Start with the end in sight. Where do you want your book to go? How will it end? You don’t have to know exactly, but you should have a vague idea at least so you know how to tie the pieces of your novel together.
You can’t work with a story if you don’t have a story to work with.
In Steven Pressfield’s book Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, he discusses the “how” of writing, citing the movie industries formula for a screenplay: Inciting Incident in Act One, Building Suspense in Act Two, Conflict and Resolution in Act Three.
Stories are built the same, at least the entertaining ones are. What we let our readers see are the deeper, more important parts of a story that pertain to the message as a whole. We call that Theme.
What is the point of writing a story?
Seriously, think about this.
What is the point of writing your story? What does it say? What does it mean? Why should people read it? And what should they get out of it?
Why do you listen to stories? Why do you write them?
There is a deeper meaning to stories that you tell your friends. The purpose behind a funny story is to make them laugh. The purpose behind a sad story is to relate your sadness. Novels build toward their conflict with theme in mind.
I’m going to use my own writing as an example here.
The whole structure of Pawns and the Fallen is built around Dahliena struggling to figure out who she is. Then in the Sequel Knights and the Fallen, she understands who she is, but not what she stands for yet. In the Third book, which hasn’t been written but is percolating, she understands who she is and what she stands for, but she’ll come face to face with the realization that those aren’t enough. She has to decide what mark to leave on the world. Each book leads her to a new question and closes the chapter on the last, but the thread remains even throughout the series.
Each external force that has kept her safe (making the questions unnecessary in the beginning) is stripped away one by one in each book, which forces Dahliena to come to terms with her situation and how to handle it. Stripping away these forces is why I had to write one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever written, but I had to be true to the book’s theme. It was right, and I was wrong. Not for questioning if I could do it differently, but in thinking it could be done. It couldn’t. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to write true to your book. But there is no other thing you can do as an author that is more important. Being afraid to write what you know comes next is a sure sign you’re on the right path.
My chosen theme –creating the basis of humanity, asking these specific questions about themselves: Who am I, Where do I stand, How do I make my mark on the world- is something all humans go through in their lives. I wanted readers to see Dahliena’s struggle and relate to it because they’ve been through that themselves or are currently going through it.
This is Theme.
Theme is evident in movies, books, even in commercials. “Buy this hair gel and ladies will like you.” “A smoother, softer shave makes you more desirable.” In Titanic, the theme is ‘love and sacrifice.’ In Tombstone, it’s ‘justice will prevail.’
Theme is also varied within a story and interchangeable. I may have picked out a different theme in those two movies than you. We do this based on our own experiences and influences that project a certain theme to us which may not be as evident to another. Themes in Romeo and Juliet are widely debated. One the one hand, it’s a comedy ridiculing young lovers who think they have the world figured out. On the other, it’s a tragic love story.
Edmund Wilson said, “In a sense, one can never read the book that the author originally wrote, and one can never read the same book twice.” This is one of the many reasons that stories are so fascinating.
Basically, theme is the underlying, overall message(s) that we as consumers of stories take away.
Sure, we’ll remember the epic fight scene, the proclamation of love, or the strange creatures you invented, but what we’ll connect with is the underlying truth that echoes our own lives. We’ll go back to the story because of how it made us feel: understood, satisfied, happy.