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Seven Themes from Well-Known Narratives

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #7.

Sometimes I get asked if I think that every great work of narrative has a single theme that sustains it. In other words, does a book have to be about one thing in order to be great?

The answer is no, of course. I am suggesting your book can only be about one thing because of the helpfulness such a construction brings, not because it is some hard-and-fast rule. I suggest a theme because it can give you a mantra to focus your mind.

There was a period of my life when I was into reading Russian novels. I loved Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, it saved my life one summer when I was working my most menial of waiting-tables jobs. That said, structurally that book is a mess. It seems to repeat entirely 200 pages; I’m not sure it was even edited.

If you take Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, on the other hand, the theme is present on the first page. In fact, it is the very first line:

Theme #1:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy then goes on to give us 800+ pages, but if we ever forget what this book is about, we can go back to page one and refresh ourselves.

Sometimes the theme comes at the end of a work instead. J. K. Rowling’s theme for the entire Harry Potter series comes in the seventh and final volume; imagine writing a theme not just for one book but for seven books all in the same sentence:

Theme #2:

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

With a series that spans more than 4,000 pages and has such a large and devoted following, I can’t imagine that a single person out there would disagree with me. That’s a joke. Nonetheless, we will press on, and I will present Potter scholar C.S. Plocher’s rationale for the above theme she chose:

“The biggest theme in the Harry Potter series is the fight between good and evil. Snape plays a big part in that theme because we’re not sure for most of the series if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Rowling puts a twist on the classic ‘good and evil’ when we find out in the end that Snape is fighting for the good guys but not really for the right reason. Snape loved Harry’s mother and he felt responsible for her death, so he became a double agent for the good side even though he’s ‘spiteful’ and ‘a bully’ (Rowling’s words). Rowling summed up the whole idea in the last book in her series when she wrote on a tombstone, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’


I’m not sure if that’s what you were looking for?”

That’s what we’re looking for, all right. Your theme can be stated as a maxim, moral, or message, all of which have different shades of expression. Rowling’s theme is what I would call a maxim. We find an example of moral in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Ugly Duckling.”

Theme #3:

“It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan’s egg.”

It’s a moral because it has a more specific value system assigned to it. Something in between a maxim and a moral is a message. A message is never fully expressed, except through a variety of examples that all add up to something larger than the sum of its parts. In Don Freeman’s children’s book Corduroy, the message is an anti-materialist screed about what’s really important in life. That’s my reading of all the iterations of the I’ve Always Wanted series [for more, see chapter one of Book Architecture (BA)]. The fifth iteration in this series reads:

Theme #4

“I know I’ve always wanted a home.”

A message can exist within one series or at the crossroads of several different series; if it is the latter, it will likely need to be stated a few different ways, as Joseph Heller does in his novel Catch-22:

Theme #5

“Immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.”
“There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to this system of rewards and punishment.” (If you’ve ever seen the film version of Catch-22, you will either love it or hate it, but I think it does a good job of presenting this theme to the viewer. The movie was based on a 450-page book, so what more do you want?)

When narratives are written specifically for film, it is easier to write the theme directly into one of the character’s speeches so that it becomes memorable, since a screenplay is usually fewer than 30,000 words. That’s what Aaron Sorkin did in The Social Network when Eduardo says:

Theme #6

“See, in a world where social structure was everything, that (the ability to invite— or not invite—friends to join Facebook) was the thing.”

Every chance I get, I praise this film for the way even the tangential scenes all relate to series and contribute to the theme of Exclusivity. (For more, see chapter four of BA).

And now we have arrived at my favorite of the seven themes I chose to include in this PDF/blog. It comes from the film Slumdog Millionaire.

Theme #7

“What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?”

Why is it my favorite? For one thing, its elegance is straightforward. For another, it indicates not only the Inspector’s character but also the attitude of millions of people regarding India’s caste system. But best of all, it also directs the main action of the film (what I have called the central series) and gives us the beginning, the middle, and the end.

All in eight words. No pressure.

Finding Your Theme

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #6.

In Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), I recommended four ways of finding your theme. What follows here is a hybrid of these strategies that I designed for a workshop setting originally but that can be applied to your work as it stands right now.

Although I definitely recommend doing theme work while preparing to write your method draft, it can be done at any time, and more than once. Each iteration gets you closer to the heart of something that is always changing before it gets fixed in the form of a finished book.

Step 1. Write a four-sentence description of what your book is about. You might use the top four of your series sentences in a top-down order of importance, or you might just use your presence and your instinct.

When we did this exercise in class, my student Kimberly reflected on her work-in-progress and wrote the following:

This is not a theme so much as it is an elevator pitch—you know, that brief speech you are supposed to have prepared in case you ever run into a literary agent and have exactly one minute to pitch your book.

That is for the external world. A theme, on the other hand, is for you, to help you bring your book to the next level by rearranging the key components around the one thing that holds your work together.

As such, you can probably take out the who, the where, and the when from your theme-in–progress…after all, you already know them. See if you can focus instead on the what, the how, and the why, when you complete the next step.

Step 2. Reduce your four-sentence description to a two-sentence description of what your book is about.

This is a bit like reducing a sauce over medium-high heat. You don’t want to damage any of the ingredients, but you have to end up with less.

When Kimberly combined and eliminated her theme material, she came up with the following two sentences:


This is close, but there is still too much going on here. While the last three actions—“finding hope,” “accepting the past,” and “choosing a future”—are all obviously related, each could be the theme of a book.

Step 3. Reduce your two-sentence description to a one-sentence description of what your book is about. Kimberly chose hers by circling it in her notebook:

“Choosing a future” is rich enough that it implies other necessary actions; it is internally wound in a way that provokes both curiosity and identification in the reader. “I want to read about that,” someone might say. “That affects me today.”

“Choosing a future” is short as far as themes go; you know from 3D that a theme can be as long as twenty-eight words or longer. The shortest a theme can be, however, is two words: a subject and a verb. If you just have a subject, like “Madness” or “Adultery,” you might proliferate your manuscript with associations, but you will get distracted and confused without a direction to travel in.

One of my students once told me the theme of her novel was “Conformity.” Her story looked at three generations of Germans: the first succumbed to the Nazi regime; the next violently rejected anyone who was a part of their nation’s darkest era; and the third tried to navigate a path between generations at such odds with each other.

It wasn’t until my student announced, “Conformity corrodes,” that the subject could be limited, or at least bounded, and the verb could operate through all of the major actions of her book. Having a subject and a verb is akin to having a topic and an angle at the same time. Of course, a theme can be much longer than two words, as evidenced by the variety presented in 3D and the next PDF (PDF #7 – stay tuned!). But it has to be short enough that you can remember it when you are at your desk and you get a new idea. By holding the theme in mind, you can then ask, “How does this idea apply?”

Chronological vs. Narrative Order

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #5.

When you are ready to put your scenes into a provisional order and write your second draft, or method draft, you will face the question of whether to do so chronologically or narratively. If you put your events in chronological order, they will happen one after another in time: today, tomorrow, next year. There will be no multiple timelines, and you may make little to no use of flashbacks or flash-forwards.

If you use narrative order, however, you will present events in a different order than they happened. There are some good reasons to do this; for example, you will be able to choose where to go in the story and when, based on a more thematic rationale. There are also some not-so-good reasons to do this, such as the subconscious desire to cover up your insecurities about how good your work is by making things confusing.

To some degree, narrative order is the natural way to tell a story because you are reorganizing what happened to make a particular impact. Say you are out on a date. You just got out of a long-term relationship, and your new love interest asks you about it. If you were to tell the events chronologically, it might look like this:

  1. Meeting Unexpectedly
  2. Falling in Love
  3. This Is My Soulmate
  4. Falling Out of Love
  5. The Breakup
 You are probably, however, going to tell the story using narrative order for its psychological effect. You might start with (4), Falling Out of Love, and mention all the things you couldn’t live with. You then would probably go to (5), The Breakup, to assure your new friend that things are really over—although you might first go back to (2), Falling in Love, if you can find the clues as to what was wrong with this previous person to bolster your argument, foreshadowing how the relationship had always been doomed.

So, 4-2-5… that’s probably the story you are going to tell. Those are the parts that are of most interest to your present audience. Each decision you make about order is related to what you want to communicate and to whom.

If you use narrative order, you will likely avail yourself of the literary device known as the flashback. A flashback occurs when you leave the present timeline to recount something that happened previously, and then return to the same narrative timeline you were in before. Flashing back can help explain things—in fact, I think that’s why we go to therapy! We’re sitting there with a problem, and we think back to the past; a previous scene in our lives provides our motivation and we feel better. The past has provided us with some meaning.

The temptation to flash back in your writing is strong; it is a kind of instant gratification that may or may not oversimplify your story by spelling everything out. All you may really need is to present a bit of information in a memory, where a character relates something through interior monologue without breaking the current scene.

Finally, if you do use narrative order, a word on flash-forwarding. Just as flashbacks work because they correspond with our psychology, flash-forwards—jumping forward in narrative order—usually don’t work, because the human psyche is not constructed that way. If someone asks about your past, you can discourse on it rather freely, even though you might end up changing the subject. If someone asks about the future, however, all but the most reckless souls will admit they don’t know yet.

The decision of whether to use chronological or narrative order, or some hybrid you invent for a particular situation, should be informed by one basic tenet: What you place first—and then in what order—influences everything.

Creating a Series Grid From Scratch

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #4.

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D) lists a lot of good reasons to make a series grid:

• You can see your series repetitions and variations clearly
• You can identify or create foreshadowing
• You can use it to see plot holes immediately
• It can help orchestrate your pacing as suspense, surprise, or shock
• It is holistic and thus points out lateral connections with other series

To demonstrate how to create a series grid from scratch, I could have chosen an unpublished work of my own that no one would know. Or I could have chosen something that most people would have read, even if it was a while ago—something like The Great Gatsby, which we used in chapter four of 3D.

But creating a series grid is an act of love, so I chose Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, my favorite work of literature. If you read chapter seven of Book Architecture (BA), you can see the full grid I put together for Kafka’s work as well as a synopsis of the story to refresh your memory. For our purposes here, however, you won’t need any of that, because the point is you don’t necessarily have to have superior tools or insight before you get started on something like this. That’s why we initially do it in pencil.

You already know from the “Cut Up Your Scenes” section in chapter three of 3D that I recommend hands-on work. Getting into the material by constructing a physical series grid slows you down and forces you to think more closely about each of the choices that brought about a particular story.

Setting Up the Rows: Kafka’s Scenes

When we are setting up the rows, the easiest way to keep track at first is by noting the divisions the author has given us. In this case, The Metamorphosis is divided into three parts. Kafka weighted each of the parts almost exactly the same; each is between 31 and 34 pages long. Therefore, I think it is easiest to create the individual rows on the grid by simply dividing each part into five batches of about seven pages each. In the translation I am using (Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Susan Bernofsky. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014) the story is 98 pages long, so that’s 15 rows (p. 21–27, where the novella starts, is Row 1; p. 28–34 is Row 2, etc.).

I could also have broken up the story by scene name, which you might want to do if your work-in-progress isn’t far enough evolved to have a final order of chapters. When in doubt, break up the narrative by page numbers to simplify what can be a pretty dense process.

Setting Up the Columns: Kafka’s Series

Setting up the rows either by batches of pages or scenes—that was the easy part. How do we divide the columns? How do we choose our series? Recall that the easiest way to discover your series is simply to keep track of what repeats (an object, a person, a place, a phrase, or a relationship) and how it varies. You can pay special attention to the elements that repeat the most and/or that repeat when other series do (i.e., in key scenes and other critical moments).

In the first two columns, I put the two series of the novella that ask the most basic questions: Will Gregor Get to Work? and Gregor’s Decomposition (i.e., Is this the end of Gregor?). These questions relate to the “plot” most closely and ask the most visceral or immediate questions.

In the third column, I have charted a series entitled Job Security. In some ways, this series is the natural extension of Will Gregor Get to Work? because it lets us know what will happen if Gregor doesn’t get to work. It’s tempting to go for something bigger than Job Security, something like Hierarchy or even The Individual and the Collective. But if we are going to show—rather than tell—then a series needs to embody something sensual we can demonstrate to a reader, and which a reader, in turn, can track. Something like: Gregor hasn’t been ill once in five years, yet the first day he is even a few minutes late, the general manager shows up at his door. That doesn’t bode well.

I have put the series about Gregor’s Family’s Fortune in column four, taking my cue as to the importance of this series from the fact that there are so many iterations of it (out of a possible 15 rows, this column is filled with an event or detail 12 times). In the next column, I placed Father’s Violence. It isn’t that Gregor’s father appears so often—it is more a case of where he appears. Gregor’s father is a person who becomes a character through well-timed (and violent) iterations, at the end of both Part I and Part II.

The next column is a relationship that becomes a dynamic through repetition and variation. The Gregor and Grete series shows the relationship of these siblings changing from compassion and interdependence to increasing irritation and desperation on the part of Grete, until she deserts Gregor (and then returns to him in a bittersweet coda).

The Z-Axis

On the series grid, I chose to chart three more series: Grete’s Music, a character trait of Gregor’s sister which shows her culture and hence her desirability in the society of the time; Sister Emerges, the arc that traces the evolution of Gregor’s sister from “useless girl” to hard-won self-assurance; and the Lodgers, those intruders who room with Gregor’s family when the money gets tight. I could have chosen others: which Doors are locked, whether the Key is on the inside or the outside, Gregor’s mother’s Escapist Tendencies… you get the picture.

The series I have chosen to chart are what I believe to be the first nine in the top-down order of importance. How did I assess this? These nine series make sure that the story’s questions are never all answered at the same time; they push the action forward. What emerges is an interesting phenomenon. As you may recall from high school geometry, the vertical rows on a series grid—what we have here as a succession of seven-page batches of the story—is called the y-axis. The x-axis is the one that stretches out hori- zontally to include the nine series.

Why am I telling you this? Because following the logic that a series worth tracking has to ask a question and that, when one question is answered, another series has to ask a different one, there then exists a z-axis in addition to the x–axis and y-axis. is is actually a thing. If the x-axis is the width and the y-axis is the height, then the z-axis is the depth. On our series grid, it looks like this:

The z-axis, or the diagonal line marked by the ruler, shows how newly occurring series keep the story moving. One thing leads to another, or in the words of my colleague Renee: “Bazinga! I knew it. The diagonals had it the whole time. So, this begs the question: Do I start reconstructing important series in order to augment the diagonal? And if so, then how?”

Well, drawing a series grid is a good start. In the case of the series grid we have created for Kafka’s novella, the last point on our z-axis—that is, the farthest out on the x-axis and the farthest down on the y-axis—is the series where Gregor’s Sister Emerges. This is where the diagonal push and pull of the series grid comes to its culmination; our awareness of this is helped by the fact that the last iteration of this series is literally the last line of the book. Having disposed of Gregor and taken the day off, the family boards a tram for the country. At the end of the ride, Gregor’s sister—far from being a useless girl now—is the most energized family member when she “swiftly sprang to her feet and stretched her young body” (p. 118).

My hope is that by watching me craft an extended series grid, which is covered in smudge marks and mistakes when you look up close, you will have gained some confidence that you can do the same. You can, if you simply focus your attention on the necessary details, where, it turns out, the solutions are to be found as well.