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Want a Powerful Theme for Your Novel? Play Devil's


Advocate!
Here's the thing about a powerful theme. It's not black and white. It's not the
moral of the story. It's not an answerit's a question. And here's the thing
about questions: they very often have more than one answer.
Let's say you're writing a story that asks a simple little question like, "Is lying
bad?" That seems pretty black and white, yeah? But what about when the Mafia
hitman walks up to your door and asks if your debt-ridden old man is home? He's
in the living room hiding under the coffee table, hyperventilating. But you look
Mr. Hitman in the eye and swear up and down that Dad moved to Cali. Was that
down-and-dirty lie a bad thing?
Truth isn't subjective, but our individual takes on it are and its applicability in
varying situations definitely is. As the Chinese proverb says,
There are three truths. My truth, your truth, and the truth.
If you're ever going to write a compelling theme (and, by extension, a
compelling story), this is the one principle of storytelling you have to realize.
You can't present readers with your truth straight up and expect them to not feel
preached atmuch less swallow it for themselves.
The Idea of Theme Makes Some Authors UncomfortableThis Is Why
Within some writing circles, theme has something of a bad name. Writers
wrinkle their noses at the word, as if it's kind of smelly. Theme is preachy.
Theme is what Aesop's fables give us. Theme is about evangelizing readers to a
specific viewpointand readers hate that.
And yet writers are also told (like I've been telling you these last few weeks)
that a powerful theme is crucial to a successful story. So's how that work?
The key, of course, is the word "powerful." We only get a powerful theme when
we understand that preaching actually weakens theme. Claiming a rock-solid
viewpoint and screaming it in the readers' faces doesn't equal a powerful theme.
It's very unmoveableness is what weakens it. Theme isn't the brittle rock in the
middle of the river: it's the water that keeps on moving, always searching.

But then that sounds kinda wishy-washy, doesn't it? How do you present a solid
theme without standing behind your moral viewpoint 100%?
Point and Counterpoint: Convince Readers of Your Theme by Not Convincing
Them
If your purpose of writing a novel is to convince readers of your truth, then
you're probably working in the wrong medium. Better buy a podium or a pulpit
(or a blog!). But if you're interested in sharing your truth and raising interesting
questions about it, then you're in the right place.
Theme is about exploration. But you can't explore unless you're willing to step
out of the tour bus and visit some dark places. In other words, you have to be
willing to look at the exact opposite of your theme's posited truth and explore it
just as earnestly and honestly as if you believed it. For every point you raise to
support the thematic premise you've chosen, you'll have to raise an equally
honest and probing counterpoint. In Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris
Huntley explain:
Both Issue and counterpoint must be played against one another
over the course of the story if the author is to make a case that one
is better than the other.
Favoritism has no place in a powerful theme. Why? Because your readers will
sniff it out in a second and instinctively discount your truth a little bit, both
because you're obviously prejudiced in presenting it and because they don't
appreciate your attempts to manipulate them. Robert McKee, in Story, hammers
it home:
In creating the dimensions of your storys [thematic] argument,
take great care to build the power of both sides. Compose the
scenes and sequences that contradict your final statement with as
much truth and energy as those that reinforce it. If your [story] ends
on the Counter-Idea, such as Crime pays because, then amplify
the sequences that lead the audience to feel justice will win out. If
your [story] ends on the Idea, such as Justice triumphs because,
then enhance the sequences expressing Crime pays and pays big.
In other words, do not slant your argument.
Your Powerful Theme Will Arise From Your Ability to See Both Sides
Some stories will come to you complete with a strong thematic idea. The whole
story is about why lying is bad. Your passion about this truth is why you're
writing this story in the first place. As a result, the idea that you have to explore
why lying might not be so bad turns your stomach. McKee again:

As a story develops, you must willingly entertain opposite, even


repugnant ideas. The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds
that easily shift points of view. They see the positive, the negative,
and all shades of irony, seeking the truth of these views honestly
and convincingly. This omniscience forces them to become even more
creative, more imaginative, and more insightful.
I like to say that if you're not writing scared, you're not realizing your story's full
potentialand this is nowhere more true than of theme. Authors can't be
complacent. If you're unwilling to explore the dark sides of the truths you
profess to believe, then you may want to question how strongly you actually
believe them. If a theme is true, then its truth will be able to stand stalwartly
under even the strongest scrutiny. Even better, it will emerge all the stronger in
both your own mind and that of your readers.
Consider every possible objection even the most virulent readers might raise to
your thematic premise. Every one of these objections needs to be raised by your
charactersand not just the "bad" characters, but the protagonist himself. Take
your protagonist down the dark side of your theme and see what you find. Be
brutal. Be honest. You, your characters, and your readers will all emerge on the
other side having gained more than mere entertainment. For the rest of your
lives, you'll all carry the things you've learned about this powerful theme.

About the Author: K.M. Weiland is


the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called
Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in
western Nebraska.

www.kmweiland.com
www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

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