    I do think about theme while I’m writing. I write MG-YA fantasy, and the fantasy world is usually based on a biological organ system, which lends itself to theme, fantasy characters, and conflict.

    With several of my books I reached the end of the story and discovered a secondary theme that had pushed itself to the top, as the primary theme. All the better. More for future readers to discover.

  6. Theme emerges as I write and is a surprise to me when I begin to notice it. Thanks to Prof. Bell’s Great Courses classes, I am better able to notice such things and pull them a little more out of the shadows. Hopefully enhancing the readers emotional experience as you and Donald Maass advocate. I can’t help but wonder if you two are friends since you both seem to hold each other in high regard.

  7. Great topic, JSB. One of the things I like the best about your fiction is that the characters reveal, very subtlety, what’s on the author’s mind. And most of the time when they do, I’m snorting coffee at the humor you inject.

    With my first two novels, one published, one in the wings, my characters let me know what the heck the theme was, and they took their sweet time about it.

    Both novels started with the “what if” question, and then we all zoomed down the rabbit hole of theme. With No Tomorrows, it was the MM at about the halfway point, that gave me the ending. Before I saw that moment, I didn’t know how the story would end.

    For my third novel, barely off the starting block, it’s different. I’ve already written the ending, I know the theme, now I just need to figure out how to get there. Hmm, maybe I should ask the MC… 🙂

    Happy Sunday!

    • Ha, Deb! That’s actually a good idea. I like doing a voice journal for my main characters, a free-form document of them talking to me. It’s one way to dig deep into what they really believe and want. Cheers!

  8. Jim, what a terrific analysis of theme. I love the step-by-step backtracking in your example of the bank robber who winds up dead b/c of mad love. It’s the reverse of cause and effect.

    At the beginning of my books, I have a vague notion of theme–“the faint glow of a miner’s lamp deep in a dark cave.” But mostly the way the characters react to problems reveals the theme.

    At several book clubs, readers have pointed out additional themes I wasn’t conscious of when writing. Wow, do they make me sound smarter than I am!

    I don’t care for “message books” where the author is preaching to readers.

    Outstanding post, Jim!

    • Thanks, Debbie. I think it’s always fascinating when people come up with themes the writer was not aware of. It’s not illegitimate, however. Once a book is out there it’s up for anyone’s analysis. Unless that analysis is patently absurd, as you will often find in college classrooms these days.

    • To me that’s the highest compliment an author could receive–for readers to pick out themes you hadn’t thought about. That shows the story pulled the reader in so much they were truly thinking about it. That’s totally awesome.

      • OTOH, some authors might be insulted that some reviewer, professor, or journalist had the hubris to propose a theme that the writer finds ridiculous. I sometimes wonder if Salinger’s reclusiveness was due, in part, to the putative theme of youthful rejection of adult values that so many thought they saw in Catcher. (Holden rejects the adult world because Allie is not part of it. Allie is Holden’s younger brother, whose death resulted in extreme grief, obviously the true theme of the book. Last I checked, Cliff’s Notes didn’t even include the word grief.

  9. Fantastic look at theme, Jim. I’m still waking up after being out too late trying to view the Perseid meteor shower last night in less than optimal seeing conditions, and this post is a great challenge for my still sleepy brain to chew on 🙂

    I spent a lot of time years ago when I was in a private fiction writing class using Frey’s premise model. I was never able to design a story from premise, not consciously, instead, as you advise, the key to me was to focus on my characters first, their desires and the conflicts arising out of them. Like Debbie, it’s the way my characters react to a problem that reveals the theme.

    Recurring themes for me are the importance of found family and how connecting with others can help both you and them. Both of which, come to think of it, work well in cozy mystery where others will help the sleuth at. times, and also be that “order” which the heroine wants to restore.

    • I’m right there with you, Dale. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the “tyranny of the premise.” Just never worked for me. The other methods we’ve talked about today work much better.

  10. “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Or a similar quote about thematic story telling attributed to a bunch of famous people during the Golden Days of Hollywood.

    Two writing books I recommend are Ben Bova’s THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS even if you don’t write science fiction and Lajos Egri’s THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING which is about playwriting. Both use a something vs something concept to build a story.

    For Bova, it’s the inner and outer struggle of the main character, and this is reflected in the outer struggle of the story. The protagonist should have a complex set of emotional problems where two opposing feelings are struggling with each other–Emotion A vs. Emotion B. (guilt vs. duty, pride vs. obedience, fear vs. responsibility, etc.)

    This conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.

    He connects character and plot in a way that makes a great deal of sense, and I’ve used his story development tools for many years.

    Egri’s method of developing a story is really too complicated to explain here. His ability to take characters apart is quite interesting, too. His methods are much more useful for an experienced writer, if for nothing more than a chance to really think about our own process.

  11. Great description of theme, Jim. Before I read your article, I would have said the themes of my mystery novels are always that truth and justice win in the end. But after I read your post, I realized that was too broad. Now I see it’s my characters who come up with the theme of a book.

    In Dead Man’s Watch, the main character commits herself to try to find a killer because of a saying from the Talmud. “Saving one life is like saving the whole world.”

    In my WIP, the main character realizes, “Truth may be bitter, but with all its bitterness, it’s better than illusion.”

    Do those sound like valid themes?

  12. Do you think about theme when you write?

    Superb post, Jim.

    The same overarching theme pulses through the last four books of my Mayhem Series (all beings are links in the same chain of life; one break and the others will collapse. If they all break, we die), but it simmers in the background. Readers often cite theme variations that I hadn’t even considered. It’s amazing how everyone has a different takeaway, and some are really deep and emotional. Though my antiheroes are killing poachers and animal traffickers, theme remains secondary to the plot. It must or it’d come across as preachy. Knowing your theme can help with marketing, too. For example, a trophy hunter would hate my books. LOL

  13. This is the best explanation of theme I’ve read. Thank you!
    I’ve had readers bring up different themes but I rarely think about theme other than good vs evil while I’m writing. Like others have said, my characters drive the story.

  14. Great teaching, JSB. Now I am going to have to read Shane and apply this. It’s just the kind of insight I need about now. I’m working on a story about two brothers-one a sheriff and the other a career criminal-and the prospects for reconciliation and this hits the spot. Theme is what will make it tick.

Comments are closed.