I stumbled on this post (via Natasha Hanova) by Donald Maass, Scott Bell and Richard Volger about Story Structure (which is filled with awesome and you should read the whole thing), but this part leapt out for me:
Q: You three Story Masters each teach universal principles but also singular techniques. What dimension of storytelling is most important to you?
Donald Maass: “… there’s another consideration that I’ll pick as my most important dimension: Whatever it is that the author wants to say, or wants us to see, understand or get. You can call it theme. I call it what matters to the author. I’m amazed that many authors can’t answer that basic question about their stories, or if they can the answer isn’t an emotional one.
What in the world of the story makes you the angriest? What’s the greatest injustice? What’s the principle at stake? What in the story is closest to your own heart? What’s the most painful parallel to your own life? Answers those questions and you’re getting close to what matters. When you know what that is, you can use it more deliberately to build a story with meaning.”
I’m struggling with my theme right now (I’m plotting out my next novel), but theme has always been difficult for me (in spite of knowing its importance). I seem to know, in a generic sense, what my story is about, and I can certainly narrow it down in terms of plot, but succinctly describing the theme has often challenged me. It’s there, I just can’t seem to put it in words. And I’m a writer. #sad
I already knew Donald Maass was brilliant (read his Writing the Breakout Novel and you’ll see what I mean), but this simple paragraph was exactly the tool I needed to nail down my theme.
What makes me angriest in my novel? Well that was easy.
Suddenly, I had my theme in one word, without even trying. And I could see how all the threads of my story, that I thought were an amorphous tangle of plot and character arcs, were actually a multitude of expressions of my theme: the impact of intolerance on my character, on the people she loved, on the society as a whole. It crystallized the plotting I’m doing on the next book, because I can more easily see where it needs to go and why.
Do you struggle with theme? Do you know it intuitively but struggle to put it into words? Or is it there from the beginning, like a guiding light for your story?