Discover your theme… later…

Just sent this to a former student… thought I’d share.

I hope you have not had writing teachers (including me!) who told you to discover your theme and then start writing. The more I do this the more I understand that you have to figure it out along the way. “OH, that’s what I’m writing about…” The guy who wrote THE SIXTH SENSE didn’t know the key fact about his hero until the 6th draft. I assume you’ve seen it, but can’t be sure, so no spoiler.

“For a whole year I worked on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter without understanding it at all. Each character was talking to a central character, but why, I didn’t know. I’d almost decided that the book was no novel, that I should chop it up into short stories. But I could feel the mutilation in my body when I had that idea, and I was in despair. Suddenly it occurred me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
Carson McCullers


I did several drafts of my novel before I discovered WHY I was writing it. I taught 13 years before I figured out WHY I was doing it. The deeper reason you do something does not seem, to me, self-evident when you sit down to do it. My father is 90 and I wonder if he’s figured out life yet.

You need to live with the characters and the situation and the story for a while before they begin to gel in your mind and it slowly begins to knit together. I’m sure some people sit down and say, “I’m going to write about XYZ” and then they do, from start to finish. That’s fine. But, what worries me is people who sit down and DON’T know and, for whatever reason, think they are supposed to and that if they don’t know, they’re somehow doing it wrong.

Be not afraid that your method is wrong.
Just jump in.
You’ll figure it out eventually.


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

4 responses to “Discover your theme… later…

  1. William

    I have heard both approaches described. I don’t know if either is wrong.

    I do think it’s important to try both so you find out what approach gets you the results you want.

    I have read deciding your theme first leads to a story that feels forced and inauthentic. I have read allowing your theme to reveal itself organically leads to a lot of wasted time, effort, and worse.. may never bear fruit.

    I imagine there are writers out there who have mastered one approach or the other. I doubt any writer can master both.

    Maybe this is part of finding your voice?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      It’s a pain, isn’t it?

      What’s hard for me is that my method changes with each project. Sometimes I do it this way, and it works. Next time, that way won’t work and I have to reconfigure. You nailed it with the idea of inauthentic vs. wasted time. ARGGGGHHHHHH.

      None of it’s easy, that’s for certain.

  2. Marco

    Great article.

    Have an unrelated question. If you’re trying to use a school for example in a scene heading. What would be the best way to describe it?


    I’m assuming this would be too vague. I saw your example in your book with the mansion. But I’m not sure if I get it completely. Should I just give the school a name? Like…


    Or does it not matter?

    This is one of the best writing blogs out there. Congrats to you!

    • yourscreenplaysucks


      In general, it’s better to be specific if you can. STONY BROOK HIGH SCHOOL tells us something that HIGH SCHOOL does not. WORN OUT HIGH SCHOOL tells us something different. Be sure that you use STONY BROOK every time.

      Very pleased you like the blog. Tell the world!


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