I’ve always had trouble getting my head around what a theme is in fiction, as in “What’s your novel’s theme?” I don’t think of my stories in that way, certainly not at the inception stage. If pressed, I can find things that I think are themes once the novel is written, but I still have no idea if they are what is meant by a literary theme.

But I came across an idea that’s a little easier for me to grasp.

“A good story always has an agenda.”

So says Ellen Collett in her article, The Art of the Police Report, that I came across in the Utne Reader.

Ms. Collett’s article is a fascinating read about the language used in police reports and how and why the writing of one particular officer stands out to her from all the others.

He meets the letter of the law for writing police reports—

  • avoid words that carry associations, subtext, or bias
  • use action verbs in preference to is and has. Is and has speak abstractions—existence and possession, respectively
  • Avoid modifiers—adverbs and adjectives (except “suspicious” and “bloody”)
  • —but then he sorta goes out of bounds in that how he words things gets at the truth of the incident in ways that other officers don’t.In one of her examples, standard reporting goes this way:

    We placed the Suspect in a felony prone position and took him into custody without incident.”

    But the other officer gave us a whole lot more in far fewer words:

    “We cuffed the father.”

    In this case, delivering the reality of an incident is the agenda of the officer’s report.

    “Good” is an important qualifier

    Certainly entertainment is a top item in any story’s agenda, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a “good” story. So what element can lift a story to “good?”

    Survival information. Author Justine Musk recently wrote about this on her blog, Tribal Writer, and I’ve written about it here on Writer Unboxed. She writes:

    Say I’m a caveman and you’re a caveman, and you come back to the cave one day saying, Dude! I ran into this huge hulking beast with teeth that are like THIS BIG and it seriously tried to eat my head, and I had to run up into a tree and hide until it went away and I needed to piss like a racehorse. Maybe I’ve never seen such a creature before, or even known that it existed, but by absorbing your story I absorb your experience and thus enlarge the field of my own. The next time I leave the cave, I know to keep my eyes peeled for the huge hulking beast, and to hide in a tree if it attacks me.

    What, one might wonder, survival information can a reader glean from “unreal” fiction such as the Twilight series? How to deal with vampires and werewolves? Not so much. But the author also offers insights on how young people can deal with issues of the heart, with relationships, and with struggling for survival.

    I’ll be a little lazy here and quote from my previous WU post on this topic because I think it’s worth repeating.

    Screenwriter Brian McDonald said that there has never been a culture that had no storytelling.

    I’ve said now and then that stories help us understand how to be human beings, and that notion is in agreement with McDonald’s theory, but he puts a finer, sharper point on it.

    We need stories because, McDonald says, they have survival information. Even fairy tales deliver that—Hansel and Gretel is a story about the danger of strangers. Children who get that lesson are less likely to succumb to the temptations of a villain.

    Stories, he said, are a way of getting the benefit of someone else’s experience without having to go through it. This holds true even if the experiences you share are in actuality imagined ones created by an author. They’re still a fresh look at life.

    Romances portray experiences that have to do with relationships, as do literary novels. Thrillers deal with surviving extreme circumstances—the followers of the MacGyver series even learned tricks they could use.

    McDonald said to think of it this way: conflict in a story is about surviving. If, in a scene, the conflict you introduce doesn’t impact the survival of the character, even in a minor way, then maybe it doesn’t have the stakes that make it a meaningful conflict in terms of the story.

    Of a good story.

    ”A good story is a sneaky fucker.”

    That’s another quote from Ellen Collett’s article. “Sneaky” means not “on the nose.” In the police reports she cites, the truth of an incident is injected by word choices, especially verbs, and by how the report states what happened. An example she gives is that a standard report might say

    “The Victim sustained multiple injuries.”

    The cop she writes about says

    “The baby was bleeding from three orifices.”

    That example reflects another facet of good fiction: specifics make it real, generalities offer little meaning.

    The agenda/truth/themes and all that of a good story are woven into the narrative with invisible threads. If an author writes about underlying ideas or messages “on the nose,” in a blatant, didactic fashion, then the narrative becomes preachy. I can tell you that was a wrestling match I faced in my novel, We the Enemy (Now out in paperback! Squee!). I think I won it, but it wasn’t easy to pull those punches and let the story do the work instead of sermonizing. 

    For me, it’s easier to discern what my novels’ agendas are after I’ve written them. Then, it/them having become visible, it’s possible to go back in and add reinforcement where necessary and to subtract that which doesn’t lend aid and comfort to my story’s underlying mission.

    For example, the surface agenda of We the Enemy includes self defense and gun safety. But the primary agenda is to explore how we can get together as a healthy community of individuals and make our lives better. Seems like a survival issue to me.

    For what it’s worth.

    About Ray Rhamey

    Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.