What is Your Novel About?
I was talking to a friend who runs a successful Hollywood literary agency. She represents screenwriters. Before she opened her doors, she said, she spent a year doing nothing but reading scripts, searching for promising young writers. She read well over 500 screenplays.
“How many,” she asked me, “do you think were worth representing?”
Before I could reply, she answered.
I believe her.
I’ve read a boatload of screenplays and novel manuscripts myself. Many have interesting, even brilliant premises. Fascinating characters abound; there’s lots of clever dialogue, surprising plot twists, mind-blowing set-pieces. And a lot of what I (and my agent friend) have read is really good writing.
But almost none of it works.
“The scripts,” my friend said, “were almost never about anything.”
She was talking about theme.
This is a subject I’ve become rabid about. I’m not even sure why. For years I myself wrote without the slightest clue of what theme was. I couldn’t have defined it if you had hung me by my thumbs over a seething volcano. I had no idea that it was important. I didn’t even know what it was.
I was just like all those failing writers. In fact I was failing myself.
Robert McKee tells the following story (forgive me; I’ve cited it before).
As a young writer-director he got the chance to interview the great playwright and screenwriter Paddy (“Network,” “Marty” “The Hospital”) Chayefsky, the only three-time solo Oscar winner for Best Screenplay.
As soon as I figure out what the theme of my play is [said Chayefsky], I type it in a single line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t 100% on-theme.
For me, that quote was a life-changer. The light bulb went off. I finally got it.
I’m going to take the next few weeks on this blog and address nothing but theme.
Maybe you’ll hate this subject. Maybe I’ll bore you to death. Maybe you’ll say to yourself, “I dunno why this dude keeps going off on this. It’s all so obvious.”
Clearly it isn’t obvious, or my literary agent friend wouldn’t have read five hundred scripts and come up with zero that she cared to represent.
What is “theme?”
Why is it so important?
How can five hundred writers bang out scripts—scripts that in many other respects are excellent, or at least interesting—that are about nothing?
Let’s start with a corollary to that question.
“What happens when a script is about nothing? (And I don’t mean like Seinfeld, which is decidedly not about nothing.) What does a novel with no theme feel like?”
It feels empty.
It feels hollow.
When you set it down, your expression is a blank stare. You feel like you’ve just consumed a meal that provided zero nutrition. You wonder, “Why did the writer even write this at all?”
Here’s a related concept that also helped me tremendously when I began to grasp it:
Every major character must represent something that is greater than himself or herself.
Jay Gatsby represents something.
Daisy Buchanan represents something.
The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represents something.
Atticus Finch represents something.
Don Corleone represents something.
Huckleberry Finn represents something.
The 500 protagonists in my literary agent friend’s screenplays represented (I’m guessing) nothing but themselves. X was X. X did not stand for Y or Z. That’s why the scripts felt so hollow. That why they left the reader feeling starved and cheated.
Here’s a third related principle:
The protagonist represents the theme.
Am I boring you yet? If this is tedious to you, if you feel your eyes glazing over as they might in some soporific graduate seminar, may I suggest that you release all hope or ambition of succeeding (or even having fun) as a writer.
This stuff is seminal.
You have to know it.
Forgive me for ranting. Like I said, this subject makes me insane.
Back to characters, back to theme.
A story, any story, has to be about something. It must have a theme.
The hero of the story represents the theme.
The villain represents the counter-theme.
In the climax, hero and villain clash to the death (at least figurative death) on-theme.
In the next few weeks we’ll get into this subject in excruciating detail. But let me sign off this post with a single thought.
It is very, very hard to figure out your theme.
It’s back-breaking, brain-busting labor.
Resistance becomes monumental.
Even Paddy Chayefsky had to struggle. (Note how he says, “Once I figure out the theme … ” Meaning he did not know it at the start. He was operating on instinct.)
Theme is hard work.
But you and I have to do it. There’s no getting around it—unless we want to be one of those five hundred in our literary agent’s reject pile.
[P.S. Thanks to Juan Taylor, who suggested this subject and urged that I try a few posts addressing it.]
These deep dives are superb. Understanding and using theme more effectively is something I’ve thought much about of late, so I’m stoked to see you covering it.
Yes, yes, and a hundred times yes. This subject is so critical, and yet is definitely one a I struggle with. I can give you plenty of information about the movements and moments of my WiP (thanks in large part to Shawn’s work), but if you ask me to name the theme I can only gesture vaguely in a direction. It feels like trying to specifically describe the way my blood is moving in my veins right now. It’s moving, I can feel it, but you know…don’t ask me how, exactly. Really looking forward to this series.
I feel like if I could get my head around this one,it would be revolutionary to my little life. An easier concept for me is the theme of a painting. A pretty painting hanging in the dentist office will have colours that skillfully play off one another to please the eye. A masterpiece in the Louvre will be about something. Something that captures the viewer and draws them to try to understand what they are seeing. You don’t find people staring at the dentist’s painting for 20 minutes.
For me, this was the best part:
I have NEVER thought of characters representing theme. They carry a lot of other purposes in the story, but (until now) never the theme. (I thought the story did that.)
Fascinating. World rocked.
Steven, we are not bored. I feel like you are walking us through an abandoned property…one that was once full of promise, rich with personal history. Forgotten. By the old well we uncover a tin box, rusty with the image of a woman spinning a parasol. It has weight, our limbs shake as we struggle to snap the lid open…it’s contents – theme.
Steven, I am ready for a few weeks of theme. If you see Juan Taylor, tell him a fellow writer says, “Thank you.”
You are most welcome. I fully expect Mr. Pressfield’s series of articles on theme to put us ahead of those 500 screenplays and novels so all the thanks should go to him.
Yes, yes, and yes again! I’m so glad you’re doing this; it’s the thing I struggle with most with my WIP, and I’ll bet most writers would agree. Eager to read the next posts about this.
I was warned once in a writing class to avoid thinking about theme because focusing on it makes your writing preachy. I’ve read a lot of preachy stuff that I don’t like. On the other hand, I like Paddy Chayefsky and yourself, Steven. I hope you will be able to shed some light on keeping to a theme without creating something that sounds like disguised propaganda.
Theme is very important to me and I appreciate this and future posts on it.
Perfect article for today’s writing session. I’m getting into the meat of my third story in my Mars Journey series and I think it will be a useful practice to add a “Theme/What does this character represent” line item to my character review sheets just to keep that in mind so it doesn’t get lost as I crank out the action. Looking forward to the next entry in this series. Thanks!
I once heard that Jerry Seinfeld described his successful sitcom as, “a show about nothing.” Nothing can be funny. And it can be superficially interesting, at least briefly. But only meaning endures. I’ll bet this post will help many of us hit critical mass today, Steven. We’ll choose meaning/theme/substance over nothing, even though it means we have to take a stand and offend somebody. Having a theme means we eliminate some people. Big deal. They weren’t our people anyway. I never watched Seinfeld on purpose!
“Being about nothing” was the theme of Seinfeld. The show endured.
(Seinfeld wasn’t really about nothing.)
Thanks so much for this – “consuming a meal that provided zero nutrition” was a light bulb for me. I’m saving a seat in the front row for this series on theme.
Yes yes yes write about theme. Tell us, or me, some possible themes. This helps me with direction. Thanks.
Yes, specific examples would be great.
Mr. Pressfield first shared this with me nearly 20 years ago. Of all the sage words he passes on, I consider this the most valuable.
Mea Culpa for this but, I always work on theme this way, always:
First a word – Love, ambition, hubris, whatever.
Second – exploration of the theme. Each character gets a workout with a whole lot of why and how questions.
Why does the boy need to show his mother and father he can…
How does he do it?
Why have the mother and father withdrawn their love for the boy?
How do they show it?
So on, and so on for every character – tested by exploring the theme.
Why do I do this? Because each exploration provides another layer in the story and every layer is another layer that adds depth. the more layers, the more depth, the less empty.
So when I break up the scenes for a story in each chapter in the Scrivener Binder the tiny scene pen sketch is first to answer the why the the how and that is what happens in the scene.
Chapter 2 – Arthur discovers he has a grandfather.
Scene 1 – Why didn’t he know this before? How does it play out when he meets his grandfather for the first time?
Scene 2 – This man has special skills and his role is to make Arthur earn the knowledge and skills he needs to find and rescue his kidnapped parents. How does he begin the process – he shows his love for Arthur by leading him to the his secret library where Arthur will discover critical information.
Scene 3 – He insists that Arthur chop some firewood – this is setting up a plot plant for later.
Just a gesture to theme – but I am all ears (well some bits of me are). I want to get better at this stuff so you have me hooked.
thank you from the villagers of Scotch Grove, Iowa. we look forward to your next lesson, Msgr.
Hello Steve, I sing this same song to my creative nonfiction writers. In my own fiction writing, I find this to be the greatest challenge — to name the theme. But part of the adventure. Thank you, Julie
This post could not come at a better time for me. Theme really makes a story memorable versus, “yeah, I saw that.” Looking forward to your posts on theme!
I was aware of themes early in my writing journey. My trouble was always that I put too many themes in the novels I wrote! I always started out with one in mind and then, as I aged and grew and continued to work, tried to sneak more themes in there that were applicable to my life at the time.
Yep, its tough picking just one!
You could include an internal and external theme.
Eye opening as you said it would. Now…where’s my theme? Thanks Steven, I’ve read nearly all you books. I’m a fan, keep writing and inspiring us.
Steven, a very interesting post. I write crime fiction, & was thinking about the movie Chinatown. Would you say the theme is disillusionment? And if so, how does Noah Cross represent the flip side of that particular theme?
Roman Polanski’s view of the world is the theme in Chinatown. Evil reigns, to fight it is folly. (From The Story Grid, page 105.)
Tina, a thousand thanks for the reply. I wonder if that is the theme Robert Towne intended when he wrote the screenplay.
According to screenwriter Robert Towne, the theme for Chinatown was failure, and being out of your depth in something you don’t understand. That doesn’t exactly dovetail with evil reigns & to fight it is folly.
You are right. That is a different take on the story. A person could fail because they were dealing with something that they didn’t understand because it was out of their league, and that something doesn’t have to be evil.
Once Jake figures out how things are run in Chinatown, (that to fight big evil is not going to work, that his quest is a failure due to ignorance,) he ends up with DISILLUSIONMENT, which is what you mentioned earlier.
I just created a calendar notification for three months in the future to ask myself what the theme of my current manuscript is (I don’t know yet).
Hopefully I know by then! I’d hate to be screenplay #501.
Thank you for writing on theme–this is something that people want to know about, I think.
My light bulb went off, too :))) true! Theme keeps you focused and away from pretentious writing: including superfluous scenes, characters, ecc.
A theme need not wack the reader across the head but can be no more than a guide for the writer – a means of remaining on track. I certainly agree with all that is said in the piece, that theme is important, but never at the expense of story. For me, as a reader, subtlety is preferred, a theme (message) discovered, perhaps, at the end of the story
Mr.Pressfield….you inspire the daylight out of me.
thank you kindly for the revelatory exposition.
You are much appreciated out here.
I read recently a scholarly look at Jaws.
I’m not sure if this link will work, but you can check out Chapter Five, free on Google Books…
It’s amazing how the theme comes out of this analysis like little bits of gold in a sluice box.
Anyway, reading that was really interesting (and helpful)
Have you ever read An Enemy of The People by Ibsen? It was written before Jaws.
yeah, but about a hundred years it seems.
No, I’d never heard of it.
I’ll admit a bias: Because I read for both pleasure and research, I tend to read mostly modern stuff:
ie well selling genre fiction.
One of my favorite novels of all time is Of Human Bondage, but if you wrote a book like that today, nobody would read it.
Now the TITLE ,,,yeah, that would sell.
Jaws is a rip-off of An Enemy of The People. Jaws is more exciting, though.
The most comforting words in today’s post were–
“It is very, very hard to figure out your theme.”
“It’s back-breaking, brain-busting labor.”
When I read that, I breathed a sigh of relief –oh thankgoodness. I can identify what my characters represent, no problem. But the overall theme –that is busting my brain.
Thanks for the push to identify theme.
More please! This was an enlightening post regarding theme. Loved it.
Could you please tell us how to apply it to today’s novels (Gone Girl, Fault in Our Stars, Room, etc.)? That would be extremely helpful.
I appreciate all of your mind-opening posts, and would love to know more about this topic. The agent who read for theme is interesting in that most agents would not know precisely how to look for theme within characters. Most sell and are not writers. What made this agent an expert?
“Am I boring you yet?” Are you kidding? I love this.
In 2001 my brain started screaming at me to write a particular novel. I don’t suffer from schizophrenia but that voice was deafening. Even though I was working on something else at the time, I surrendered to this ‘story’. I knew there was a reason I had to write it but I didn’t know what it was.
I would write some chapters and then take a break from it by writing a short story. Then I’d go back to the novel, then another short story. It’s gone on like this for all these years and it’s how long it has taken me to find the book’s theme. Yes, fifteen years! I had already attributed meaning to each of my characters, but I didn’t know what the overall theme was until ten days ago.
Honestly, I couldn’t have known what the theme was until I did. For this book, which is about a very specific time and place historically, it took today’s nationwide grappling with the subject to point me to the theme. I was almost there for years but I wouldn’t have seen it so clearly without the benefit of those fifteen years and the current dilemma we, as a nation, face on the subject. I did learn how to write a short story, in between the quest for the theme, and I’m grateful I never finished the novel beforehand. It takes what it takes.
Thank you, Steve.
Can’t wait for further posts on this topic. I think of it as The Holy Grail!
An important post and an important topic. Thanks for the Paddy repeat!
What you’re suggesting, of course, is that characters are also metaphors. As George Layoff points out, we think in metaphors. The opposite problem of a character not representing anything is that a character only represents something else. The symbolism school of story-telling. The challenge is the character has to be a character AND represent something greater. As do we all, in our own lives. Thus as character emerges from action, theme emerges from character. But you’re so right – figuring out the theme (and then not making it banal in the story) is hard work.
It’s like asking; “What’s life about?”
So many ways to answer that. So many perspectives, all true when you stand there.
Do we ever know, and if we think we do, in hindsight we find we were in denial of something else that allowed us to think we did!
Here’s my conundrum:
I agree with everything Steve wrote, and yet I can’t think of a single book I’ve read and enjoyed where I can say that I know what the theme is. I might, after some hard thinking (though not as “backbreaking” as when I’m writing), come up with a POSSIBLE theme, but odds are that if I asked 20 other people what the theme is, I’d get 10-30 different answers. And one more if I asked the author.
Look above at Doug Keeler’s posts, and you’ll see that the writer and director of Chinatown had different takes on what that movie’s theme is.
So, theme is vitally important to a story — and a matter of opinion? Doesn’t seem right. Hence the conundrum.
Who can I credit for the quote?:
“Every major character must represent something that is greater than himself or herself.”
The other day, two hours after reading this post, I met an Amish couple in my Chiropractor’s waiting room. The wife engaged me in a conversation, and because I was early, we talked for some time. I was so struck by her genuinely joyful and natural way of connecting (ie., no lurking agenda). And usually I don’t discuss my writing with anyone, but because she asked, I said I was presently engaged in a writing project, to which she responded, what’s your theme!!!!
I’ve been thinking about that interaction ever since, and of course, the issue of theme!
thanks, steve. when people ask what my screen play is about i now tell them the theme. that things are not as they appear. that great success in business can be dismal failure at the level of the soul. that the rejects of our society have so much to teach us about what matters in life. am i preaching?
the toughest part is i keep thinking about what i learned from one of your earlier blogs. that the first draft of a screen play can be likened to a sculptor. he has a stone. he has his hammer. he has his chisel.
first draft of screen play.
looking forward to more, steve.
This is interesting, because I feel like even instinctually we know as readers / viewers if something is hollow.
I will be on top of this
This seems such a simple insight. I remember grade school English teachers asking, “What is the Theme of this book/story?” and the class regurgitating rote answers with no comprehension of the metaphors the characters represented. Reading a story without a theme is like eating a bucket of meringue, there can appear to be a lot of substance, but when done, there is no satisfaction.
Theme, to me, is like a subway train that comes hurtling out of the underground darkness with such force that it changes me forever in some often not consciously recognizable way. It is the “stuff” of masterpieces, like Conrad and Dickens, or like Paddy’s “Marty.” When they hit me, they change me in such a way that I have to obsessively pick them apart until I begin to plumb the depths of what has occurred, and am able to consciously recognize and dissect all (lots, let’s say) of the nuances, and applications to not only myself but humanity at large. It is a like a trigger point or “open sesame” that parts the boulder to a whole new dimension. When I wrote my novel recently I had no idea what the theme was or that I needed one at the beginning, and didn’t even realize that it was right there in chapter one (although I did get a soul nudge at its appearance); then it symbolically resurfaced again in the middle of the book, and landed on the last page in full disclosure, much to my amaze. The masterful handling of theme equals a masterpiece. It is like a haunting ghost of an underground subway car hurtling through the darkness and ploughing through the energetic DNA of the soul, reorganizing it, or perhaps awakening it, forever…. let’s rhapsodize…
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Good day! Very interesting. Thank you