In his book Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, Larry Brooks attempts to teach writers how to build theme into stories to make them successful and profitable. He asks us to picture a line in the form of a continuum. (How many of you just thought of Q from Star Trek? Now get your thoughts back on theme.) A score of zero means there is no theme. Think Seinfeld. A score of ten is propaganda, something driven by agenda. Think L. Ron Hubbard. (Note: Brooks also brought up C. S. Lewis, but since Lewis is one of my favorite authors, I have a hard time thinking of his work as “propaganda.” But his works ARE heavy on theme, so it makes sense to put him at the right end of the continuum.) In the middle of the continuum is exploration. Stories like The Cider House Rules by John Irving, which Brooks says is, “a story that is rich with life experience and consequence, a story that challenges values and beliefs and has viable arguments on either side.”
Brooks points out that this middle ground, this exploration, is the best place to be. (Dan Brown with his millions of copies sold would probably disagree, but I’m exploring Brooks’s ideas, not Brown’s.) It’s not wrong to choose either end of the continuum, but the choice needs to be conscious, not accidental.
Brooks goes on to say, “there is a surefire way to test your thematic command of story. And it never fails. When someone asks, ‘What’s your story about?’ how do you answer?” Once you have that answer, you have your theme and you’ll know where it fits in the continuum.
I tried this exercise and came up with unimpressive results. What is my story about? It’s about a young woman having violent visions of the future that always come true, but she can’t convince anyone that she’s telling the truth. This isn’t a theme, it’s a plot. But it does contain human experience, so there’s a theme buried in there somewhere. Maybe: “Seeking justice has a price.” Or the old standby, “Good triumphs over evil.” That’s a bit stark, for me. How about, “With great power comes great responsibility.” No, that one’s already been taken.
I’ll keep working on it.