photo by Bart Maguire

photo by Bart Maguire

Theme is something writers often talk about, especially literary writers. You rarely hear a romance writer agonize over nailing her theme before she begins writing. Which might be why “genre” fiction often has more to say about the human condition — and way more accessibly — than, um, some of the more notoriously impenetrable literary novels touted as the pinnacle of high art. (Read: Ulysses. No, on second thought, don’t. Most boring book ever, even with the dirty bits. No one is “above” narrative – it’s how the brain is wired to process information, not something we can, or should, transcend. Sorry, James.)

The problem with the preoccupation with theme is that it obscures what really matters: having something specific to say to someone. Story is communication. And yet, when it comes to teaching writing, theme often comes before anything else.

The problem with the preoccupation with theme is that it obscures what really matters: having something specific to say to someone.

All this focus on theme is something I’ve come to believe derails writers from the get-go. And by the get-go, I mean kindergarten. I’ve recently been doing work with a brilliantly maverick public school district, helping them incorporate “story” into how they teach writing. Which, as it turns out, means undoing a lot (okay, just about all) of how writing is currently taught, given state mandated we’re-going-to-test-for-it-because-its-technically-quantifiable curriculum.

Case in point: theme.

Theme is a concept that often makes seasoned writers quake – it feels esoteric, somehow highbrow, definitely academic — the sort of thing that scholars bestow upon “great literature” so graduate students can endlessly debate these novels in small, earnest seminars. Or, as a student of mine, who’d just received an MFA from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, said of her experience: “They made me read books that made me cry.” Beat. “Because they were so boring.”

Rule of thumb: Narrative gives birth to theme, not the other way around. Theme without narrative is a big fat sleep-inducing “Who cares?” Sure, theme might be helpful when analyzing something that has already been written, but it’s insanely unhelpful when trying to write something from scratch.

And yet, kids as young as seven are asked up front, before putting pencil to paper, “What’s your theme?” Just trying to define how theme manifests in a story is hard enough. To then parse it out into something specific enough to sit down and begin writing? Impossible. Why? Because theme itself is general, vague, and thus meaningless as a starting point.

Rule of thumb: Narrative gives birth to theme, not the other way around. Theme without narrative is a big fat sleep-inducing “Who cares?”

It’s kind of ironic, because theme is actually something incredibly simple: What does this story say about human nature? Which means that, by definition, every effective story has a theme, whether or not the writer has given it a moment’s thought.

And here’s the rub, when the teacher asks, “What’s your theme?” she’s not actually asking about theme at all. What she’s really asking is something much simpler, much clearer, and much more helpful.

Translation: “What’s your point?”

Think about it. Every story makes a point. Otherwise, it’s meaningless – just a bunch of random things that happen — and how uninvolving is that? It’s the point you’re making that bestows meaning on what happens, engages the reader by allowing her to add things up, and presto! Your theme emerges, all on its own.

So what is a story’s point?

Ask yourself: What do I want to say to someone? What is the thing I want to teach them that they don’t already know? Unless readers have some idea what your point is, they won’t know what anything means. And, as you write, neither will you.

Think about it in real life. Your co-worker is rambling on about something, you struggle mightily to keep exasperation off your face, thinking, “Okay, okay, what is your point?”

But I’d wager you never, ever, think, “Okay, okay, what’s your theme?” Seriously.

This isn’t to say that as a writer you might not know your theme from the get go, but even then, focusing on it can do more damage than it’s worth. Why? ‘Cause by definition, theme revolves around a universal. And as we know, there are a gazillion ways to render any universal. So rather than helping you zero in on the particular story you’re telling, settling on a “theme” tends to leave you with a general, abstract concept that can feel overwhelming, fuzzy and – let’s face it — exhausting. Thus you decide to take a nice refreshing nap and figure it out later, i.e. the day after never.

The takeaway is: You can never get from the universal (aka the theme) to the specific (aka the story itself). Only through the very specific can you reveal a universal truth.

Your point, on the other hand, is what your story is saying, specifically – and that’s what you need to sharpen before you begin writing.

You can never get from the universal (aka the theme) to the specific (aka the story itself). Only through the very specific can you reveal a universal truth.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say the theme is: “the enduring power of love.” But where do you go from there? Where’s the conflict? And hey, what do you mean by love, exactly? After all, your idea of love and mine might be quite different. And love between whom? Romantic love? Parental love? Love in general? And what will test that endurance? What will it cost, emotionally? In other words: What lesson can I learn, what inside info can I glean to help me better navigate my life? There’s no clue for the reader in that theme, and no clue for the writer, either.

Okay, now let’s start with the point. Let’s say it’s: Even when the heartless, rigid dictates of society and religion conspire to separate mother and infant son, their love creates a lifelong bond, and the desire to reunite, which remains strong – and unyielding – whether or not they find each other. Talk about the enduring power of love against all odds, not to mention what it says about our capacity as humans. While, sure, very few of us might actually be in Philomena’s position (great movie; amazing true story), we can easily extrapolate what it teaches us about love, faith and bonding and so find uses for it – meaning for it – in our own lives.

In a nutshell:

Your story’s point is your guiding star, the yardstick by which you can gauge the meaning of everything that happens, and so keep your story on course.

As the inspiring teacher I’ve been working with recently asked of a group of rapt first graders: “When your mom tells you you’re going on vacation, what’s the first question you ask?” They all grinned, this was an easy question. “Where are we going!” they chimed.

“Yeah,” one earnest little boy said, “Otherwise, how will you know what to pack?”

Indeed.

Same with a story. “What’s the point?” equals “Where are we going?” If you don’t know it from the beginning, how can you craft a story that will take you there? And, even more important, encourage your reader to come along for the ride.

Just think of your readers as that class of eager six year olds. Your story is going pluck them out of their everyday lives and take them on a vacation. Their first question (read: your first question, before you begin to write) will always be: And so? Where are we going?

Forget theme. But when it comes to your point? Don’t leave home without it!

What about you? What point are you making with the novel you’re working on now? What inside info will it give your reader when it comes to navigating this cockeyed caravan called life?

About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.