(Note to skimmers – read to the end for a fun little storytelling exercise — and a contest!)
Some writers are completely and totally theme driven. Every story they write has an agenda, a message to send and a point of view to either explore or sell.
Others are story-driven, and because their stories are rich with characters and compelling situations, themes seem to surface on their own.
Either way, though, theme remains an essential element of a successful story. And because of that, both approaches eventually meet in the same place – a story in which the thematic resonance becomes palpable, if nothing else than through the sheer genius of the way in which the author has reflected life and caused us to think and feel.
Rarely is this an accident. Rarer still is the story that sneaks onto the shelf or onto a movie screen (though it’s admittedly more frequent in that particular venue) that doesn’t have some form of thematic intention.
The key word here being intention.
Which means, the writer did it on purpose.
Theme is as viable a place to begin a story as any other.
A story begins with the seed of an idea, which with a little brainpower and the convergence of other creative forces evolves into a concept, a character, a structural sequence (this is where most true stories are hatched) or a theme.
It is from that first core competency, based on an idea, that the rest of the story begins to grow. When that first core competency is theme, you’ve already got a literary tiger by the tail.
Because great stories always have strong themes.
But what about those who begin with theme? How does that happen, and where do those ideas come from?
The answer is almost always the same – it comes from the heart. From a need to explore or proclaim a point of view about a truth, an issue, an irony or a feeling that stems from the human experience.
Which begs the question, where do I find themes that are worthy of a story? What if nothing moves me to the extent I want to spend the next six months of my life writing about it?
Here’s a way to find out. It involves your memory… and perhaps a radio.
Pop quiz: think of a song lyric.
Something serious and weighty. The first one that pops into your head. Got one? Got several?
It’s important to notice that the lyric that came to mind has remained with you over time. Maybe a long time. Which means there’s something about it that resonates with you.
Your lyric is perhaps the gateway for a story that needs to be told. And because it was you who remembered it, perhaps you might be the ideal writer to tell it.
Turning a song lyric – or any theme that won’t leave you alone – into a story usually takes one of two paths: create a story that explores this theme from several angles… or write one that takes a stand and rams it directly down your reader’s throat.
I don’t know for sure because I haven’t asked him (nor do I know him), but I wager you that John Irving began with the thematic issue of right-to-life clearly and passionately in mind when he began formulating the story that became The Cider House Rules. The rest was his genius.
Ask Jodi Picoult if she begins with theme or story. My money’s on theme.
I doubt that John Irving got his idea for The Cider House Rules from a song, but hey, it could happen.
A great songwriter can illuminate a slice of life and shred it into clarity in three Top-40 minutes.
In fact, I’ve found themes that I would happily – and in some cases, still intend to – devote a novel or screenplay to in many of my favorite songs.
Back to that song lyric you just thought of.
Here’s a little exercise for you to ponder.
The following are excerpts of lyrics of great songs from various genres – and there are millions of them out there – that are screaming for someone to write a novel around them, also in various genres.
Feel free to add your own. But for whichever you choose (these or your own), write a log-line (a one sentence story pitch) that takes the theme and gives it a story to thrive within.
Here’s a few from my list, with my log-lines as examples.
From “Your Decision,” by Alice In Chains:
Time to change has come and gone… once your fear becomes your God… it’s your decision…
Log-line: A story about an aging actor who is given a second chance, but his fear of risk and facing a camera, in combination with the demons that have haunted him since his career took a header, stand in his way of returning to center stage.
From a rock song called “Life Is Beautiful” by a band called 6 A.M. (see, even the obscure can rock your world):
There’s nothing like a trail of blood to find your way back home…
Log-line: A spy is being framed for a botched operation, and instead of taking the rap like a good soldier, he takes the truth about how it really went down and the political corruption behind it to a brave young Congressional investigator, at the risk of his and his family’s life.
Here’s one you’ve probably heard, by Billy Joel (imagine a love story built around this one):
She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes… she’ll casually cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding… she’ll bring out the best and worst you can be… blame it all on yourself cause she’s always a woman to me…
Log-line: The unlikely love story of a couple navigating what their lawyers are making into a nasty divorce, and who discover forgiveness and the return of innocence as they realize what’s important in their lives.
From “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry:
There’s a boy here in town says he’ll love me forever… Who would have thought forever could be severed by… The sharp knife of a short life…
Log-line: In the tradition of The Lovely Bones, how about a story about a dead girl who must return from the grave to save her young love from certain conviction on charges of her murder, which in reality occurred at the hands of the small town Mayor’s son. A three-hanky sure thing, this one.
From the Eagles’ “One Of These Nights”:
I’ve looking for the daughter of the devil himself, I’ve been lookin’ for a woman in white… I’ve been lookin’ for a woman who’s a little of both, I can feel her but she’s nowhere in sight…
Log-line: A dark love story about a man who meets the wrong woman at the wrong time in his life, and has to beat her at her own Machiavellian game to survive. (Okay, I’m cheating… that was my first novel, Darkness Bound, which was a USA bestseller and twice optioned as a film. And yes, it was in part inspired by this lyric.)
From Elton John’s “The One,” with lyrics by Bernie Taupin:
In the instant that you love someone… in the second that the hammer hits… reality runs up your spine… and the pieces finally fit…
Log-line… sorta: This is actually a true tale… my wife and I fell in love to this song, and that particular love story remains in full glorious process as we craft the sequel and the rest of the series together.
I could go on… and on. I bet, so inspired, you can, too.
When you write a theme-driven story well, you’ll be encasing your theme within a story that has melody and tempo and rhythm, just like the song from which it came, or could have come. When that happens the other five storytelling competencies have joined the band, lifting the lyric power of your theme straight into the mind and imagination of your reader.
Without that music, your story is just more elevator background noise. Without theme, it’s just the band warming up, playing separate riffs.
But when it’s all on the same page… magic.
Go write something magical today.
Send me your log-lines for these lyrics… or lyrics that have moved you and led you to a story idea. Consider this a contest – I’ll send a free ebook (your choice) to the author of the most compelling log line submitted.
Learn more about the Core Competencies in Larry’s new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” available next month from Writers Digest Books.