Theme is Story Fuel (and why you’ll never get stuck again)

What is your story’s theme? How can you figure out what it is? And how will knowing your theme ensure that you’ll never get stuck again…

Here’s the transcript of the Craig Maizin episode of Scriptnotes: https://johnaugust.com/2019/scriptnotes-ep-403-how-to-write-a-movie-transcript

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, apologies again for the lockdown hair. Two weeks to go. Let’s talk about theme. Sometimes, if you ask writers about the theme of their story, they’ll probably give you a one word reply like: family, war… Chickens.

Okay, probably not chickens, but it’s usually something monolithic. Some writers might not know the theme of their work-in-progress at all. And that’s fine because there are times when, you know, I don’t figure out what it is until I finish a draft. But, the sooner you can figure out what your theme is, the better. Because the theme, my friends, is story fuel. We’ll come back to that. First of all, what is theme exactly? Well, first of all, theme is not “an idea”.

Anyone can have an idea. Drunk uncles stagger up to me at barbecues and say, “I got a great idea for a book and you can write it for me”. No? It’s just me? Okay. Anyway, the point is: ideas are two-a-penny and they are not the theme. An idea is: a man dresses up as a bat to fight crime. The theme can change with every man bat story. Your theme is the central dramatic argument of your story.

It’s the question that the story and its characters will interrogate from the beginning, through the middle, and right to the end. And that’s the key to figuring out what your theme is: make it a question. Imagine that your book has been published and it’s being read by a book group. What’s the main topic of conversation for that book? What’s the big question that they will be asking? And here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or original.

It just needs to be a little bit tricky to answer. So going back to our Man Bat example… the theme for that might be: can a man fight crime and not become a criminal himself? It’s the age old question of vigilantism, and it’s a good one. One that has fuelled all kinds of very different stories for time immemorial. So, how is theme story fuel? Well, we all get stuck when writing. And I find that if I know what my theme is, I’m much more likely to find a solution when I’m wondering what happens next.

So, for example, in my current book, the big overarching theme is: are we stronger together or on our own?

Now, as an old liberal lefty, I’m all for unity and working with others. But there are times when we need to strike out on our own. And when I’m working on the story, and wondering what happens next, I ask, how can I present this dilemma and dramatise it in the story? How can I divide my united characters? Or how can I take someone who works alone and make them realise that they might need help? All good stuff. You really should give it a try.

It really does. The screenwriter Craig Mazin, who wrote Chernobyl and many other things goes into this in greater detail in Episode 403 of the Scriptnotes podcast, and how it ties into protagonist’s story of change. And it’s really good stuff. I think the episode is behind a paywall now, but you can check out the transcript online. I’ll pop a link below. Well, I hope that was useful, and happy writing.

Here’s One Way To Write A First Draft

I’ve been working on a new way of writing the first draft of my novel. And it’s been working really well… so far…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. Apologies for the hair. Still in lockdown and two weeks till I get a haircut, so this is going to get worse before it gets better. Anyway, I’m working on the first draft of Skyclad, the third Witches of Woodville book.

Regulars will know that I used to be a big outliner when it came to writing, but I’m becoming more and more of a pantser or discovery writer, whatever you want to call it.

That is, I’m making it up as I go along. Well, sort of. I do have a rough idea of where I’m going and I know how I want the story to end. And I have a few key notes on a few key moments, but I thought you might be interested to know how I’m working with this one. Again, regulars might know that I have a different notebook dedicated to each project. Here’s the one for Book Three of the witches of Woodville, Skyclad.

This was bought at the National Trust Gift Shop at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is a little clue as to where some of the book will take place. What I’ve taken to doing with this story is switching from day to day between paper — the notebook — and the screen — the laptop — and it’s really working for me. So to give you some idea… On, say, Monday, I will start noodling ideas for what happens next in the story in The Notebook.

So here I’ve written in big letters, “How can the Poltergeist exorcism go wrong?” Slight spoiler, but it’s the opening scene. I’ve made notes on what can happen in that scene and they are imperfect notes. I’ve given myself permission to wander off, and noodle and try different scenarios, and scribble stuff out, and put other things in boxes and underline them, and highlight them. And what I find is that by the end of the writing session, I have a really good idea of how that chapter pans out.

The level of detail varies from session to session. But the next day, Tuesday, when I open up the laptop, I’m not victim to the tyranny of the blinking cursor. You know that feeling when you look at a blank page of Word or Scrivener that bastard cursor is flashing at you, “Go on, write something. What are you waiting for? Call yourself a writer?” Well, now I just go to my notes and start typing, and before I know it I’m up and running. I used the less formalised version of this with The Crow Folk and the second book, Babes in the Wood, available to pre-order now.

And it worked really well. So this is an evolution of that. A few caveats. I’m only 10,000 words into this novel and, in my experience, openings are pretty easy when compared to the rest of the book… not least the middle section, which can lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So I’ll check in with this in about a month’s time and see if I’m feeling quite so smug still. Also, I’m writing the third book in a series.

I know the characters and situations really well. I have a very good idea of how people will react when presented with challenges. And that makes a writer’s life much, much easier and makes me wonder why it’s taken me so long to write a series. This is so much fun. Anyway, I hope you found that helpful. How is your writing going? Does this sort of method work for you? Pop a comment below or drop me a line. In the meantime, happy writing.

Another FREE short story for you…

Part two of The Miss Charlotte Quartet — The Last Night of the Witchfinder General — is now available completely free to anyone who subscribes to the Woodville Village Newsletter. Sign up and grab your copy here… https://witchesofwoodville.com/#library

Manningtree, Summer, 1647

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, has come out of retirement for one last trial. And now Charlotte Southill is here to show him what a real witch can do…

Charlotte Southill vows revenge when one of her friends falls victim to the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. But someone doesn’t want him dead and Charlotte must confront some raw and painful memories.

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. I’m delighted to announce that the second story in the Miss Charlotte Quartet — The Last Night of the Witchfinder General — is available to download… completely and utterly FREE for all the lucky people who have signed up to the Woodville Village library newsletter.

If you’ve read The Crow Folk you will know that Miss Charlotte has something of a secret history and these stories will go some way to letting you into her dark past.

Yes, these stories are a little darker than the Witches of Woodville novels and this one in particular contains hanging, torture, vomiting, farting, drowning, poisoning, shooting, stabbing and al fresco urination.

What more could you ask for in a 5000 word short story? It’s available as an eBook and audiobook. Let’s have a quick listen…

ESSEX WAS no place to be a witch.
Charlotte stood in the shadow of the gallows, watching
her friend Dorothy Marsh sway in the summer breeze. Flies buzzed around Dorothy’s gaping mouth. Her bloodshot eyes bulged as if in fright, her last terrified words left unsaid. Dorothy’s pepper hair was matted with blood and the mob had taken all but her stained smock and a single shoe.

A dark rage grew inside Charlotte, rising like bile. She had seen too many women like Dorothy hanging from a noose these past three years. Dorothy wasn’t even a witch, but a midwife. A woman of compassion and kindness who offered Charlotte shelter and food when she was last here.

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, had come out of retirement for one last trial.

And now Charlotte Southill was here to show him what a real witch could do.

I had great fun writing this one, but even a short story is not written is isolation. My thanks to Julian Barr for editorial wisdom, Andrew Bowden for another cracking cover design and the lovely new logo for Woodville Village (points)…

Thanks also to Dominic Currie for the music. Head Librarian Araminta Cranberry for her introduction and afterword, and Claire Burgess for the usual.

Part Three of The Miss Charlotte Quartet will be available on 4th May and will again be FREE to all newsletter subscribers, so if you haven’t already please click on the link below and sign up. You can also get a free recipe for Jam Roly Poly as featured in The Crow Folk and much more besides. It will also be the first place where you will soon be able to read an extract from book two of The Witches of Woodville BABES IN THE WOOD (which is available to pre-order). Thanks again to everyone who’s read The Crow Folk, and especially those delightful people who have left reviews online and such.

Until next time, happy reading!