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

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 answer–it’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 at–much less swallow it for themselves.

The Idea of Theme Makes Some Authors Uncomfortable–This 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 viewpoint–and 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.

Be water, my friend. Bruce Lee Quote

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 DramaticaMelanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley explain:

Dramatica Melanie Anne Phillips Chris HuntleyBoth 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 story’s [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:

Story by Robert McKeeAs 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 potential–and 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 characters–and 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.

Tell me your opinion: How have you presented a powerful theme by also honestly demonstrating its flip side?

Want a Powerful Theme for Your Novel? Play Devil's     Advocate1

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is good advice in general, not just for writers. I believe almost every internet interaction in social media should strive for this ideal. Too much of what I read is the reinforcement of a thoroughly entrenched point of view that does little to move the conversation toward mutual understanding and respect. This is possibly your most powerful post in a while. Standing ovation for saying this so plainly and so well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. I gave up on Internet “debates” long ago as a complete waste of time, simply because they’re rarely about open-minded exchanges of information.

  2. I love to argue both sides in real life. Hopefully that comes out in my writing too. Thanks for your unique ability to make me think deeper…

  3. I didn’t want to hear this, Katie. But I needed to. I’m far too prone to preach.

  4. thomas h cullen says:

    Crafting The Representative, essentially all I did was to start by asking about Croyan’s intent; not to start by asking about theme.

    Theme is story, meaning that you write the latter without having to think about ways of incorporating the former – the story “is” the theme.

    Just knowing Croyan’s intent, just knowing his raison d’etre meant to know by default the theme – ergo, onwards from establishing that base of knowledge there wasn’t any need to consider theme when crafting The Representative:

    Just to know your story, is to by “default” know how to write your theme.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It definitely doesn’t work that way for all (or even most) authors. The theme *is* there, inherent in the first germ of a story idea. But many authors overthink theme or approach it from the wrong angle and end up trying to shoehorn in a theme that’s incorrect for their premise. So it’s always valuable to consciously search for, find, and iterate the theme the story needs to tell.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        The Representative is a literal 1 percent case. I went ever only with my gut, settling for absolutely nothing short of 100 percent filler-free material.

        If a text of fiction can change humanity – albeit, still in the long haul – The Representative can.

  5. For me it really depends on the story. With Sorrow’s Fall I knew I wanted to address some very deep, touchy themes but I was very careful how I went about it. For my most recent novel the theme didn’t become clear to me till late in the book. Now that I’m ready to go back and edit I will keep your advice in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Theme is something we can always strengthen and refine, no matter where we are in the process. Even when we start out with a clear vision of theme, there’s usually a lot we learn about it in the actual writing.

      • Sometimes I find that there will be a central theme and then lesser themes that follow the same basic arc as the main and sub plots. For my current novel the main theme is accepting yourself but it also addresses what is means to be masculine or feminine, fear of failure and inner versus outer strength. These themes all tie back into the main theme in various ways.

  6. Mmmm… I don’t even know what the theme of my story is. Accepting yourself, maybe? Sounds like I should think more about that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, take a look at the heart of your character’s arc. Whatever he’s having to overcome that’s almost certainly your theme.

  7. I will remember this when I write and revise. Thank you!

  8. My story is mainly a basic boy meets girl – but the subplot is that he’s 19 and she’s 13. They both just want to be a normal couple, but society says it’s wrong. She wants to believe she’s grown up, but is a 13/14 year old girl mature and experienced enough to survive spending all her social time with 18 to 20 year olds, including the sex and booze that they’re involved in?

  9. YoungAuthor says:

    The main theme in my WIP is that extreme power (mind controlling) and lust for total control can devastate/twist a person, the MC. But, after all that’s happened to the MC, is her lust for total control justifiable? After all, she and everyone around her would be safer if everything was controlled. Every tragedy that happened to the MC was because of the free choices other people made, but if she takes away everyone’s freewill, then her world will be safe.
    Another theme in my story about forgiveness happens between 2 minor characters. One caused an accident that resulted in the destruction of a city and killed thousands of people. She is trying to find the strength to forgive herself, but does not know how. The accident she cause ended up destroying her teammate physically and permanently traumatizing her. The traumatized character is trying to learn forgiveness. But is it possible to forgive in this situation, or even morally right for either character?
    Do these themes sound interesting enough???? I’m thinking about adding a couple more minor themes to give the story more depth.

  10. Woah-oh here she comes – she’s a mind reader!

    With my current WIP, I didn’t start with theme. I put together the plot (for the most part) as a vessel, to see what I could place within it. It worked out perfectly, as my theme is explored by almost every character, every event, every plot point of my story, back story, side story, and bit of relevant lore – and it did it all without me trying. It was all there, laced in the plot. Was it instinct, or is that just how it works, naturally? I may never know, but with the points you’ve made on theme recently, I’ve been able to utilize my intentionally untouched moving parts within the plot to enforce this newly-realized theme wherever needed.

    You rode in once again, Katie, pulling behind you a wagonload of confirmation for me – in a timely fashion, to boot! Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m all about a conscious “claiming” of writing techniques like theme. But there’s a good reason why so many authors say they don’t like to actively think about theme while writing. When it works (and, granted, it doesn’t *always* work), the subconscious manifestation of theme that so magically occurs can be beyond powerful.

  11. Zac Totah says:

    Wow. Thanks, Katie. That was great as always.

    Themes have always given me trouble, but the way you presented how we should deal with our truths by contrasting them against the opposite made perfect sense. This will definitely help strengthen my themes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Themes are tricky for many of us. Our own passionate opinions get involved too often, and then insecurities about whether or not we’re preaching them start to surface.

  12. Fantastic article, really. Have to buy McKee’s book.

  13. I’m wondering if you have any examples of this theme counterpoint concept from well known fiction or movies?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Godfather pops to mind off the top of my head. We see the evil into which Michael Corleone is slipping, but it is powerfully countered by his need to do so to protect his family.

  14. My theme in my superhero stories is good versus evil, though it also deals with friendships and the friendship between Vance and Amelia is very strong. I might have them get together.

  15. I started out with a theme in mind, “God loves you no matter what happens to you or what you’ve done” but I’m not sure my story illustrates the theme very well. Does that mean I just need to go back to the drawing board and start over?How would I play devil’s advocate to that anyway, since it is true? My character has a hard time accepting the fact that God could love her since she’s been “used and abused” and lied to by others, plus made some poor choices herself as a result of that, but is that enough?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In playing devil’s advocate, consider the reasons your character believes your story’s Lie in the first place. There *must* be good reasons the character believes the Lie, and the story must convey them convincingly if the Truth is then to be as powerful as it might later on.

  16. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says:

    I feel like maybe being someone who stands behind a podium will give me an advantage! My theme is something grown out a very personal thing in my life, that I also spend much of my time and sometimes my job advocating about. But you can’t do that successfully either unless become frustratingly immersed and understanding of every possible objection that could be raised. And not just settling for “that person is bad and wrong” as an explanation, but understanding the bigger more personal more justifiable ways why they would think like that. I plan to incorporate all of that into my story, especially in the protagonist’s own thinking, as he starts out firmly on the other side of my theme’s message.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 2. Why writing a compelling theme means asking a question and exploring more than one answer: Want a Powerful Theme for Your Novel? Play Devil’s Advocate! […]

  2. […] another post and podcast on theme from K.M. Weiland. This theme stuff is a little brain-twisty. Katie makes it accessible without […]

  3. […] Additional reading: “25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme” from Terrible Minds, “Jupiter Ascending: The Matrix Regendered” from Shattersnipe, “Want a Powerful Theme for Your Novel? Play Devil’s Advocate!” from Helping Writers Be… […]

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