One True Theme–Writing Advice

“Write the truest sentence you know.”

~Ernest Hemingway

The most invaluable advice any kind of writer can receive is this quote.  Your book will not succeed(and I’m not talking about fiscally, pieces of crap can still sell) if it isn’t full of the truest sentences you know.  I keep this quote and one other piece of writing advice in mind at all times during the writing process.  This is of my own invention and its held true thus far.  There must always be one central theme, one pillar that holds up everything else.  The turtle that carries the world on its back.  If you read your story, and you cannot see the one theme readily, then you have failed.  I don’t care if your book explores so many facets of society, or the characters are three-dimensional, or even if your plot is dynamic and superlative.  All of these things matter not, if your one true theme is muddled into the story.

You, as the writer, are the gatekeeper and your theme is the gate.

Need an example?  In my comic series, Komodo(which the first issue is near completion, keep your eyes peeled!), its a story about superheroes.  There’s a proverbial  SuperMan, evil villains threatening to destroy the world, and a comic relief sidekick.  But, the central theme is core to this story.  Without it, it is just a generic superhero tale. Characters, plot, dialogue, none of it matters if your theme isn’t strong and true.

Komodo isn’t about superheroes, nor alcoholism it’s in there though), or anything so superficial.  It’s a story about a guy who hates his day job.  That’s it.  One sentence, eleven words.  This theme, though, permeates throughout the series and gives the main character life.  He works a government job(which, anyone who works a gov job knows, sucks.) and can’t quit, because it gives benefits he can’t realistically get anywhere else.

Your theme can be anything.  Well, not anything.  There’s really only one rule to creating a well-crafted central theme.  Your theme must be true.  It must be something that reaches out to the human condition, one that anyone can understand.  Even people who haven’t worked a day in their life can understand my theme.  It’s about someone doing something they don’t want to do, but have to.  If you are a human, and have lived past age 10, you’ve done something you didn’t want to do.  No matter where you are from, what your life is like, or how much money you have, you know the feeling.  That’s an endlessly relatable truth.

Your theme must boil down to that.  When you pitch your story, your theme should be the first sentence you say.  All other things come after, because they are just that.  Secondary.  Not to say they are unimportant, because who wants to read about a guy who goes to work, scowls at his desk all day, then comes home?  You need conflict, plot, all of that, but none of it can stand up without your theme.  I always pitch Komodo the same way.  “It’s about a guy who hates his day job, it just turns out that his day job is being a superhero.”  It says more than a detailed plot summary ever could.

Why is that?  Why does that sentence tell you more about the story than fifteen paragraphs of plot summary?  Because, it touches on two things.  One, that he hates his job, who doesn’t?  And two, we all idolize superheroes, it’s why they sell.  Who doesn’t fantasize about ripping their shirt off to reveal a costume and bound off to save the day.  It’s escapism in the truest sense.  You escape the mundanity of normal life and visit a place where you have powers that essentially make life easier.  There isn’t one person who doesn’t want to know what it feels like to web swing or to glide around like batman.  We idolize superheroes, because they don’t deal with punching a time clock, or worry about paying bills(hold on, spider-heads, I’ll get to what your thinking in a second).  They are above that, they are ‘super’.

Super Man is often ridiculed as a boy scout.  Too good to be true.  Which is why Batman and Spider-Man have been having non stop hits this last decade, and the one SuperMan movie to come out in the last twenty years was merely, ‘meh’.  Spider-Man deals with paying the bills, and keeping his girlfriend.  He’s Peter Parker first, Spider-Man second.  Batman(in the Nolan trilogy) deals with putting his mortal life second, in favor of dealing out justice in revenge of his murdered parents.  He loses the woman he loves, he deals with the fact that his partly responsible for the birth of Two-Face.  By the third movie, he has no identity to cling to.  He long gave up being Bruce Wayne, opting to be The Dark Knight.  Then he gives up the cowl so that Gotham can have a hero with a face in Harvey Dent.  We relate, because it is something we’ve all dealt with at one time or another.  Who am I, what’s more important, me or the betterment of my loved ones.  You better believe Batman loves Gotham with his whole heart.

Enough with Batman, that’s for another article.  Back to the point, SuperMan isn’t relatable because he’s just too good.  Now, of course there are exceptions, SuperMan is a huge franchise, and there have been many people who make  SuperMan a bit more morally ambiguous than others, but as a whole SuperMan is the golden boy.  We can’t relate to that, because we aren’t the golden boy(/girl).  We deal with moral ambiguity everyday, we carry guilt everyday.  It’s the authors who breathe humanity into their characters that create more endearing stories.

Being a Superhero is awesome, but is it really?  Tony Stark deals with alcoholism, Spider-Man can’t pay his bills, Invincible is naive and doesn’t always make good choices, Batman doesn’t know who he is.  And Komodo hates his job.  True themes, that breathe life into these heroes.  Because, as much as we love superheroes, we love knowing they are just like us even more.

Without a true theme, one that permeates throughout your story, your characters become stale, your plot is boring, and people don’t escape into them.  Your job as a writer is to make it as easy as possible for people to escape.  Your theme is the portcullis into the story.  A true theme, and your portcullis is clean and well oiled.  It slides up quickly and efficiently, allowing the reader to enter the castle that is your story.  A muddled, complex, unrelatable theme, and your portcullis is rusty, and slow to raise.  Your reader can’t escape as easily and the castle can’t be explored.  You’re the gatekeeper, and your job is to keep that portcullis clean, and oiled.  AKA your theme simple, and relatable.

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