Making It Matter: Theme

The reason I started writing this series of posts was because I wanted to talk about Theme.

The idea of Theme scares lots of people, including writers themselves. I blame this on badly taught English courses, which often force students to state the theme of a story, novel or play. When this happens, you can get the sense that there’s a single correct answer: that a good piece of writing ought to have a single statement of what it’s about.

Of course, that’s nonsense. Very short stories may indeed only be about one thing, but any longer piece is about multiple subjects. Furthermore, few pieces of writing can have their “meaning” boiled down to a single easily stated idea. Meaning is cumulative. It’s also ongoing, even continuing past the point where the story ends. We’ve all heard the saying that the journey is more important than the destination; it’s a cliché, but in writing it’s also true.

So I see no reason why a story should have a single easy-to-articulate theme. At the same time, a story should be about something: something worth writing about. A novel takes months or years to write; why spend so much of your time on something vapid?

Write about something that has actual human meaning. Love. Friendship. Loyalty. Growth. Forgiveness. Change. Loss. Redemption. Warnings of danger. Wonder. Reason. Corruption. Kindness.

I’m not saying you need to have some message you want to preach. If you do, go ahead—there are things that people need to be told (although you and I may disagree on what those things are).

But if you don’t have a message, that’s fine too. What kind of message can you have, for example, about love? Certainly nothing that hasn’t been said a million times before. But writers will be writing about love as long as writing and humans exist. Why? Because it’s a subject worth writing about. It’s a subject that’s never exhausted, provided you aren’t just going through the motions. It’s a subject that’s close to many writer’s hearts, so they’re driven to write about it.

And what if you don’t know your heart? What if you can’t tell what you’re driven to deal with in writing? Those are excellent questions. I’ll talk about them in the next post of this series.

[Image is the famous theme from Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.]

Making It Matter: Hooks

In the previous posting, I talked about the need to give readers a reason to care about your story. In the very first lines of the piece, you have to present a character worth caring about—a character whom you the writer care about—and something to promise that you aren’t going to waste the reader’s time.

How do you do this? If you’ve read any books about writing, I’m sure you’ve seen advice on “hooking” the reader: presenting something that intrigues readers enough that they’ll want to keep reading. Typically, hooks are discussed in terms of plot—you want to indicate that interesting events are going to unfold, and perhaps introduce a note of mystery so that readers say, “What’s that all about? Tell me more.”

But stories should also begin with emotional hooks. They should introduce at least one character that readers connect with. The connection should generally be positive—readers should like, sympathize, or even admire the character.

Negative connections are also possible. One very common trick is to start a book with one or more sympathetic characters getting slaughtered by bad guys. The hope is that this will make a reader hate the bad guys so much that he or she will keep reading in order to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.

But even in this case, it’s advisable to lead off by presenting the sympathetic victims-to-be…and to make them very sympathetic. The first Star Wars movie showed the spunky rebel underdogs before eventually bringing in Darth Vader. Vader is cool and intriguing, but (at least in Episode IV) not someone you’d root for. So long as he’s just evil, he can’t carry a movie himself.

To create an emotional hook, therefore, you need someone the reader wants to see more of. A tried and true method for doing this is to show a character doing something positive, thereby signaling the character’s potential for being a good person (even if they aren’t very good to start with). This is often called a “Save the Cat” moment, as immortalized in the screenwriting “how-to” book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder advises that even if a lead character has a lot of negative qualities, an early moment when he or she does something good (such as saving a cat from danger) will make us feel as if the character is redeemable. We’ll then be ready to watch the movie or read the story in order to see if the character really does become a better person.

This may seem trite and cynical, yet it’s important and it works. My favorite example is the first Kingsman movie. The protagonist Eggsy is a drunken delinquent who steals a car in the movie’s first few minutes. He seems like an unlikable lout…but in a car chase trying to escape from the police, he literally veers the car to avoid running over a cat. The car runs into a wall and Eggsy gets caught by the cops. But now we know he isn’t all bad, so we’re willing to keep watching what happens to him.

The key is to engage readers’ emotions very early in a story at the same time that you engage their intellectual interest with plot-related matters. Let me give an example.

Even before someone tried to kill him, Max Vereen was having a bad day.

At 5:00AM, a drunk driver smashed into a car in the parking lot right outside the window of Max’s apartment. Loud blaring of the car’s alarm. Max jumped out of bed to see if his own car was the one that was hit. It wasn’t (thank God!), so Max was inclined just to go back to bed. But then the owner of the car that was hit came running out and started screaming at the drunk driver. Screaming threats and banging his fists on the guy’s car. Max hated to get involved, but things looked like they might get ugly, so he sighed and called 911.

The police arrived in time to stop a serious fight, but then they were out there for an hour with their flashers lighting up Max’s bedroom and talking so loud that Max just couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, he decided to get up and make himself a real breakfast as opposed to just Red Bull and a granola bar…but being groggy and sleep-deprived, he burned the toast and got little bits of egg-shell in the omelet. He ate them anyway. He also ate the granola bar and drank two cans of Red Bull.

When he walked out to his car, he tripped over a side-view mirror that had been knocked off one of the cars in the collision, and just left lying on the parking lot’s pavement. He nearly fell flat on his face. But it turned out okay because his stumble meant that the bullet aimed straight at his head missed by a fraction of an inch, whizzing past his ear fast enough that Max felt its breeze.

What does this example give us? A plot hook in the very first sentence, then a couple of paragraphs introducing Max and showing that he’s an ordinary guy, but decent enough to call 911 even when he’d rather not get involved. These paragraphs also establish a basic setting: probably modern-day in some urban part of the developed world. With that set-up done, it’s back to the action of the plot.

I’m not saying this is a brilliant opening—I dashed it off without too much thought, and it’s likely a bit too generic. Even so, I hope it shows the basic principles of both plot hooks and emotional hooks.

But there’s more to “making it matter” than just helping the reader connect with your characters. In the next blog post, I’ll start dealing with what I really wanted to talk about when I started this topic: theme.

[Fish hook picture by Mike Cline from Wikimedia Commons]

Making It Matter: Caring

Simple principle: A story should mean something to the reader. Otherwise, it’s just people running around.

We’ve all read stories that didn’t grab us. Maybe they had plots that looked okay on paper (ha ha)—they had a “heroic” character who had to deal with problems until finally reaching a solution. But we just didn’t connect with the character or the incidents. We weren’t moved. We didn’t care.

If you find a story like that (or if you already know of one), it’s valuable to investigate why it left you cold. What was it missing? Or perhaps what did it do that turned you off?

It can be difficult to analyze and learn from good stories because it’s like vivisecting a living frog—as you start slicing and dicing, the frog dies. The living essence of a successful story is often a complex interplay between story elements. But an unsuccessful story can be easier to examine, because it starts off dead. Cutting it into pieces won’t hurt it.

In my experience as a writer and editor, stories end up dead when they aren’t about something meaningful. They don’t deal with anything that matters to the reader. More precisely, they don’t manage to make things matter to the reader. Even if they deal with elements that seem universal—love, survival, success, etc.—they do so in a way that doesn’t click. They don’t engage our emotions or our interest.

So if you’re a writer, how do you make readers care?

Step 1: You have to care. If you’re writing about a situation that ought to be engaging, but it doesn’t engage you personally, then your story is already dead. The elements must matter to you.

Take a simple example. Many thriller stories start with characters discovering that their lives are in danger. Character X is walking down the street when a bullet barely misses X’s head. (Yes, this is a cliché, but it will probably be used in stories long after you and I are both dead.)

To make such a story work, you the writer have to care a great deal about Character X. You have to be interested in the person and in that person’s survival. Then you have to communicate that feeling to the reader. Why is X someone who deserves to live? What is X living for? Why would it matter if X were killed?

Emotional engagement starts with you, the writer. What makes you care? And then how do you stir similar feelings in the reader?

There’s often a getting-started problem involved. You may care about Character X because you know a lot of cool things about them. However, you may not be able to tell all those things to the reader at the very beginning of the story, especially if some of those things are secrets that only get revealed later on. Besides, you hope to hook the reader with the sudden surprise attack, so you want to get to that as soon as possible, rather than first spending time on momentum-less characterization.

Well, too bad. Story beginnings always have to juggle multiple elements at once. You have to introduce the setting, at least one character, the action, the story’s tone and maybe more, all simultaneously. Readers might give you a small amount of slack—let’s say a paragraph or two—but for some readers, you may only have a single sentence to get in the hook.

So you have to connect fast. You have to give readers a reason to care. That means presenting a character worth caring about—a character you care about—and a promise that you aren’t going to waste the reader’s time.

In Part 2 of this series of blog posts, I’ll say more about how you do this.

[Bullet picture from User Moriori on en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons]


Attention novice writers! Stop comparing your first draft to published stories and books. It’s just silly.

Today I turned in the final proofreading on my next novel, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded. This was my very last chance to change the book in any way…and while it’s highly frowned upon to make significant alterations at this stage, I still made a number of tiny tweaks that were artistic improvements rather than just correcting typos.

This was the end of a lengthy process of writing and rewriting—mostly rewriting. The very first time I write a passage, I typically go back the next day and read it over to improve the flow of the text. Also during the first draft stage, I decide I have to make large-scale changes, e.g. throwing out one or more scenes and putting in something different. By the time I’m finished the “first” draft, I’ve probably combed through every word at least three times, and a number of sections are completely different from the way they first emerged from my head.

Then I do the same thing again. I go into the “second” draft knowing much more about the story I want to tell—the conscious

and unconscious elements which were brought to light by writing the first draft. The second time through, I can shape the narrative and the details more strategically. I can layer in more richness and more set-up for things that matter. I can also deal with problems I decided not to fix while I was writing the first draft…because during a draft, I repeatedly face the question, “Do I go back and deal with that problem right away, or do I leave it till later?” Sometimes I decide, “Fix it now,” and sometimes I decide, “Leave it till later.” The second draft is “later”; it’s when I tie off loose ends and patch up holes that I didn’t do the first time around.

(For those who care, I make notes in Evernote whenever I realize there’s something I need to fix. I also use Evernote to record details I need to remember: character descriptions, timelines, and so on.)

After the second draft, I share the book with first readers. That leads to another draft, which may or may not mean a ton of rewriting. The result goes to my agent, Lucienne Diver, who also gives feedback and advice on changes. After I’ve dealt with that, the result goes to an editor…which leads to more changes. Then copy-editing. More changes. And finally, proofreading the typeset version of the book for one last kick at the can.

Because of the repeated nature of the process, and the constant reworking of the text as I go along, it’s difficult to say how many drafts a book actually goes through. It’s like an oil painting: all such paintings are made by adding layers of paint on top of layers, with later layers adding detail, color and texture to earlier ones. Paintings start with broad strokes; subtleties are added last. The same is true of writing. We constantly remove weaknesses and layer in higher quality material. Stories and novels aren’t born perfect, they’re built a layer at a time.

And yes, once in a long while, an almost-perfect story just blurts out from your subconscious without needing much additional improvement. Writers should be grateful if such a miracle happens, but depending on miracles is not a reliable career path.

Develop a process. Learn to layer. And don’t judge yourself when the first words you put on paper aren’t as great as someone else’s umpteenth draft.

(Paint layer image: Hariadhi [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons)

Fiction is Fictitious

Permit me to rant: fiction consists of lies that a writer makes up.

The characters don’t really exist. The things they do aren’t real. To quote the usual boilerplate, “All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”

Of course, real people and events are occasionally depicted in fiction, especially historical fiction…but even then, it’s a trick.

It’s like when a stage magician lets a random member of the audience examine a deck of cards to make sure the cards are ordinary. It helps make the act more convincing. When a piece of fiction includes people who actually existed and events that really truly happened, it’s a psychological ploy to make readers more likely to swallow the stuff that’s complete make-believe.

It’s a good trick that writers use all the time. In my most recent books, I use actual everyday things like Wikipedia and mobile phones to create a setting that seems real and convincing…so that when I introduce vampires and superheroes, the world still retains a modicum of believability.

But it’s all made up.

I’m writing this rant because I read an essay on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The Turn of the Screw may or may not be a ghost story. Perhaps the ghosts are real; perhaps they’re just delusions in the mind of an unreliable narrator. The essay I was reading spent a great deal of time on this question, even though there’s a blatantly obvious answer.

Spoiler alert: the ghosts weren’t real. Neither was the unreliable narrator. Neither was anyone else in the story. It’s fiction. It’s all made up.

Henry James clearly wanted to create ambiguity. He positioned the story right on the boundary line between yes and no. He did a good job of splitting the difference, and we can admire the skill that he shows.

But to me, asking if the ghosts are real is like asking if Penn and Teller can really catch bullets in their teeth.

They can’t. It’s a trick. It can be an engaging trick, skillfully done and winningly performed. While it’s happening, you can let yourself believe it’s real…the same way you can let yourself believe a good story is real while you’re reading it. You can even let yourself get carried away by a story, getting caught up with the characters and coming away with deep emotions or even lessons from the tale.

But it’s still a trick. If a writer is good, it’s a meaningful and affecting trick. But fiction is still fictitious. Let’s not lose sight of that.

[Rabbit picture from “Easter Bunny Rabbit The Magic Hats Clip art – Hat Bunny @kisspng”]

Villains (Part 5)

So after a series of posts about villains, we come to the question of how to make a good villain. As always with writing, the answer is, “It depends what serves the story best.” But since that’s too vague to be much help for beginning writers, let’s try to get some more specific suggestions. (Suggestions! Not rules, suggestions.)

Villains only exist because they make the heroes’ stories better. If a villain is a great entertaining character, but doesn’t fit with the hero’s story, the villain has to go. (Save such villains for later; maybe give them stories of their own.)

So what does it mean for a villain to “fit” with a hero’s story? At the very least, the villain must provide enough opposition that readers think the hero might fail. If a villain is a pushover, there’s no dramatic tension.

But that’s the easy part. There are plenty of straightforward ways to make someone imposing: make them stronger, smarter, better equipped, better prepared, more connected, less inhibited…the list goes on. But which qualities from this list are best suited for opposing a particular hero?

That depends on the hero’s personality and character arc. How is the hero going to change in this story? What are the temptations that might lead the hero astray? What kind of villain might threaten to induce such changes? What kind of villain reflects the hero’s personal demons? What kind of villain may have strengths that the hero lacks?

As a case study, let’s take Batman. He’s famous for having some of the best villains in comics. Some are just physically imposing (e.g. Killer Croc or Solomon Grundy). But many are more distinctive and tailored to Batman himself.

The Penguin is a rich kid gone wrong…as opposed to Bruce Wayne, the rich kid with moral fiber. Poison Ivy crusades for a noble cause (just like Batman), but she takes it too far and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Two-Face went through a traumatic experience (much like Bruce Wayne losing his parents), but instead of gaining a purpose in life, he gave up and decided that everything is completely random.

All these villains (and more) are twisted reflections of Batman, suggesting ways he might have gone—ways that he still might go if he loses his resolve. But of course, Batman’s foremost enemy is the Joker, because of Joker’s threat of corrupting what Batman is.

The Joker kills for fun. Batman never kills at all. The Joker is guaranteed to keep on killing—he’ll never stay locked up long before he escapes and starts killing again. Everything about the Joker is aimed at tempting Batman to kill him, thereby saving numerous future victims. That’s the challenge that the Joker presents: not whatever scheme the Joker is up to, but whether Batman is going to resist resorting to murder. And the Joker knows exactly how to push Batman’s buttons to bring him to the edge of finishing the Joker once and for all.

Of course, the Joker is also colorful, unpredictable, and sometimes even funny. But that’s not why he works so well in Batman’s stories. The Joker is the guy who does something awful, then laughs in Batman’s face and says, “What are you going to do about it?”

The Joker is perfect for making Batman prove himself. And that’s the sort of villain that’s worth aiming for in any story you write.

Villains (Part 4)

In three previous posts, I talked about villains in fiction and the nature of their motivations. Today, I want to look at actually developing villains for use in a story.

Stories grow from many kinds of seeds: little bits about characters, or a setting, or plot elements, or images, or twists, or conceptual frameworks, or memories, or…

But as soon as you have a seed that grabs you, then you have to start gathering and/or inventing all the other elements that the story needs. You need characters, a setting, at least the start of a plot, and much else. If you’re the type of writer who plans a lot in advance, you’ll need a firm grasp of all these components before you get started. Even if you’re the type of writer who mostly improvises, you still need a sense of what kind of story you’ll be writing and why it’s worth your time. (I’m prepared to believe that a few good stories have resulted from writers sitting down to write with absolutely no ideas of what might come out, but this strikes me as an unreliable way to build a career.)

One of the elements you need in order to build a story is an answer to, “Who is this story about?” Who will readers be following? And why will they want to keep following that character’s experiences? Even in a story like Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains, there may not be any humans, but there are “characters” with whom the reader connects: the dog, and of course, the house itself.

Such central characters may be called “heroes”, “protagonists”, “viewpoint characters” or several other names, depending on how technical you want to get and how useful you may find it to make subtle literary distinctions. One way or another, however, they’re who the reader makes a connection with. Readers soon know whose story they’re following…and if the story is any good (or at least halfway conventional), they’ll realize when the story has come to an end, because they’ll recognize when something significant has changed in the central characters’ lives.

Villains are the agents of change. They may force the heroes out of a rut, or they may push back when the heroes try to change on their own. Classically, villains constitute the foremost obstacles to the heroes being able to change in positive ways. Remove the villains, and the heroes just romp across the finish line without resistance.

So when you’re developing a story, devising a suitable villain can be crucial. The villain must suit the tone of the story—comedies need comic villains, thrillers need thrilling ones, etc. And this is where the villain’s motivation comes in: what villains want and why they want it has a huge effect on the feel of a story. Grim motives create grimness. Sincere sympathetic motives create a sincere sympathetic ambiance. And so on.

As a simple example, consider a story about a music competition. The hero and the villain both want to win the prize. If the villain is an arrogant scumbag who wants the prize for the sake of ego, that gives you one type of story. If the “villain” comes from a poor family and really needs the prize money in order to go to music college, that’s completely different…and your hero damned well needs to have an even better reason to win the prize, or else the hero is at risk of switching into the villain.

The big question is what kind of story you want to write. The nature of the conflict between the hero and the villain determines what the reader feels as the story unfolds.

Next time, I’ll talk more about the hero-villain dynamic, and how  you can use it to convey emotions.