The Importance of Theme for Organization

I often read that the biggest things a writer should worry about are theme and organization. Theme, because that is the heart of your work; organization because that’s the skeleton to help you write about the theme.

For the longest time I wondered, How does one find a theme in the first place? Maybe something happened in your life that you want to write about. Let’s face it, wanting to write about that topic isn’t enough. You need a focus, something that connects you to the topic and distances you from it at the same time, so that you can communicate clearly with your reader.

I began with “I want to write a romance, but I don’t want the heroine to be the typical spunky girl. I want her flawed, and with heavy concerns.” So, I worked from there, writing character descriptions and first drafts; I wrote an entire 94k first draft just throwing whatever came to me onto the page. I celebrated, because we all should celebrate the completion of a draft, especially when it takes three years to do it (full-time student, remember). Then, I stuffed it under my bed (or maybe in the back of my closet, I’m always re-organizing so I never completely know where some things are) and started over.

Step One: Write a shitty first draft and be done with it.

After that, I walked away from the work for a month. Namely, NaNoWriMo month. The crazy speed of that writing month invigorated me, and in December I said hello to the original work with a new focus. I started over with this new focus, with a new understanding of the characters, and with a pretty solid understanding of their initial back stories.

Side Note: a back story, if you don’t recognize the term, is a short story and/or history about a character, location, or object that happened before your current time line.

Step Two: Use the extraneous parts of your shitty first draft as a collection of back stories to your characters.

Now I’m halfway through First Draft B, as I like to call it (props to Redshoeson for the naming idea). I know where I would like the story to go. But my initial back stories aren’t full enough. I have to go back. Give each main, secondary, and even tertiary character additional back stories about their history with the other characters. These back stories lead to motivation, motivation to decision, and decision to action. But my back stories all need a theme. There must be something connecting these characters. But… how to write the theme?

The theme is a single sentence that succinctly describes what your work is about. Also known as a thesis, blurb or hook: the main idea that keeps you writing, and grabs the reader’s interest. Still, it’s hard to know how to write this magical sentence. So, look at examples. The first sentence on the back cover of a paperback is usually the hook, which the copywriter expands into paragraphs about the main characters and why we should read about them. I also found reading the New York Times bestseller list really helpful, because the top ten have one-sentence summaries.

Step Three: Read the New York Times bestseller list.

Try to keep your theme/hook/blurb/thesis at fifteen words or less. You want this to be focused but universal, so don’t use the main character’s name unless it is a sequel or part of a series. Don’t use passive voice! Choose your words carefully; every word in your theme should be there because there is no better word for it.

Here are some examples from the bestseller list in July:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: A young man — and an elephant — save a Depression-era circus.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards: A doctor’s decision to secretly send his newborn daughter to an institution haunts everyone involved.

Peony in Love by Lisa See: Love, death and ghosts in 17th-century China.

The Quickie by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge: A police officer’s attempt to get back at her husband, whom she suspects of cheating on her, goes dangerously awry.

After you have the main theme, things will fall into place, slowly at first. Your theme is your thesis, so tie everything back to it and you’ll have a tight, organized work.