REVIEW: The Comic Toolbox

This little book is jam-packed with tools that will help any and every writer, regardless of genre. With down-to-earth language, and brief explanations, Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks.

From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty).

As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

His explanation of plot structure is a 9-point list:

* Who is the hero?
* What does the hero want?
* The door opens
* Hero takes control
* A monkey wrench is thrown
* Things fall apart
* Hero hits bottoms
* Hero risks all
* What does the hero get?

If you include all of these points in your story (as he explains one by one), then it will work as any kind of story. This list parallels and expands slightly on the 3-act structure of commercial feature films (inciting incident, Climax 1, 2, 3). The only thing I’d add to his list is that when the door opens, the character walks through it. Because until the character acts in a way that reveals character, the story engine doesn’t get in gear.

What’s really useful about a tool like this is you can fit the answers to the questions on a single page, so it serves as your pencil sketch, thinking tool, your briefest of outlines, to help you manage the narrative arc of your story. Great stuff.

Since it’s a comic toolbox, it covers the comic premise, comic story types, joke types, situation comedy, sketch comedy and more using oodles of easy to understand examples. After introducing each simple tool he encourages you to try them out.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is its title and sub-title, The Comic Toolbox: How to be funny even if you’re not.

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write.

Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective.

Observational stretching

Writers create worlds for an audience to slip into.  Through craft alone, they can take us on a flight to Mars, on an elevator to the other side of the world, or convince us that trees can talk.

It is the finer details that convince; the ability to show the world clearly through description. Here are some exercises that help you to heighten your perception. They are designed to adjust your perspective so you can see things… differently.

At some point over the next day, when you’re stuck in traffic, riding an elevator or waiting in a line, stop the DJ in your head and notice where you are. Don’t think about that power struggle at work, or what you need to do tomorrow or what you should have done yesterday. While you’re at it, toss out judgement. Try to see what is, not what should or could be.

This kind of exercise is called noticing. When you notice the world around you in detail, you’re seeing with fresh eyes. The more you work at seeing in this way, the more accurately you’ll be able to capture it in your writing.

Start by just noticing aspects of your own experience:

  • As you’re getting ready for your day, stop for a moment and look around you. Notice the room, the light, the taste of your coffee (or tea or whatever).
  • Feel the water of the shower, your hands on your scalp as you apply shampoo. Smell the fragrance of the soaps you use. Hear the sound of the water.
  • As you walk, notice how the light falls on the buildings, hear the traffic flow.
  • If you’re racing somewhere or your thoughts are running wild, stop them. Step back. Take a breath. Look where you are. Notice your breath. What’s going on? What is that like?

Here are suggestions to broaden your noticing:

  • You’re waiting in line. Look at the other people standing there with you.
    • Ask yourself, what’s the primary emotion of each person I notice?
    • What is it about their expression, stance or activities that send an emotional message?
    • What one aspect reveals their character?
  • You’re on a bus. Move your attention from one person to another. For each:
    • What is their dominant emotion?
    • What do you think they do for a living?
    • Where are they going? Where are they coming from?
    • What are the thoughts spinning through their brains?
    • Imagine what they were like as a 5-year-old child. What about as a baby?
    • What did their mother love about them? What was the secret fear she had about their life but never told them?
    • What is the one thing they hunger for more than anything else?

And last, suggestions for fine-tuning your noticing:

  • Focus on what you see around you. The faces, colours, light, shadows. When something pings at you, try to describe it in words. What emotion does each visual evoke?
  • Focus on sound. Can you differentiate sounds? Is one sound irritating? How is it irritating? Is another sound soothing? What makes it soothing?
  • Focus on smell. Can you connect a smell to an emotion?
  • Focus on relationship. When you look at a table of people talking over coffee, or a couple walking down the street, can you tell the nature of the relationship? The quality of that relationship? Can you imagine what they’re saying?
  • Focus on conversations. Can you hear what people around you are saying to each other?

Noticing is like a muscle. The more you develop the ability, the stronger it becomes. And since it is a form of meditation, it will also help you to find calm and distance in your day-to-day life.

How do you use this in your writing?

If you’re asking this question, you probably haven’t tried it yet. So go ahead!

When you do try, even if just for a moment, you’ll create a sense memory that you can call on when you need it.

Is all feedback useful?

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In my last post, Showing some skin, I discussed a letter I received in response to one of my plays way back in the early 90s. In this blog, I’ll point out the problems with that letter and how I might direct my younger self.

REVIEWING THE GATE KEEPERS

Us writers, we get all kinds of feedback. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the feedback isn’t about our work, it’s about the person dishing it.

The letter I posted last week gave some positive feedback (I was drawn in) and negative feedback (and then I got lost). He kinda liked some parts of it, other parts he was just confused. But what was it he liked? There are no clues. What did he dislike? Again, no clues. Where he got lost, he gave questions (which all point to the character’s motivation and situation, so are legitimate). Yet, without specific references, half the feedback is a frustrating guessing game. He was giving his two cents and returning the script.

Of course gate keepers have the right to say pass/fail, yes/no. Many editors have learned to reject writing with the oblique phrase, “This is not for us.” Each time a writer receives feedback, one coping strategy is to recognize what type you’re receiving:

  • Star rating or Pass/fail: We want you to know we don’t want you.
  • Porridge: I kinda liked it, but I’m not going to tell you what I liked. I kinda didn’t like it, but not gonna share that either.
  • Smarty pants review: The reviewer is sooooo clever and they want you to know! The response is looooong, extremely critical, very directive. The editor is trying to turn your work into their own, because they don’t have the guts to write, so they’ll tell you how you’ve failed. It will feel like an attack. Disregard them.
  • Supportive feedback: Specific comments tied to character, plot development, style, tone, story type that help you to consider the work from a new perspective. May provide process options for you to try.
  • Am I missing any types? Add a comment.

My response to my younger self

When I conceived of this post, I thought it a great opportunity to demonstrate a typical review I provide writers. You see, I can’t post any real ones as those writers are trying for publication. They can’t have the dirty laundry of their initials drafts sitting up here on my blog, right? So this post seemed a great idea until I started writing it. Since you blog readers have not read the play, it was challenging to keep it brief and representative. So, here is my succinct version using my clinical / analytical voice.

Conflict déjà vu?

The central problem with the script is that the conflict is one-dimensional. This happens when the writer (me) walks around the story from only one or two points of view. A key symptom of this problem: The same type of conflict occurs over and over.

Here’s an over-simplified demo to make it obvious:

Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: No!
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: I gotta go to the washroom first.
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: Can you read me a story?

Note how there’s variety in John’s responses, but the mother says the same thing over and over again. In my play, the captors repeatedly ask Tamara to use the technology and she tries to convince them why she shouldn’t. Luckily, it was only 90 minutes long and I did use some creativity in how I repeated the conflict. Still… an audience wants more.

Another symptom of this problem is flat characters. I’d created one fully realized character who lives in an interesting time and community, but that was only a part of the spadework I needed to do as a writer. I also needed to consider the perspectives of the antagonist, Tamara’s family and the society as a whole.

Were I the dramaturge on this play I’d ask the writer these questions:

  • How does she really love and miss her family and former life? What made it hard to leave the world she knew?
  • What does the captor need from her? Why go to these lengths to get Tamara back? What ammunition does the captor have to tempt her? Hint: Look at your answers to questions about her family and life.
  • Is her captor who s/he seems to be? Perhaps they’re a robot who appears as a person? Or a robot with her mother’s (father’s, brother’s) mind installed on its hard drive?
  • What has happened in the world she left behind over the past year while she’s been away? Has all humanity been accidentally wiped out by robots or some artificial intelligence? Disease? Or are things the same? Select the dramatic intensity that relates to your theme.
  • What are the audience’s expectations for this story type? How do you not meet them? (I typically provide a list of requirements for each story type). How can you play with audience expectations? The play shows us a 1984 style interrogation. As a quick exercise, imagine the captor as a nurturing earth mother or as someone who looks like they’re from her tribe. Bring the character on stage in your imagination and get to know them. This will feed into the writing style you use, even if you don’t keep the character on stage.

Writing is a process. Each writer, like each actor, finds the processes that work for them. As a reviewer, I try to point out the symptoms I’m seeing and, based on my experience, give the writer a few ways to tune the work. And I always start each review with the same statement:  All feedback is an attempt of the reviewer to re-write the story in their own image. That’s good, because it means they’re engaged. Your reviewer is trying to figure out how they would relate to the story. But that’s also why a writer should never respond to feedback immediately. Go out on a rock and sit on it for a few days. Feel out what pings as true, then act on it.

Showing some skin

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Every novel, play or screenplay begins with an idea. A character, a moment, an issue begging to be explored. It gets you thinking, pondering, mulling… and you’re off… Sometimes you fly. Others you stumble.

Well, when I started out I stumbled. A lot.

Many of those stumbles were but a cloudy memory until a few weeks ago when I received an email from an editor in a university theatre department. She asked me a question that got me pulling out my writing archives and reflecting on where I succeeded, where I fell down, and why.

To explain, I start with a Canadian Theatre History moment:

SOUND EFFECTS: Haunting call of a loon in the distance. Rocks. Trees. Water. CN Tower.

NARRATOR: Way back in 1981, a guy named Urjo Karedo was appointed Artistic Director of Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.  At a time when most Canadian theatres were folding, Tarragon thrived under his direction.

Every night Urjo took home one of the plays sent in by a hopeful playwright. The next morning he typed the playwright a letter about their play. In these letters he asked scorching questions, pointed out embarrassing gaps and disconnected details. Over the twenty years he read and replied to 1.5 plays per day or almost 5,000 plays.

The editor contacted me because she is compiling a selection of Urjo’s letters into a book. One of the four letters Urjo wrote to me might be included. The editor had never seen the play I wrote, so she wanted some context to understand the letter.

Off I went, digging out the boxes, dusting them off and re-reading. Here is a synopsis for that play Eye am Hear. 

Set in a dystopian future where people interact solely through computers, the play features Tamara, a teenager who ran away to join a street gang that rejects technology. At the start of the play two masked men drag Tamara into a dark warehouse and chain her to the ceiling. A computer screen lights up and a keyboard on a table rolls across the room to her. “Log on, Tamara” says the screen. She refuses. Over the course of 3 days, her captors attempt to convince her that she is the victim of a cult as she struggles to differentiate the facts she knows from the convincing fictions they weave. Their story is simple: technology is the essential power. Without it, she is in fact, not even alive.

Eye am Hear was written and produced in pre-internet 1992. It attempts to answer the question, What do our technologies do to us? 

The play was produced as part of a festival about technological literacy called Words in a Heard. This festival featured several short plays, an art installation and my play Eye am Hear as the centrepiece. After the festival and some re-writes, I sent the script to Urjo hoping for a second production, or at least a response and an invitation to his playwright development unit.

What’s interesting about reading his response so many years later is that he misses one really, super-duper important piece. It’s a point that you should be able to pluck out without reading the play.

So, here’s an idea: read the letter below. Pretend you are the writer receiving it. Write your ideas about what’s missing from it in the comments below. Next week I’ll post what I would write to the younger me.

Colleen Subasic letter B21 F10

Would you date your bad guy?

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Writers are usually quite diligent in developing their protagonist, the settings, the concept. All great stuff.

But there’s one area where I typically need to nudge and prod. That is, in developing the bad guy.

The thing is, the bad guy is where you’ll find your story meat. In thinking through what he wants and why, you’ll discover solid plot points that can fill out the narrative. Without this thinking, the story is half formed.

So let’s take a short walk in your bad guy’s shoes and see what we find. For simplicity, I use He for antagonist, She for protagonist.

Relationship sussing

  • What does your bad guy (he) want from the protagonist (her)?
    He wants her to be his [insert roles such as: cheerleader, seducer, mother]. More on roles.
  • What is his dream ending for the near and distant future of this relationship?
    When he imagines the best, best, best, possible outcome for this story what is it? How does your protagonist get in his way? What about his long term plans?

What’s his perspective?

  • According to him, what’s going on?
    Does he think something’s wrong, if so what? If not, why not? Like, if he’s the boss who considers his employees mere minions, then treating them as slaves is natural. No problem here. Your protagonist’s job is to help him see the problem or get out from under him.
  • If he loses, what does he lose? If he wins, what does he win?
    Why does it matter? How can you make this more dramatic to increase the stakes?
  • At each point in the story, how does he change his strategies?
    Does he need to adjust his tactics as the protagonist changes hers?

What is his character?

  • How is he egotistical, self-centered or judgemental?
    This is where you will find his blind spot. If yours is a supernatural or magical antagonist, this is where to find that human blind spot she can take advantage of. Consider what he hasn’t thought through all the way. How does he see himself as “above the line” while others are “below the line”?
  • What’s his dastardly plan to destroy the world?
    Develop that plan! Consider where it’s flawed. Did he focus on one aspect of the plan over another? What are the challenges he could face in seeing it through? Does he know the weak spots and try to hide them?
  • When he was five, what did his mother love about him?
    Even a nasty villain had a mother and she probably loved him. Was he fastidious? Curious? Demanding?
  • What does he do when he’s happy?
    Look at your answers to what his mother loved about him. Showing your bad guy as happy can be fun, interesting, round him out. Didn’t you just love Richmond Valentine’s love of films and McDonald’s in Kingsman?
  • What does he do when he’s sad, angry, frustrated?
    Is he a whiner? A pouter? A slam the door kinda guy? Vengeful? Hurt? More important, how do his reactions make him change his strategies?
  • What does he care about?
    What comforts him? Movies, a nice suit, a fine wine, great food. Or is there a person or animal he would do anything for?
  • What is his bad habit?
    Smoker, drinker, nail biter? Obsessive compulsive, worrier, anxiety prone, procrastinator? Whatever you choose, this will get in his way toward achieving his plan.
  • What is he most afraid of and why?
    This is his kryptonite, use it.
  • What is he running toward/away from and why?
    If she knows what he wants / doesn’t want in life, maybe she can thwart his desired path.
  • What’s he trying to hide and why?
    Failure, shame, regrets, embarrassments? The best characters always have something they’re hiding, maybe even from themselves.

Phew! That’s a lot of questions. Some will apply, others won’t. After one pass go through them again and fine tune your answers.

What’s the tree?

A simplified synopsis of story structure goes like this:

  • Get your character up a tree.
  • Throw rocks at her.
  • Get your character out of the tree.

So, by looking at your antagonist you’re asking yourself, “What kind of tree am I putting her in?” The answers will give you ideas for the rocks you throw at your protagonist and how to get her out of that tree.

There’s another bonus to looking at your story from your antagonist’s perspective; you’ll see your protagonist as the bad guy. Like looking at her in the mirror, you’ll see her flaws more keenly. Be sure to burnish those flaws, they’ll make your protagonist more relatable, more believable, more real.

Back to the antag for one last note: He has to be at all three climaxes in your story. If he’s not, you’ve got the wrong antagonist. See my primer on plot structure for more.

Do you suffer from performance anxiety?

typewriter keyboard

Shh! Don’t tell our computer overlords you’re reading this.


Many actors will hand write their lines to learn them. The physical act of setting pen to paper, forming each word and punctuation mark, uses both sides of the brain allowing actors to tap a deeper, more thoughtful place. The words burn visually, physically into their memory. If you’ve ever sat in an exam and remembered the answer to a question because you also recall the doodle on that same page of your notebook, you’ve done the same thing.

Just reading the lines over wouldn’t reach so deeply. Tapping them out on a keyboard wouldn’t either.

Actors use other tools: Creating specific visuals for each sentence, connecting the words they speak with physical actions or developing a rhythm to the words that becomes like a song they sing.

Notice how not one of these methods involves a computer? Actors recognize that their craft is an organic, fluid process. Just because we can do so many things on the computer, doesn’t mean we should do everything there.

Each stage of the writing process requires a different kind of fluidity, just like acting. The idea is to match the method that works for you to each writing task.

I’m so old, my first play was written on a type writer. (Yes, ouch). I felt so bohemian, sitting on the floor of my apartment, the typewriter between my legs, tap, tap, tapping away for over a year. For a review / edit session I’d take the pieces of paper and go through them. When edits were needed I’d physically cut and tape bits of paper together, labelling pages 4A, 4B, etc. If I wanted another draft, the entire thing had to be re-typed from beginning to end. A pain in the buttinsky, sure (in more ways than one). But typing up each draft also gave me another perspective on the story I was building, which proved useful.

When I shifted to computer I noticed how writing a first draft felt different.

The screen was more like a stage than a blank page. I’d type a few words and my inner editor would jump all over them, slashing at ideas. It was like I was trying to set everything in concrete from paragraph one. My first drafts were studies in performance anxiety, because I’d edit the line until it was perfect. When I had something of a draft, I’d print out the whole expecting genius and find a scrambled mess. Oh, each sentence was lovingly crafted. But each was an island.

I learned that a first draft works better if I allow myself to sketch, to throw ideas around and let them live. To write by hand, doodle, circle, arrows and shapes.

Each writer is different, of course. For some the computer screen doesn’t induce anxiety, it’s a pool to throw words into and swim. I guess each of us needs to find the method to match stage and style.

How do you interface with your words and drafts? Leave a comment.

If interested, take a look at Colleen’s draft prescriptions.

What they don’t want

In playing a scene, an actor will ask herself, “what do I want?” That is, what does her character want from the other person in this scene?

Do I want this man to be my seducer? My victim? My best pal? What do I want to hear the other people in the scene say and why? Am I looking for flattery or confirmation? What are my goals?

Do I want to get married? Do I want the job? Do I want to see him suffer?

What a character wants helps the actor to determine the tactics they’ll use to get what they want. Are they flirty, firm or fidgety? Forceful, flowery or fretful?

It sounds all very manipulative, doesn’t it? And yes, it is. But come on, you do it, too. Sometimes without realizing it, you’ll be a bit more pouty than you need to be when declaring a case, or a bit more effervescent when faced with someone you fancy.

From a writing/acting perspective, thinking about a character’s wants helps you inject action into the scene. If a character has a goal, they aren’t going to sit there picking at their cuticles waiting for their life to change. They will do something. Actions betray their true desires, words don’t.

But what your characters don’t want can be just as, if not more, important to figuring out long-term motivations. I’d argue that their hopes for the future are bound up more with what they don’t want than what they do want.

Look to your own future. You don’t know what it holds. You can imagine, yes, but you don’t know for sure if the goal you’re striving for will satisfy you. You think you do. But at the same time, one thing you do know is, you don’t want to be…

  • a cubicle worker for the rest of your life
  • drunk every night like your mother
  • alone in the world
  • (insert your own or your character’s fear here)

In some ways, it is as though we head into the future running backwards, terrified of becoming one of those train wrecks we see spinning into the background as we hurl ourselves through time.

Just as in life, your characters are struggling to release themselves from something. So, in trying to figure out what they want from the future, try to consider what they are trying not to be, just as much as what they hope to be.

Stories are the means we use to “get away,” or escape. They are filled with characters trying to release themselves from a fate, a situation, a struggle.

A tragedy is a story where the hero discovers that what she thought she wanted comes at a price higher than she was willing to pay. She may think she wants to be queen, to discover the criminal who killed her father, or that she wants her son to demonstrate his love. She can taste what this satisfaction will be like with absolute certainty. She looks forward to it, fights for it at every turn. Consider, if you will, Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear.

Modern stories tend to morality tales where the hero always wins. They ‘win’ the throne, put the criminal behind bars, and the son buys her a mansion in the country. It is as though we need the happy ending because of… what?

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A good hard look in the mirror

On occasion, I try to paint. I’m not very good at it, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t have aspirations of becoming some an art-world wonder. Painting is something I do to get away from a computer (because everything we do these days seems to require time in front of a glowing screen).

When I want a new perspective on a painting in-progress I hold it up to the mirror. Seeing the image in reverse is much like seeing a photograph of yourself in that it’s just different enough to point out the flaws.  I can see where the shadows don’t agree with the light source, or how the eyes look more cartoon than sketchy.

Over the years I’ve tried to find an equal to a mirror for writing, but it’s not easy. Laying the pages down on a table one after another doesn’t work. A single-page outline of the story where I highlight the events and plot points always helps as it gives a view of the whole from a distance. But that’s not a true reflection.

A story or a play or a screenplay provide the audience with a journey. On this journey, there are uphill climbs, pratfalls, victorious dances and moments of true solitude. To see all of that in your mind’s eye in one go is impossible when you have your nose pressed up against the pages. Your nose gets stuck on the nitty, gritty.

What does work, however, is a very simple tool that takes great discipline: placing your manuscript in a drawer and leaving it there until you let the story go.

Working on a project is addictive. Moments in the shower or driving become opportunities to consider a character’s thought processes or the flow of a scene. It’s no longer a project, it’s a lifestyle.

That kind of rapture is essential for writing, of course. Like an actor who writes journal entries for the days leading up to a play’s action, it is in that state where insights and nuances are found.

But there are two ruts I find myself falling into:

1. In the scenes I don’t have the patience to figure out, I dash words together until I get something I think kinda works okay and then send it out before it’s ready. Sending it out is all about the dream: Someone will overlook the flaws as charming and declare it a work genius.

2. I dig into the perfection process, going in circles. I write and re-write and revise and revise and go back and start again and again and again.

What I’ve learned is that if you treat my writing like a box of food that can be heated up in a microwave, people see that.

Or, if I keep my nose so tightly in the words, they suck me into their vortex and I never find my way out of their grasp. The relaxed flow of language is also stiffened by over-thinking or over-writing. That characters stop breathing.

It takes great discipline to let go. If you do though, time will work its mirror magic.

When I come back to a manuscript after a month or so break, I find I have a new-found objectivity more clear and insightful than any reviewer could give me. In one section I’ve hit my stride. In another, the pithy words I was so attached to glare like dollar store bling.

The pace and flow of the work becomes more obvious. Am I writing in all one flurry, or are there hills and valleys for the audience to enjoy?

The drawer takes patience and discipline. But isn’t that what the craft of writing is all about?

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Making friends with monsters

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Who likes conflict? It’s so darned uncomfortable. Full of raised voices, tears, harsh words, exasperation, confusion. Who hasn’t tip toed past a door to avoid such nastiness?

Thing is, the very thing we all try to avoid every day is the meat of story telling.

When a writer is struggling with conflict it manifests in the work in one of these ways:

  1. No conflict – high realism style. Characters talk, scenes are described, but nothing happens.
  2. No conflict – perfect-world style. The perfect character jumps from one victory to the next. Readers yawn in disbelief.
  3. Too much conflict – the sky is falling. The sky is falling! Repeatedly. But the falling sky never has an impact on the world in a way that you’d expect.
  4. Too much conflict – it’s not my fault. The main character is a victim who has no responsibility for anything in the story because they never do anything, other than sniffled and moan and whine.

I’m being hyperbolic here, of course, for the purpose of highlighting.

The most common form of this I see in manuscripts is 1) as it masks quite well as “stream of consciousness” writing. But a story without the shaping afforded by conflict is not a story; it’s a bunch of meandering words on a page.

So, how can you make conflict your friend and make your protagonists suffer the way people want them to in stories?

At a story-wide level, start by looking for the monsters under your very own bed.

In Going Sane, Adam Phillips wonders if creating art involves packaging things we find difficult to face in a form that is somehow reassuring. Taking monsters and making them something we can face.

When a writer is successful, stories allow the audience to practice facing conflicts in real life, making them more manageable somehow. Phillips summarizes the famous essayist Charles Lamb on this, which I’ll quote here:

“The sane genius transforms everything that might disturb us, “the wildest dreams,” into something that is familiar and reassuring. It is his artfulness that makes us feel at home; it is the weak writer who makes us feel estranged, or baffled, or lost.”

How can you use this? 

For the story you are writing now ask yourself: What is it about this situation that I am frightened of and need to face?

Poke around in the idea of your story and look for the things that terrify you. Or those things that make you feel shameful. Perhaps you are trying to figure out a past relationship, or to figure out how to handle some aspect of your personality.

Your purpose isn’t to look at the struggle and become its victim. It’s to put on some galoshes and walk through the swamp of terror so you can figure out what facing this challenge means for getting through life. In other words, how can you find your way through the swamp as a hero who grows and changes?

What if your story is a tragedy? Then your tragic hero will put on galoshes, but some fatal flaw will have them make bad decisions with each step. In Woody Allen’s recent movie Blue Jasmine, for example, Jasmine is thrown into the gaping abyss and because she fails to admit she has any responsibility for where she is and what has happened to people around her, she keeps falling and falling and falling. A riveting and terrifying descent.

Once you understand the monster you are struggling with, you have the tools to figure out the plot points of your story. But that’s another post.

In the grand theme of things

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If a story is merely a collection of events told in sequential order we’d all be novelists and screen writers. But that just ain’t so.

A well told story captures our collective imagination, wins our hearts, changes minds and introduces us to characters we fall in love with or fear (and all those emotions in between).

As writers, isn’t that what we strive for? But how do we get ‘there’?

Hold that question and bear with me for a moment. I promise not to growl or maul you.

When a reader opens a novel to that first page, they are looking for something to connect with. That is, they want to see something of themselves reflected the pages.

If they wanted to meet a someone who waxes poetical about themselves for hours on end, they’d go to a party, a bar, or join some kind of group. Who among us hasn’t listened to a friend’s opera about… the latest boyfriend who dumped them, the reason they’re not a superstar, how well ‘designed’ their life is, the trivia of their days or pets.

But walking into the arms of a story is something we do for ourselves, not the good of humanity.

You or your character may have an interesting life, but that alone will not feed your readers. They need sustenance. Something in it for them. (Because enjoying a story really is a selfish activity, isn’t it?).

So, how does the writer get ‘there’? Through that writing tool known as ‘universal theme.’

The universal theme is the thing that everyone can connect to. The glue that holds your story together, because everyone can see themselves reflected there. It’s what your story is ‘about’ under the surface of events. It’s what takes all of those events and gives them meaning.

A writer doesn’t just select a theme and write about it (unless it’s really obvious, like in action thrillers or murder mysteries). It comes out of that digging you do as you first begin writing. It is like an uncovering process, searching for that special nugget of glue that will hold your story together. Once found, it serves as a tool to make decisions about what stays and what goes. What to emphasize, what to gloss over.

The place to look for your theme is in the struggle of the main character.

What’s your struggle?

A story about a woman fretting over ending her marriage may be struggling with:

  • How much of a life is worth sacrificing for the sake of the family?
  • What exactly is abusive behaviour? Where is the line drawn between abuse and character traits

A person who loses all of their family in a car crash may struggle with:

  • How do we learn to live with what we can never come to terms with?

Someone lying in a hospital waiting to die might struggle with:

  • What does it mean to live?
  • What does it mean to live a life that matters?
  • What is a ‘good death’?

A man who meets the love of his life online, and after years of messaging, talking and netsex finally meets her to discover she is truly ugly (and not at all like her photos). He might be struggling with:

  • What is beauty, really?

Notice how the words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ are not in there (e.g., is my husband an abuser?). This is important, because by stating the struggle in universal terms, you take the question out of the character’s corner. Your character’s struggle must be experienced looking out, not in.

A universal theme is one that is timeless and all people can relate to. It is about the challenge of being stuck in a body and  having to relate to people and the world around us. In other words, being human. That is why it’s ‘universal.’ The more universal your theme, the broader the reach of your work. It means the difference between words strung together and the work of an artist.

A theme is a frame (or a filter, or a lense) that allows you to look at an individual scene and ask yourself, “How is this interaction an exploration of my theme?” If the scene has no relation to the theme, either you need to revise it or out it goes.

A theme also handily keeps your characters out of self pity or self loathing. It gives them a way to look out at the world, not at their navals. The point is to find the meaning of the struggle, not to indulge in it.

Now, keep in mind that your character may not be conscious of the universality of their struggle. In fact, that can be part of the story! Say, when a person’s obsessions or drug of choice is ruining their life or the lives of those around them.

The first theme you uncover may not be the one that works for your story. It can take some trial and error to figure it out. But when you do find it you’ll know it. It’ll ping at you. Suddenly, your work and all of the individual scenes will make sense. You’ll know what is detritus and where to look for gold. You know what else? It will also give your story a great chance of reaching into your reader’s hearts and taking them on a thrilling ride.