Rule #3

Are you glass-half-empty kind of gal and want the world to realize that life is truly and monumentally unfair?

Or are you all pixie-dust and starlight and want to show folks that, in the end, everything comes out all right?

Just what is the point of your stories? What’s the overall theme?

For many of us, theme isn’t something we think about when we write. I know a few authors who adamantly say they have no theme and they are just trying to write a good yarn. But the fact is, most stories do have an over-arching theme. Writers may not be aware of it, but it is there. It’s like personality. You are just gonna view and react to things a certain way based on your personality. In my line of thinking, each story has a unique theme or personality that shines through and is what sticks with me long after reading a book.

For instance, consider the Map of Time by Felix Palma (review here). Because Mr. Palma’s writing style left me frustrated, I decided not to continue with his series, though I do recommend you try out his tome. He’s got some poignant moments in the book that shouldn’t be missed and the three connected stories presented in the Map of Time weave a theme of natural, even cosmic, capriciousness that is a joy to discover.

But, as writers, should we really be concerned about theme while we are just struggling to make our prose readable?

Let’s see what Pixar’s 22 storytelling rules has to say about it. Here’s #3:

Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now re-write.

To be honest, I don’t agree with this rule. For writer’s who don’t write from an outline, this may be true. But not for me. Theme is paramount to all my stories. It is the seed from which they grow. And the thread that pulls me to the end. Without theme, there’s no point in me writing. If I didn’t have a theme to hang my story on, my words would just pile in a discarded heap in the closet, banished forever.

(Gosh, so dramatic, eh?)

Though I will concede that the theme to a story can shift while writing and that it might not shine through until after the fifth or sixth re-write, but I do strive to see it all the way through my writing process.

What about you? Do you write with a theme in mind or just wing it?


27 thoughts on “Rule #3

  1. Thanks for the post!

    I was all prepared to apologize for my own, less planned method (when it comes to theme) until I got to your re-post of the ‘rule.’ Woohoo, Pixar stole their rule from me. Just kidding, but I agree with them: it’s good to have an idea at the start but for me, the real theme emerges as I write it.

    I like to have a good idea where I am going with a story in terms of mahor turning points, resolution and theme because it keeps me from wandering aimlessly but changing them between revisions seems reasonable to me (hopefully mostly at the second draft or the damn project will never end :)). Many things become more clear to me as a I write, especially in terms of theme but also character motivations.

    1. Well, I’m not saying I’m right. It is just that’s the whole reason why I write, to express some over arching idea/theme. Even so, my approach may be too heavy handed, which may be why I have a tough time with getting the tone right in my works. I’m forcing it one way when the story really wants to go in another way.

  2. Half-empty vs. half full, my approach is that even a glass with some fairly large cracks can still hold water (or lemonade, if you prefer). And if the theme of your story grows into something other than you expected, you can either prune it into the shape you wanted (glass half empty, if you will) or encourage that natural form (glass half full). So how’s that for mixing metaphors?

    1. Keep them mixed-metaphors coming!

      That’s a sensible way to approach it. For though I wish I could just write without a thought to theme, I actually find it hard to do. Paring it back may be what I need. Thank you for your thoughts. 🙂

  3. Excellent post. Theme for most of my work is probably “shit happens” and it is how they (my characters) react to it that creates the story.

  4. Good thoughtful and thought provoking article on rule #3. I tend towards your view and am inspired by a theme. When I read I am looking for it as I read and prefer books and authors with clear themes. When it comes to writing I am still fresh to it, but a theme has inspired my attempts so far and ideas for the future too.

    I also agree with debyfredericks comment and a few others who tend towards the writing and finding a theme as they write. If something develops, especially when writing a longer novel over time, I can imagine that it is possible for a theme to develop or change requiring some reworking of work already done. Flexibility is key to anything in life as you never know what life will throw at you, opportunities or problems.

    Whichever method is preferred I believe a writer needs a theme to help connect to the reader and improve understanding and appreciation of the writers efforts. Without a theme those efforts may be less understood and unappreciated.

    1. Thank you for your well thought out respond. You could have written my blog post for me!

      I do like your idea of flexibility. I think I’ve tried to shoe-horn a lot of my writing into specific themes even after they have sprouted new branches of thought. As others have said, I need to be willing to re-shape the work to fit the story theme as it emerges – which might be the same as when I started or might not.

      1. You show remarkable willingness to learn for someone presenting these sort of rules, which is flexibility! Not that I mean to imply I am always right, as I do not know how someone else should respond in their individual circumstances. I just share my thoughts truthfully, based on 50 years of living, a life of fairly constant change, with four distinct careers, which has taught me to adapt to survive. Not learning and adapting is painful, too painful and you die!
        Your original posts on rules, etc. are excellent points of focus for debate, from which I continue to learn. 🙂

  5. Wonderful post my friend. Theme wise, I start with a word that inspires me and correlate it with past/recent events in my life. Somehow the rest follows. Writing is a passion and when our heart is into to it, the rest flows in perfect unity. Have a great day.

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