Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, offers six core competencies of a great story. In my last post, I started discussing theme. I’d like to finish it off now and move on. Like I’ve said before, theme is difficult for me to understand, so I’m going to rely heavily on Mr. Brooks and his ideas for implementing theme.
Mr. Brooks says something very comforting on the first page of this chapter: “If you have complete control over the character arc… theme can sometimes take care of itself. You don’t have to have an agenda to speak to the truth of life, you simply need to explore and illuminate the experiences of your characters and the consequences of their choices.”
You’ve got to be careful to not turn your novel into a soapbox or a sermon, though. Hitting theme TOO hard will turn away readers faster than a roach sandwich. Think of theme as a continuum, a scale from 0 to 10. A zero has absolutely no theme (like the TV show Seinfeld). A 10 is outright propaganda, like something from L. Ron Hubbard (he’s selling you his worldview). Exploration of theme would fall in the mid-zone, and that’s exactly where you want to be.
By exploring your character’s feelings and experiences through the novel, you build theme. “If your hero learns a lesson or two over the course of your story, it stands to reason that the reader has been exposed to that very same lesson.” For example, your hero abuses alcohol because he was abused as a child by alcoholic parents. In the story, he’s got goals: He Must Save The Day. In order to do so, he must conquer his alcohol abuse problem. By exploring that inner demon, by showing the reader how the hero tries and fails and tries and fails and finally conquers, you’ve woven a theme into your novel. (Side note: having your hero wake up one day and decide to join AA would not do it. There’s got to be a great motivator, a natural choice, some emotional or physical impetus, a lesson learned the hard way, that drives your hero to seek help. Don’t make it too easy to conquer that inner problem, or the story will fall flat.)
In summary, “Simply having the hero explore and experience an issue, and then conquer the inner forces that would otherwise defeat him, becomes the execution of theme.”
I think we can all do that.