#ROW80 / Books I've Read / The Process

Theme & #ROW80 Check-In

ROW80 Logo

My goodness, I feel like I’m in college again. I’ve been burning the midnight oil studying story–what exactly it is and how to build it. I’m reading books and taking notes. Highlighting and bookmarking. All I need now is some late night pizza delivery and cheap beer.

One of the story elements eluding me lately is theme. As you may recall if you’ve read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, theme is one of the first beats on the BS2. Well, I wondered, what exactly are we talking about here? Can a theme be as simple as what occurs in a character arc? Or does it need to be all after school special and obvious?

This week I’ve been reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. When I came to the section on theme, I perked up. His explanation for it was rather mind-blowing. It was both simple and complex. I’m finding the whole book to be rather like that, actually. But in a nutshell: theme can be either of those things or fall somewhere between.  It can simply be what your character goes through (if he’s struggling with drug addiction and overcomes it, then your theme is overcoming drug addiction) or it can border propaganda (think: L. Ron Hubbard). It’s really up to the writer. Brooks had a rather clever scale for this and I found it so helpful I thought I’d replicate it here.

I cannot take credit for the idea (though I won’t blame Brooks for the super graphics, those are all my lack of skills). On the scale from Seinfeld to C.S. Lewis, where does your novel’s theme fit in?


Seinfeld (0)—–>The Cider House Rules (5)—–>C.S. Lewis (10)


The point I think this illustrates is that it isn’t necessarily bad for your novel to not be driven by theme. Take the example of Seinfeld—a self-confessed show about nothing. A show people loved, and still love. Now, a novel without theme is a little bit like junk food for the mind, but who doesn’t love french fries once in a while? There’s also nothing technically wrong with having a specific agenda, just be aware of it–like in the works of C.S. Lewis, a guy who was open about his thematic stance. Our goal is probably to be somewhere in the middle, like Brooks’ example of The Cider House Rules–a book which explores the subject of abortion and offers valid points on either side but doesn’t force an opinion.

And if you’re not sure where you fit in on that scale, Brooks says an easy way to figure it out is to answer the question “what is your book about?” If you answer, “it’s about teenagers who lie about their age to become exotic dancers so they can save money for college”, chances are your story isn’t theme focused, but it will have a theme from what the characters learn in their arc. If you answer with something along the lines of, “it’s about the desensitization of our youth and America’s crumbling moral sensibility” you are probably trying to drive your novel with theme.

Neither answer is wrong, but being aware of it will help as you write. That’s my take anyway. I do recommend picking up a copy of the book, it’s very helpful.


Which brings me to #ROW80 Check-In:

Logline: Done

Beat Sheet: Filled in. But I’m going to take my knowledge from Story Engineering and see if it holds up. If not, I will have to tweak it before moving on to the outline/the board.

Blogging: On track

So, I’m on track. My mind is a little exhausted from so much studying but it’s a good kind of exhausted. Now to take a close look at my story plans and see if I’ve got all the major points covered.

How is everyone else doing with their goals?


16 thoughts on “Theme & #ROW80 Check-In

    • Thanks, Sonia. I’m not finished with the book yet, but I’m taking notes as I go, so it’s a longer process. I think it’s worth it though. Sometimes I think he waxes on a little long with the analogies, though they all make sense.

  1. Ohmygosh, Cider House Rules is one of my favorite books. I think if you have a story that is satisfactorily ABOUT something, then you have a theme. To me, they’re the same thing.

    Congratulations on being on track with your goals!

  2. Good job! I like the illustrations about theme….

    I’m finally feeling my projects coming together, too. I’ve written my updates on my Creative Moments blog.

    I think this is my first visit to your blog…love that header!

  3. Sounds like you’re doing great! Thought provoking post about theme. I like to think, though, that random silliness about everyday foibles of people IS a theme, but I definitely got your gist. After all, Seinfeld made a living from it and it sort of invented itself as a theme. LOL I love that goofy show, can you tell?

    • I loved it too (still do!)–so I think you’re right about everyday foibles of people IS a theme. He said that in the book too. As long as your character undergoes an arc where they change through the book, that will most likely be the theme. But if you wanted to have a purposeful theme, just be aware of what it is as you write each scene. I felt a little better though because I think my WIP will be a little more Seinfeld and a little less C.S. Lewis, but that’s OK :). (

  4. Great minds think alike? I almost bought Story Engineering at Borders yesterday (but the discounts aren’t quite deep enough for me yet). I guess I really should get it.

    Sounds like you’re plugging along on your ROW80 goals. Great job! I’m a week and a half behind from a trip I took. Oh well. *dusting off and getting back on horse*

    • Do you have a Nook, Julie? I bought the eBook so i could lend it to you if you’ve got one. Otherwise, i do think it’s a helpful book. And it’s pretty funny you were looking to buy it, considering we read Save The Cat at the same time too. It’s like our own little writing book club :).

      I’m on vacation next week, so I’ll fall behind a bit too, but that’s OK. We all need breaks sometimes.

  5. I hear so much about Story Engineering. So many many people seem to find it helpful. Your explanation of his definition of “theme” was so workable, I think I’m going to have to check it out. I also love how it goves you good, measurable progress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s