The Process of Creation – Concepts – Themes

The last foundation for a “concept” novel is the Theme.

Now, this is going to encompass a larger discussion, because theme isn’t just about how a story starts. It’s an important, if not integral, aspect of virtually every story written.

But let’s address the main point of these articles, theme as the genesis point for a story.

This type of story is all about a message. It could be as simple as “I want to write a book about good versus evil and how good always wins through perseverance.” On the other hand, it might be as obscure as, “I’m going to write a story about how it’s important to have a balanced diet.”

In the end, what is most important to the author starting this way is that their message is conveyed and in the light they want. I mean, it’s a pretty epic failure if the author wants to tell how good triumphs over evil and all the readers walk away thinking they should join the dark side.

I have to say, I think this is the hardest way to start a story. I mean, we were all challenged to write a short story this way in school (well, maybe not everyone, but I was) and it was painful! Why? Well, let’s look at where we’ve been previously;

The Character start gave us an engaging and interesting character to ask questions of and to find out about their story from.

The World Concept gave us a world to explore. I mean, there’s tons of stories in a whole world, it’s just finding them.

Even the Scene Concept gave us something. We had a smattering of character and world, so there was some foothold.

But this? Who do we talk to? I mean, do you notice how in every story start I get around to the point of us asking questions? Ages ago, I wrote a post here, and you know what I had discovered? The most important question is Why?

What do you ask a theme other than ‘what am I going to write’?

To my way of writing, there isn’t a strong enough anchor to really get started.

Yet I said earlier that theme was important, integral even.

Yes, yes I did.

See, when you meet a character, you try to get to know them. You interview them, have some coffee. You look for the part of their life that is an interesting story. Very often, the part of their life that gives you your story does so because there’s a theme or lesson in it. In the end, there’s a point.

Take a look at my articles on the Hero’s Journey. You could jam pack those full of themes, but the one that holds throughout every iteration of the Hero’s Journey is personal development. The Hero’s Journey, at its core, is about growth. Can we have a journey tale without the hero growing? I suppose you could try, but I promise you it will feel empty and will leave your audience feeling cold.

That’s why we gravitate toward the Hero’s Journey, because we all share the same theme. Every person grows and develops. Whether the hero is navigating the difficulties of high school or first romance, we’ve been there. Heck, even the hero fighting monsters to protect his family can be related to. Unless you don’t care about your family. Ummm, ok, awkward….

In many ways, theme is a naturally occurring entity in writing. Even if we don’t initially set out to tell one, it almost always finds its way in. The question is, and why this type of concept story exists, how much do you want to control your reader’s perception of the theme?

Maybe you just want to write an epic Hero’s Journey. Great, go for it. There will be a theme. But what if you want to put something else in there?

Let’s look at Harry Potter.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Harry follows a Hero’s Journey. When we meet him, he is in an ordinary world. He plunges into the other world and has to triumph over evil in order to free both the ordinary world and the other world that he has grown to love. We watch Harry grow and mature. We follow him through his awkward tween years to the point where at the end, we meet him as a man. We see his rebellion, his first attempts at love, his gain, loss, and gain of family and friends.

Harry Potter is a hero that exemplifies the theme of personal growth. But there’s so much else.

How does Harry win? Time and again, it’s because of his friends. So the themes of friendship, loyalty, honesty and so much more get packed in there.

Does JK Rowling want you to know she values the theme of friendship? I’d have to say yes. I mean, it’s all over the place. She has carefully crafted characters for Harry to be friends with. She’s made them integral to his life and success.

So as you write your story, or more so, when you edit your story, you need to think about what messages are coming across. Are they intentional? Are they the messages you want to deliver?

Theme, as far as I’m concerned, is a lousy way to start a story. But in the end, it will make or break your story. Tricky little devil.

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2 Comments

  1. I don’t think you can start a story with theme. It might be who you are or why you write but if you want others to read it or get the same connections you’ve made well….hitting them over the head with a theme ain’t going to do it. In my most recent wip ‘True’ I started with a concept and a character. The theme was there – it’s in the title and it flows throughout the novel BUT it arises from the other parts of the novel – it is reflected in the landscapes, in the characters choices, in the plot as it unfolds but it isn’t driving the bus.
    Interesting series…thanks for giving us something to think about.

    • And thank you for your great comment Jan! I have to agree with you, I fail to see how theme can be the impetus behind a long format story. I’ve heard of it done, but typically with shorter formats.

      I think your point on theme often being a reflection of ourselves & your analogy of “driving the bus” are spot on. Thanks so much!

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