Writers: You Are the Theme

In college, I wrote several plays that were all supposed to be Very Important.  The idea was to use a story and characters as metaphors in order to advance my Theme and thus Improve the World.  Perhaps the theme was “Republicans and Democrats should stop yelling and communicate civilly” or “letting little homophobic comments slide leads to other people becoming more homophobic” or the exquisitely daring “telemarketers will eat your soul if you’re not CAREFUL.”

None of these plays were good.

Since then, with every thing I’ve written and every play, movie or book I’ve taken in, I’ve come more and more to the conclusion that I should avoid “trying” to convey any particular theme or message.  I still do it, of course – the impulse to pontificate, and the desire to be seen as an Arthur Miller-like Conscience for the Times, are part and parcel of a writer’s ego – but I actively try and suppress it, to just focus on the characters, the plot, and the intuitive inspiration that lead me to want to write about whatever the story was in the first place.  (Killer bugs, swamp castles, space capsules, whatever.)

Barton Fink

In other words, I’m trying not to be this guy. I don’t need what’s in his box.

The question then is, how do I make my plays be at all interesting?  Coherent?  Meaningful?  Not just some solipsistic exercise in “following my muse” or some unimportant little trifle?  How do I even approach the greatness of Arthur Miller or any of the others who get analyzed in schools and change peoples’ lives, if I’m not thinking about the themes?

My personal inanimate playwriting guru, Richard Toscan’s Playwriting Seminars online, makes an important point about this topic here, a point which I’m essentially just expanding on in this post:

Themes develop from a playwright’s personal values (moral, social, or political) expressed through a play’s plot and characters. In a sense, the theme is your moral or ethical position about the story you’re telling. …Playwrights don’t often think consciously about their themes as they write. Their personal values tend to be so integrated into how they see the world that their themes flow into each play as the dialogue goes on the page. That’s why the same theme often shows up in a writer’s work from one play to the next.

So the idea is that, by the very nature of me being a thinking person with ethics, by simply writing whatever I feel like, it will naturally have a thematic dimension to it.

I don’t need to say “Oh I want this character to do X and then suffer Y so that it’s clear that X is bad.”  If I’m truly writing from my self, and not out of some overthinking logical attempt to be Meaningful, I don’t need to plot it like that.  My worldview, ingrained in myself, is such that, by writing a character who does X, I should naturally follow up with them suffering Y.  Why?  Because it’s natural to me that X leads to Y.

For someone else, writing the same story with the same characters, X might lead to Z, or X might never happen at all.  My worldview will come through no matter what I do, the same way that any ink I scribble on a paper will be in my handwriting, or any food I cook will be suited to my personal palate.  I’m incapable – we’re all incapable – at least not without considerable effort – of seeing the world, and people, and consequences in any way but the way we see it.

This isn’t to say that we can’t change our views of the world, as I talked about in my previous post.  Part of the purpose of writing, theoretically, is to take the worldview you’ve developed and interpolate that into a story, so that it gets conveyed to the audience.  A story is sort of a direct delivery system for the storyteller’s worldview.  It’s the closest a mere human being can come to administering Revelation to another person, thanks to the power of storytelling.

Lots of writers talk about “letting the characters guide you” or “being surprised by the characters” or “following the circumstances of the plot” or the like.  This does happen, for sure, but it isn’t some mystically external thing.  But what it is, I believe, is a kind of a trance.  When you surrender to the story, you circumvent your superego’s tendency to want to moralize and worry about creating an end product that reflects well on you.

Because, honestly, every single choice, every single word and aspect of anything you write is yours and yours alone.  It doesn’t truly come from a Greek muse or from the characters as if they were alive outside yourself.  It’s all you.  But there are multiple layers to you.  On top is the moralizing command center, that worries and primps; and underneath is the intuition, that possesses your real worldview.  I’m not talking about Freudian conscious-subconscious, per se, here; just that it’s as difficult to bypass the command center as it is to stop procrastinating or avoid flinching if someone claps their hands in your face.  We’re built to editorialize ourselves and “clean up” our own worldview for the public.

Getting into that trance where you “follow the characters” is the only way around it.  You can convince your command center that it’s them, the characters, that are making the decisions.  The command center relaxes and stops editing, because it’s not “you.”  Your worldview comes out clear.  The “characters” sneak past security and start talking real shit in the boardroom.

And the shit they talk is yours and yours alone.  Like, if you see the world through an optimistic and forgiving prism, then when you “follow the character,” say a thief, to a point where the plot asks for their motivations to be explained, say after a robbery, you’ll be unable to interpret their action as anything but, say, the result of a bad upbringing or them needing to feed their family.  If your prism is dark and cynical, you’ll interpret them as selfish and cruel.  Either way, despite this coming all from you, you and your command center will ascribe it to the character.  You’re in the trance.

When this happens throughout the writing process, the result is a story with themes integrated perfectly and truly and deeply into the events, choices and characters.  You get something like a Lord of the Rings or a for colored girls… or a No Country For Old Men or a Twilight, that has a certain viewpoint embedded in its very fabric.  (No one said the viewpoint had to be likeable, or the writing of any quality.)

If this doesn’t happen, and you write purely from the command center, then you end up with something forced, something “censored,” with character moments that stick out like a sore thumb as being metaphors.  We’ve all seen a movie or play and gone, “what? Oh please!  The character just did that because the writer wanted to make a point.”  It’s like in any poorly-written romantic comedy, wherein you just can’t believe the ingenue would forgive the male lead after what he did to her, but the formula Dictated It Must Be So, so the writer forced it.  Any audience member can feel it instantly, whether the story be light entertainment or the most complex moral drama.  The throughline is either consistent, or it’s forced.

This is not to say whatsoever that the command center has no place.  The command center is important, because a purely worldview-born story will possibly be quite messy, incomprehensible, or unexamined and offensive.  But the order of operations is important.  First, the underlying intuition, that raw uncensored worldview; then, afterwards, the command center’s revisions and edits and applied logic.  I might even say that the job of the command center is to apply metaphors and story tricks after the fact to craft the pure stuff into something that functions.  The command center, having the raw material to work with, can then shape it into something worthwhile.  It’s only when the command center is making the raw material that trouble happens.

The intuition is the furniture-maker, and the command center the interior designer.  Or, the intuition is the soil that grows the flowers, and the command center is the florist that arranges them.  Don’t let the command center make furniture or grow flowers.  That’s just awkward.

Personally, I find it excruciatingly hard and time-consuming to get into the trance zone.  I often have to reverse and read a lot of what I already wrote, to get into the same engaged state that I am in when watching some TV show, to “forget” that I’m the one writing it.  To get to that place where my intuition is going, “Oh!  Oh!  I bet I know what happens next,” the way it does when I’m watching an episode of Law and Order and it’s suddenly obvious what the twist will be.  (Ice T: “We just got a call – our prime suspect has been DEAD for two days!”  My intuition: “I knew it!”)  Except instead of applying the Law and Order formula, I’m applying my worldview.

The only hope is that, if I can keep that up for the whole play, that said worldview which I am communicating is less Twilight and more Arthur Miller.  But, hey, if it is Twilight, then at least it would be my honestly represented viewpoint, right?  Or maybe not.  And if not, I can always come back later with my command center and spruce it up for the public (while quietly suffering in my knowledge that deep down I’m a terrible person).

But that’s what comes after.  The trance is where it all begins, when it works.  And when it does work, it goes like this:

Me, reading and writing my own play from the place where I left off.

My intuition: “Oh!  Oh!  I bet I know what happens next!  The servant stands up for herself and says ‘I deserve better!'”

My fingers type on the blank page: SERVANT: I deserve better!

My intuition: “I knew it!”



  1. […] a lot of self-confidence to totally follow one’s muse, and easy to fall into patterns of self-censorship and second-guessing that further decrease the likelihood one can break out of […]

  2. […] Blogger’s Chicken-or-the-Egg The Scale of Realism in Dialogue Writers: You Are the Theme The Aspiring Artist’s Chicken-or-the-Egg On Artistic Jealousy A Writer’s Motivations: So Many […]

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