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The Most Common Question About Theme


When I raise the topic of theme, the most common question writers ask me is this: What’s the theme of my story?

My most common response is… the theme is the DNA of your story. So what Controlling Idea or Central Argument did you write into every scene? If a writer doesn’t know their theme, what are the odds they wrote it into every scene? These are short conversations.

Of course, there are many different ways to write. But I prefer to design the broad strokes and then adapt to inspiration as it strikes. So I never start without a plan or a theme. Another method is to string together scenes and characters in a logical order. After about 100 pages, you can look up and try to determine what you wrote about.

I’ve tried both ways, and to be honest, I’m just too damn lazy. The “figure it out later” method forces me to write two or three times as much material. Because if I only understand the theme after I’ve written the screenplay, I have to go back and rewrite almost every scene to address the theme. That sounds like too much work to me.

And as long as we’re being honest, let’s admit that the writers who ask that question don’t go back and rewrite every scene, incorporating theme. They do the bare minimum, and end up with a weak or confusing theme.

Someone once said, and I’m paraphrasing: First, we write the story, then we add the words. Some writers can just type “FADE IN” and start banging out masterpieces. And then there’s the other 99% of us who need to design it first. Do the work before you begin. It’s way easier.