“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.