On writing: Theme

If you follow me on Twitter, then you might've noticed that the last four days have included a ton of stream-of-consciousness writing advice and thoughts--with reminders that your mileage may vary. This morning, I started talking about theme, and an interesting debate ensued with writer Chuck Wendig and literary agent Brooks Sherman.

It can be a challenge to say what needs to be said in 140 characters, so I wanted to come over here and spell it out more clearly.

1. Theme is important. Theme is what makes a book resonate deeply with readers, the central idea or ideas, the question the writer is asking or the argument the writer is making (and thanks to Chuck for stating this in a clear way that was giving me trouble in <140 characters). Theme connects your story to the human condition in a meaningful way. It's not a moral or a lesson, necessarily, but "what it's about" in a way that doesn't involve character names and plot points. Theme can often be summed up in one word: identity, love, innocence. Sometimes it take more: be yourself, love sucks, don't do what the government says, shoot for the stars.

2. But story is important, too. Your story isn't just window dressing for your theme. Story is what logically pulls a reader through a book. Story is the road trip; theme is what changes you on the road trip; there might be a lesson, there might not. But you don't go on the road trip in order to change as a person; you go to have fun. The idea for the road trip comes first.

3. But if theme is what first gives you the story idea, that's okay. "I want to write a book about a shy girl who learns she's special" = cool, great. But your storytelling needs to be enthralling. We need to care about her for us to care if she's actually special, which means we need a plot. There needs to be a logical progression of events that leads her to this understanding, and the character needs to be fully fleshed out and have sub-plots and supporting characters.

4. Whether you start with theme or story, you must remember that execution trumps all. If you can't tell a great story, no one will care about your theme. If you tell a great story but your character doesn't grow and change, or if the reader is left without any connection to the human condition, it'll be an empty sort of read. People like to feel satisfied after reading something, and they trust the writer to deliver. Even books that make you rage inside or aren't satisfying (Tess of the D'Urbervilles, anyone?) leave you with a commentary on human nature and make you want to change things. Theme can be a statement, an argument, or a question.

5. You must remember that your reader is intelligent and will resent overt attempts to educate or inspire. Readers want to immerse themselves in a story, not be hit over the head repeatedly with the blunt stick of your message. You must be subtle and weave your theme into a  story that draws the reader along. Your characters can't speak in clever sound bites that support your theme; they have to talk like real people, and real people are flawed. Beware trying to teach a lesson or virtue. Let your reader decide for themselves.

6. Your pitch/query should never center on theme or a moral. Because, again, execution and story are what will draw the reader in. "My book is about how you should be yourself and stand up for what's right no matter what" = YAWN. That could be any story about anyone. "My book is about a teen girl who doesn't fit into her rigid society and chooses to leave her passive, servant-class family to train as a fighter" = wow, that Divergent was a great read.

7. Your characters must have flaws and make a journey for there to be resonance. Name any story you like, and it's almost certain that the plot hinges on a flawed character making a mistake or fighting to right an injustice. No one wants to read a story about a perfect character facing the horrible world. Personal change resonates. If people were perfect and there were no misunderstandings, Pride & Prejudice would be two pages long. If the world was perfect, we wouldn't have Batman and The Hunger Games. 

8. Your characters need to make active choices. What happens if your character doesn't fight? What happens if your character agrees to being part of that scientific experiment? What happens if they step in to stop that street fight? Your characters need agency, beliefs, and the chance to make decisions that change the story. It seems pretty obvious, but when I started writing, my characters just went along with whatever happened. I was scared to let them be impetuous or make stupid mistakes, and story was what happened to them instead of what they chose to do. Guess what? Those books didn't sell. And they didn't resonate.

9. You need stakes. Those choices need to matter. The reader has to care. This is part of earning your theme, of crafting a story that resonates. We have to care about the character so that their choices make us anxious. When they have that aha! moment, we need to feel it and understand why it happened.

10. Sometimes, the theme isn't apparent until you've written the entire book. And that's okay. Every book is different, and every writer's process is different, and if you're so obsessed with a  character or a world that you can write that story, there's usually a theme there. Loss of innocence, fighting for what's right, the heroic journey, discovering or losing faith, learning to love: there are as many themes as there are human experiences, and there are different sides to every argument. Being a person is messy. And different readers will bring different viewpoints to your work and may draw different conclusions about the theme, and that's okay, too. Once you've written it, it belongs to the readers and, if you're lucky, becomes part of their own life journey. 

And what I've said here? Might not work for you. You might not agree with me. And that's okay. Sometimes, challenging advice teaches you more than blindly following it. You might enjoy Chuck's 25 Things Writers Need to Know About Theme, too. His includes more references to wombats and cake.