Finding A Theme For Fiction Writing

The old story goes goes that Moss Hart was once asked by an aspiring writer of plays, “How do you write a play?”  Hart answered that the process was very simple: first act you get a man up a tree, second act you shake a stick at him, and the third act you get him out of the tree.”  Well, not that writing a play is all that formulaic but that is the basis of all drama or comedy, the two being the two sides of the same coin.  And when we think of it, it works out the same way in the writing of fiction.  True, the academics have sub divided the writing of a books into a great many detailed parts and one can find all the appropriate books on the subject, but the one thing they can’t really help you do is find that theme that makes the difference between just another poor excuse for killing a tree and a book that is worth your time to read.  And the other place you won’t find any help is the best selling lists.  I have read more crap that was termed a ‘must read’ than I can to remember.  Most ‘must reads’ are really nothing more than ‘must toss in the refuse pile’.  But remember, reviewers are often constraints, one way or another.  When I was a more honest review of any book I go to Amazon and read the three and two star reviews.  That doesn’t mean that the four and five star reviewer are lying, but most of them are.  Most of them either haven’t read the book or will give great reviews because their reviewer ratings depend on it and that is how they get free books to review.  If you are a paid New York Times reviewer you get paid the tell the public the latest Pulitzer Prize winner is a great book and a must read.

But back at the ranch, we continue our search for a theme, something that gives us reason to waste a reader’s time.  Some authors like to write happy, happy, upbeat prose and I am most happy for them.  I just don’t waste my time in their fantasy world because they have nothing substantive to say to me.  If you need and want happy inspiration to live your life, so be it.  You sure as hell don’t want to read me, not that I have published anything yet, but I’m getting there.  I prefer a bit more reality to life stories.  John Buchan wrote the mystery series, The Thirty Nine Steps and the three follow up novels that led into the Great War of 1914-1919.  He wrote with the usual Boys Life style of theme.  Right versus wrong, good versus evil, and the whole Edwardian moral issues.  I find such stories enjoyable because they help me understand an era where such morality was expected even if the general public fell short of that mark.  Most writers really do not realize that they are writing a sort of history.  Much of that writing is cultural.  Your characters are reflections of the social mores and expectations of the age group that reads your work.  The book says something about you the writer and you the reader.  If you think Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is a great book, you are still living in an immature world.  Yes, I know that millions love that  Gonzo style of writing, but millions loved the Three Stooges and I would not call their comedy anything buy raw juvenile slapstick.  Am I being a bit moralistic about all this?  Yes I am.  One of the greatest books written last century, To Kill A Mocking Bird was a moral judgement.  You cannot use Gonzo style writing to discuss anything of a serious matter.  Just try and picture Hunter S Thompson trying to write anything of value on race relations in the twenties and thirties.  You might as well ask Jerry Lewis to do Hamlet, although he might surprise us and actually do it well.

We create characters in order to do battle with conflict.  Life is very boring if you never have to work at it, if everything always goes your way.  My god, we love to tell our war stories to each other, both friends and strangers.  It is that little game that Dr Eric Berne described in his book The Games People Play called can you top this one and we love to try.  We ever go to great lengths to exaggerate enough to top the other guy.  And yet we all know that most of what we tell in these stories is the stretch truth.  It is being human.  So, your book will have characters, and you better write their biographies carefully and fully so that they are just like friends to you, and they will exaggerate their stories.  After all, you aren’t the one telling the story, your characters are!  And you know, characters are just like people you have met, people you know.  Most timid bank clerks do not become the blood and guts war heroes over night.  If they change at all it is because there has occurred a cataclysmic event in their lives and you are going to delve into that change.  Otherwise we take a normal man or woman and put them in situations that challenge who they think they are.  If a man believes himself to be honest beyond approach then he must be given a chance to prove that to himself.  If a woman thinks she can love her child no matter what he does then we must find a way for that child to challenge that sense of love.  For my parents the idea that your son or daughter could be gay was that challenge, would you still love them no matter how horrid they flashed their lifestyle in your face (and let me tell you, my brother did)?  But it is not your job to totally resolve these issues.  I doubt that any father ever totally accepts his son as being gay.  Love and tolerance, sure, but total acceptance, not quite.  But you see, this is life, this is what real people deal with every day, just not one thing after another every day of the week.

Morality seems like such an old idea, so baby boomer.  And yet we see it pay out with the youngest generation today.  We see a sense of right and wrong, and idea that individuals should not take extreme advantage of each other.  There is a rejection of institutional homelessness, of child hunger, of racial wrongdoing, and the like.  Morality is not religion, never was, and never will be.  Morality is how we treat each other in the groups of which we are members.  It is that behavior we expect from others and from ourselves.  If you are in your early twenties you have a chance as a writer of fiction to help others of your relative age find that sense of morality.  Your writing helps to define it.  That is how you find a theme worthy of your skills.  On the other hand you can do the formula thing and try to make enough money being a little more clever doing so.  Your writing will be as forgotten as the millions of volumes written in the last two centuries and most of which end up in land fills.

Now a word of caution about finding your theme.  I have been searching for one for the last five years.  They are rare birds and after several false starts I think I found one.  These things are never obvious but sometimes they do come and smack you in the face.  Your theme is never black and white, you must let your characters explore its aspects, let them get the lay of the land and then erect their homes, their desires, and their families.  If it were so easy we would all be great writers.  The best you can ever do is try.  If you do succeed in writing something great or even good, you get the brass ring, the chance to do it again.  If you are lucky then you might make a dollar or two.  But if you pout the money first you will never be a great writer or even a good one.  I once stopped in a Thomas Kinkade gallery and saw a couple of his works.  As an artist he had great technical ability and great talent.  As an artist he sucked big time.  His subject matter of nostalgia was as false as the value he place on his work.  He was a greedy man and wanted to be rich.  So he painted what the carriage trade liked and failed as an artist.  And he even failed as a businessman for most of those galleries went belly up.  A hundred years from now will anyone really want to own any of his oils and prints?  What good does it do for a writer to win fame and fortune but lose his soul?  Will anyone read Frank McCort a hundred years from now?  Have you bothered to read anything he wrote?  Will you recommend him to your children?  You see, writing is not only a craft at which we try to become proficient but an art to which we aspire to create.

Meanwhile, some of my characters have stopped by for a drink and we are discussing a new book.  I think they will enjoy the challenge I se before them and with their input I just might write something worth your time.


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