“Help! I Can’t Find My Theme!”
Don’t worry, it happens to me all the time.
It took me ten years to figure out the theme of The Legend of Bagger Vance, and five before I could articulate what Gates of Fire was about.
It’s a running joke between me and Shawn, in his role as my editor, that he’s the one who has to explain my stuff to me. “Oh!” I inevitably exclaim, “so that’s what it’s about.”
Then he gives me eight more pages of things I’ve got to fix because I was flying blind and operating entirely on instinct.
That’s what great editors do. Their gift, their skill is to understand the architecture of story—and then explain it to us dumb-asses who have just deposited six pounds of loose pages on their desks.
I know this sounds like hyperbole. It’s not.
On my third book, Tides of War, Shawn sent me a twenty-eight-page memo (I wish I still had it) that sent me back to the drawing board for an additional nine months.
I didn’t know what the book was about. I had hundreds of pages of off-theme meandering. Dead weight. Fatal baggage. I’d been working on the book for three years but if you’d stopped me and asked the most obvious, fundamental question, the question every writer and artist should be able to answer at once of any work he or she is engaged in — “What is your book/dance/movie about?”—I wouldn’t have been able to answer.
An outside observer might say, “How is this possible? How can a writer compose five hundred or eight hundred pages on a subject and not know what it’s about? That would be like a contractor constructing the George Washington Bridge without plans or even a degree in engineering.”
Yet you and I as writers know how powerful (and how unerring) instinct can sometimes be. We write by feel. By the Muse. By our gut. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it works brilliantly.
As I get older though, I find that more and more I want to know. True, I’m still winging it. But it sure would be handy to have a road map or a checklist. I’d love to be like an airline pilot conferring with his second officer. “Flaps down, check. Oil pressure, check.”
I’d be thrilled to be able, at Page One, to ask myself, “Theme?” and hear myself answer, “Love conquers all” or “Every dog has his day.”
Why, you ask, is it so important for a writer to know her theme? It can’t be that critical if—as you say, Steve—writer after writer finishes his or her book (and they’re good books) without the slightest clue of what its theme is.
The answer is that instinct has its limits.
As airline pilots, we can’t fly by the seat of our pants all the time.
What does knowing our theme give us? How does it help us write our book?
1.Theme tells us who our protagonist is.
The hero, remember, carries the theme.
If we know our theme, we can ask ourselves, “Does our hero in fact embody the theme?” In every scene? In every action? In every line of dialogue?
If he or she doesn’t, we know what we have to fix or cut or rethink entirely.
- Theme tells us who our antagonist is.
The villain, we know, carries the counter-theme.
Who, we can now ask ourselves, is the villain in our story? Is it an actual individual? The Alien in Alien? The shark in Jaws? Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman in anything?
Or is our villain inside our hero’s head? Is it her own arrogance (Out of Africa)? Self-doubt (Joy)? Her belief in something false (Far From Heaven)?
We can ask ourselves of our villain, “Is he or she carrying the counter-theme in every scene, every action, every line of dialogue?” And if he/she isn’t, we can address this and fix it.
NOTE: This wisdom of course is what we hope our editors will give us. But it’s really our job, isn’t it? We can’t just dump a pile of pages on our editors’ desk and hope they’ll save us.
- Theme tells us what our climax is.
Hero and Villain, we know, clash in the climax around the issue of the theme. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in The Revenant, Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, Matthias Schoenaerts and Tom Hardy in The Drop.)
Knowing this, we can ask ourselves, “Is that what’s truly happening in our climax? If not, why not? And how can we fix it?”
Again, this is why our editors seem so brilliant to us—because they’re asking (and answering) these questions.
- Theme can even give us our title.
Breaking Bad, To Have and Have Not, Unforgiven.
- Theme influences and determines everything in our story. Mood, setting, tone of voice, narrative device. Theme tells us what clothes to put on our leading lady, what furniture to put in our hero’s house, what type of gun our villain carries strapped to his ankle.
I know it’s hard work. I know it’s not glamorous. But the time we put in, busting our brains trying to answer the question, “What the hell is this story about?” pays off in the end—if only because we don’t have to shout “Help!” to our editors quite as loudly.
Before I embarked on my latest revision, my editor made me answer a lot of questions. Why this book? Why me writing it? Why, why, why? And the most difficult question; what’s this about? I had an idea about my theme, but it was vague and cloudy. Getting clear has changed the choices I make in the writing.
As you say, it colors what my protagonist wears, what she says and thinks. Even what she eats! I’ve always been a hybrid, part pantster/part planner. But I am so down with this questioning process about ‘why?” and about finding the theme of a story. I know this can all broaden out as one gets deeper into the work, but starting this way has to make a difference. I’m going to do it from the beginning with my next book. Thanks for a wonderful post!
I truly cannot relate. Exploring a theme is the whole reason I write my stories. It’s one of the first things that comes to me when I consider a story.
On the occasion where a character or scenario comes to me first without a natural theme, then creating a theme is one of my first creative tasks. When I’m analyzing a movie or book, theme is one of the first things that jumps out at me then, too.
So, all writers are different. I’m an incredibly instinctive writer too, but knowing my theme is a part of my instinct because story is about deep structure for me…the engine that compels the writing.
It’s only you who believes that you’re instinctive. That’s why you’re gonna fail. Unless you have a great editor, of course.
This is so helpful. I’m working on a nonfiction book (my first). And I have a cloudy idea about my theme. But as I’m reading this, I’m stopping every few lines to make notes. It’s like, things that were buried, not too far below the surface, begin popping up so clearly. Even looking (from a nonfiction pov) at it in terms of protagonist and antagonist, and then writing out how my work fits into that framework is clarifying.
These posts on theme are truly helpful.
Do you know how reassuring it was when you related that it took you 10 years to figure out the theme of Bagger Vance? Because that’s what’s happening to me. What I thought would be a 2 or 3 year book is stretching into a 5, 7, 10 year book . . . or maybe beyond. And it’s because of theme. It’s difficult for me to identify and articulate it.
I’m also writing a book for a client right now and the theme of that one is so obvious – I think because it’s not my book – it’s not my story.
I think you hit the nail on the head about the importance of the right outsider (editor) for perspective. We like to think we can generate that ourselves but sometimes, it’s not possible. I think this is especially true for risky, defiant pieces or stories that wing away on their own agendas.
Yes – I felt exactly the same way. I began my novel over 5 years ago, wrote the first draft in one year, two more drafts, then about 2 years ago, after McKee’s Story Seminar, realized it had a fatal flaw. Trying to really, really articulate the theme – and finding I could not – was the harsh light I needed to go back to the drawing board. And although I am much closer, I STILL can’t do it in one sentence (yet). Thanks to Steve and Shawn for all their wisdom and guidance.
The admission that it took you ten years to figure out the theme of Bagger Vance bowled me over! I so needed to hear this because I still haven’t been able to really figure out my own WIP’s theme, and I’ve been beating myself up over it. I’ll keep at it and figure it out – thanks Steve!
I still say instead of trying to write to a predetermined and abstract theme, a writer’s focus should be on the story, which is the journey of a character–who are they before? Who are they after? This is distinguished from the plot – the what happens and how. The entire novel or screenplay is about this journey. Every character and event serves the story (journey) in someway.
A writer can write to story, and it’s a more practical approach to take a character with a desire or want, and mold him or her through the course of the story to be worthy of receiving that need or desire through conflict and struggle, until they finally realize what they need through extreme hardship and struggle, and then make a character change by sacrificing some unworthy trait or desire that renders them fit to have their true need fulfilled. Then you have a character who has earned their triumph, or in the case of a tragedy, their failure. Either way the outcome is earned and satisfying to the reader. Often then you will find that a theme has indeed emerged from the storytelling, but it is subservient to the larger issue, the story.
Dear Mr. Pressfield: I am a photographer, an amateur photographer, which only means you are paid for your words, I am NOT paid for my photos. No matter, I have been reading you blogs for the past year, to my very great benefit. Take theme, for instance – as a writer you have some idea, though maybe a bit murky, of what you are writing about. Most photographers follow the “spray and pray” technique, shoot a bunch, then find some that match what you think you might have had in mind – – – kinda like I WAS. Photojournalists are probably the best exception to this rule. A photograph is a slice of life, never to be repeated – and it is worth a thousand words, well sometimes. Thanks to your honesty, I am now “theme searching” BEFORE I go out on a shoot. I take fewer photos now, and better ones, spend more time shooting and less time editing and fixing, and am producing images that more closely match my “themes”. Thank you.
Finally, someone has addressed this issue. Yours is the first… thank you, thank you, thank you.
Wow. Right place, right time. Within five minutes, your insights helped me fix the ending of my current manuscript. And realise I have an overarching theme with all my writing.
Stupendous stuff, Mr Pressfield.
Everything I write has the same theme: Life is worth sticking it out.
I can’t get away from it, regardless of genre, form, length, fiction/non. Attempts to do otherwise always circle back around: it’s worth hanging in there!
The lie that tells the truth; the verity of lies.
Love ya Steve.
I wonder if your instinct is like a compass and well before you even realise, it’s locked onto some powerful source (say, a whopping great big magnet)with you and your intellect having to catch up in time. So you’re literally chasing after your instinct all the time. But when you’ve already defined your theme or managed to have identified that source, it really enforces your instinct (compass/radar) to lock onto that target. This helps making sure you don’t veer off course, correcting your trajectory whenever you stray a little too far off piste. Does that make sense?
Still not easy to actually force yourself to SIT DOWN AND THINK about your theme rather than just being ‘out there’ creating something. Thanks for a great post.
So, I’m not the only one. Thank you! Will be keeping this handy for inspiration when I can’t figure out the damn theme.
I keep feeling like there’s something wrong with me because I can’t quite suss out what the theme is for at least two of my WIP. Nice to not be so alone in this.