Words to the Wise
Theme: What Is Your Story
Only once have I
been fired by a writer within minutes of beginning a
consultation. I didn't deserve it, really I didn't. All I did
was ask, What is your story about? Instead of telling me or, as
many writers do, spluttering in confusion, this writer hucked
her manuscript across the table and said, "Read it for
The problem was that
she didn't know what her story was about. Oh, she knew the
characters and could tell me the plot, sort of, but she had
never found her theme. "Plot is what happens. Theme is
why," explains children's author Lois Peterson. This writer,
despite struggling with her novel for five years, didn't know
the why of her story.
Terry Bain met with a similar problem early in his writing
career. Magazines kept rejecting his stories and people who read
them said things he didn't understand, like "I don’t get it."
Finally, he took one of his stories to a writers' conference,
where it was reviewed by a novelist who asked him The Question,
What is your story about? Bain couldn't tell him—he spluttered
in confusion—and the novelist said, "Find out." Bain realized
that his story wasn't really about anything. "It was all over
the place. It was about everything. It didn't hang together."
He, too, didn't know the why of his story. He hadn't found its
epiphany, Bain defined theme in his article "Theme Is What
Unifies Your Story" published in The Writer Magazine.
"Theme is the container for your story," he wrote. "[It] will
attempt to hold all the elements of your story in place. . . .
The plot, characters, dialogue, setting, voice and everything
else are all shaped by the vessel."
Finding the theme of
your story is a quest that may begin at any time: before you
write, as you write, and even after you have finished getting
the story down. After the writers' conference, Bain unearthed a
story he had nearly abandoned, "thinking it pretty boring."
After he revised it with theme in mind, it was published and
then republished in a collection of prize stories.
Find Your Theme
"Theme Is What Unifies Your Story,"
The Writer Magazine, March
me for a PDF.
Lois Peterson gives the best workshops for writers.
No matter the topic, go. Just go.
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