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.

The writer’s madness tickle trunk

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What a great many madnesses do we writers have to plague our characters! There’s depression, anxiety, obsessions, phobias, addictions, paranoias, doubts and suspicions about ourselves and others, feelings of unreality and insignificance, feelings of grandiosity and cosmic importance.

Consider those niggling terrors; the thoughts that won’t go away, no matter how hard your character tries. As individuals we fight these things in ourselves, so why don’t your characters? As a writer these are your tools, your opportunity, to make characters of depth.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How is your character not happy about herself? Is she too fat? Too thin? Too poor? Lacking in direction? Too normal? Too low in status?
  2. Who does she see as the perfect ‘me’ in the future? What is she doing (and not doing) to get there?
  3. How is she fighting off insanity? Is she obsessive about cleanliness, saving money, staying away from ‘dirty people’, disease, germs? Does she slip into a bottle of booze at night? Is she so economical that she has started to wash all of her clothes by hand as he showers (a.k.a. become eccentric)?

Brave and unique choices give you great opportunities to create interesting situations that readers can connect with.

What does your character value?

A good place to find your character’s madness is to look at how your character defines ‘sanity’? This is the same question as, “what does your character most value?” When you know what is valued, you can find what most terrifies. You don’t obsess about something that doesn’t matter to you, right? So if a character doesn’t care about germs but is obsessively cleaning, the reader will know something’s not quite right.

To make this as deep as possible, a number of exercises can help, including:

  1. Free-association: Start with one idea for something that makes your character crazy. Do a free writing exercise, associating their current fear backward in their life. Keep going until you find something that ‘pings’ at you.
  2. Research the foible to see how it manifests in others. Little nuggets can really inform your writing. For example, many germ-o-phobes do not touch public handrails or will punch elevator buttons with a tissue. For example, a germ-o-phobe might carry a set of special gloves for dangerous situations.

Making the most of insanity

How do you make the most of your character’s insanity? There’s a famous writing quote about plot structure that goes:

In the first act you put your character up a tree.
In the second, throw rocks at them.
In the third, you get them out of the tree.

To put your character up a tree, you place them in a situation where they have to face their madness. If they are clean freaks, you put them someplace dirty. If they are power hungry, place them in a situation where they have no power. It is by facing our weaknesses that your character will be forced to change and grow.

If the character can face the worst life can throw them, then so can the reader. Great writing persuades us that there is not terror so dark we cannot overcome it, even as the earth shakes beneath our feet.