I smiled when I read Katy’s Monday post about truth. My husband and I are currently watching through the X-Files TV series on Netflix. Mulder and Scully’s search for truth is fraught with lies which, when taken together, lead to truth. How is that possible?
Someone once said that truth is the version of events the majority agree upon. Especially when it comes to murky events like history (Churchill famously said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”)
Fiction is about telling the truth via the valley of the shadow of lies.
So what sort of truth are we talking about here?
My dad loves to tell me that Louis L’Amour stories are accurate. “If, in one of his stories, he says there’s a rock in such and such a place, if you go to that place that rock will be there.”
Dad tells me this often, using the voice and posture of one truly impressed with L’Amour’s precision. It is, my dad seems to think, important not to mess up a good story by throwing rocks around willy-nilly.
Look around any bookstore and you’ll see heaps of fiction based on “actual events,” or “real history,” or “inspired by the author’s experience.” There’s something enticing about the story being real.
Real is true, but that doesn’t make it Truth.
When we talk about truth in fiction, what we mean is how affecting is the story’s ability to examine strings of small truths that lead up to the unveiling of a singular large truth?
This is theme at work.
As a story swims upstream to its end, the writer endeavors to explore as many facets and versions of the singular truth as possible within the limits of character and story.
Doesn’t that sound lovely?
So, if theme is the exploration of deep truth, why do writers struggle with theme? (And we all do)
In my journey from fly-by-my-pants to full-fledged planner, the one aspect of outlining I’ve resisted hardest has been writing a theme line. A single sentence that encapsulates the life-essence of the story I am creating.
It’s taken me years to surrender to the theme line. Why? At first, I thought it was because theme is supposed to be organic, something that springs out of my characters and their interactions.
Then, I was convinced that theme was too multifaceted to truly be captured in a sentence. After all, why write a whole novel about it if a single string of words does the trick?
Recently, I discovered the true root of my resistance: theme lines read like clichés.
To quote a famous saying, writers are to avoid clichés like the plague.
Flee from them! Curse them. Expunge them from the sacred carvings.
So, when I sit my writer self in the chair and hammer up the scaffolding for my precious, profound story, writing a pithy theme line feels close to treason.
Insert Valium here.
Theme line is not an end unto itself. It’s a guidepost pointing to the ultimate large truth that lingers with the reader after they have finished the last page.
It is the meeting place for the moral conflict between characters.
It is the high bar the hero must clear (or fail to clear) in order to change from who he is at the beginning of the story.
Cliché though it may sound, a theme line is important (critical?) to your story.
There’s a pile of reasons why, but mostly it’s because the theme line encapsulates the Truth you desire to tell in your story. Without a clear vision of the central truth you wish to convey, you are in danger of writing a story that contains a cluster of small truths that lead the reader nowhere.
I’m working on two novels*. One is a complex story that includes time jumping. I’ve been thinking about this story for about 2 years. The theme line: Only when we accept our true self can we find peace.
Deceptively simple. Hedging close to the cliché line (if it doesn’t just stomp all over it), and it doesn’t begin to reveal the complexity of the story. But look what it does:
1) Tells me where to start my main character reveal: she does not accept her true self. She’s hiding something specific from herself.
2) Points toward the protag’s weakness and need.
3) Guides me toward the ways in which my protag will act (especially the kinds of immoral actions she will take)
4) Reveals the first point of attack by my opponent and by allies (a good ally will attack the protag out of love and a desire to fix the problem).
5) Helps me develop all my other characters as variations of the same theme.
6) Informs the unique method I will use to tell the story and reveal the hidden secrets in the plot.
7) Gives me a moral ending to the story—something to prove or, in some cases, disprove. It tells me what my hero will learn at the end (to accept herself, and to stop lying to get what she wants)
When it comes to crafting your novel, the theme is in there, and getting it down on paper will help you get the truth out there.
*For interested parties, the theme line for the second novel I’m working on is still in process, but at this point in time it reads: Sometimes a great love must be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.