On Writing: Theme

They say every writer’s got something to say.

So I figured maybe it was time I shared some of my thoughts on writing itself. You know, good writing or bad writing. The seven steps or whatever. I think many of us know in our heads what good storytelling/writing is, but we may experience difficulty communicating that to others (ironically). Even more ironic, I had this whole big thing worked out in my head about what I was going to say on this topic. But, as with most other things I write, I may have very little “to say” after all.

It’s my opinion that good writing–that is, a good story–doesn’t need to have a message or theme to be good. Some have entertainment value, and sometimes that’s good enough. Although, I think one of those things (message/theme) will happen organically, anyway. Focus on the story. Don’t stress on what you’re “trying to say.” I’ve fallen into this before. In high school, we’re forced to read some of the classics. For me, it was Shakespeare’s primary four plays (Romeo & JulietKing LearMacbeth, and Hamlet), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, and a handful of lesser known classics by Bellow, Salinger, and Ellison. Certainly, those guys knew how to weave theme into their storytelling, but I wonder how much of that was deliberate. I’ve noticed that critics can really turn, well, critiquing into its own art form. Was Fitzgerald providing a social commentary on the Roaring 20’s in Gatsby? Or was he writing more from personal experience and describing his own emotional turmoils at the time? Maybe both.

When I was younger, I had dreams of seeing my name among those giants. Ahh, the masters of 20th Century literature. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Steinbeck, Tolkien, Vonnegut, Marquez, Faulkner… me. And so on. As I’ve matured, my interests as a reader and a writer have evolved. Now I aspire to the company of writers like Martin, Erikson, Jordan, Herbert, McCaffrey, Le Guin, Zelazny, Pratchett, Donaldson, Butcher, Roddenberry, and Whedon. If you’re familiar with the last two, we should probably be friends. If you’re not, well… look ’em up. (Hint, look up Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) It’s a fantastic genre (no pun intended), perfectly designed for the integration of theme.

When I was in film school, my teachers constantly drilled us about what we were really trying to say in any given scene. What’s the emotional investment? What are the stakes? I always hated that, but it was hard to argue with. As readers/viewers, we’re always looking to be provoked, engaged, drawn in. The best way, maybe the only way is through our emotions. Whether it’s through the painful ending of a relationship or the thrilling theatrics of a car chase, if we aren’t feeling it, it’s not working. Maybe you’re thinking, well it’s hard to put theme into an action-oriented story. Yeah, I can see that. I wrestle with that dilemma (allegedly) in my writer’s group. Sometimes, they disconnect from what I’ve shared. Usually when that happens, it’s because I’ve brought in something action-y. But sometimes, they’re sucked in. And when that happens, it’s most often because I’ve brought in some meaty relationship stuff. I think I’m digressing a little from my original topic, and I’m sorry for that, but trust me, this is all related. (And there’s no way I’m gonna delete all this!)

Emotion. Theme. Message. Truth. Their relationship to story is like food’s relationship to flavor. Which is which? Oh, I don’t know. I can get all kinds of tangled up in arranging metaphor and simile. You figure it out. The point is, it’s very hard to write a good story without theme. Maybe impossible. I’m not sure… that’s an interesting challenge. Write a compelling story that has absolutely nothing to say about anything… hmm. I don’t know. We write what we know, and unless we’re emotionally dead inside, we have things to say–about everything. Love sucks. Love is great. Friendship above all. Friends are useless. People are good. People suck. Money is the root of all evil. Money can buy happiness. All truths (themes) we may have experienced at one time or another, and are more than likely going to find themselves in our writing at some point in time. (Careful now, I might start waxing philosophical.)

But no. I’m always running short on time. There’s another theme. There’s never enough time.

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