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Knowing What You’re Writing About

Handwriting ideasSome of us start out knowing we have a message, something important we want to say about life or an issue or the world or society. Sometimes we have an idea from an event or a painting or music that inspires us to write, but it takes awhile to really understand what it is that we would like to say. And sometimes what we want to say changes as a story progresses–it may become more muddled before it becomes clearer. But what you want to say impacts the way you write and who you are writing too.

Previously, I wrote about “Finding True North.” Let’s add to that. Ask yourself:

  1. What is my theme?
  2. What is my premise?
  3. What is the spiritual theme or a universal truth I want to write about?
  4. Can I explain my story in a sentence of 25 words or less–a logline?
  5. What is the underlying dramatic question that gives the essence of my story and intrigues the reader to want to learn the answer?

Following is how I define these five concepts.

    Theme

    The theme is the concept you use to explain your story in less than five or no more than ten words. For example: “Faith comes without seeing.” Yesterday several of us were waiting for our turn at the microwave and one of us commented about microwaving: “I don’t know how it works, but I have faith it will. I can’t see the things bombarding my food, but I trust it will get hot.” (We like to have deep intellectual discussions at the microwave, after all, we are an educational institution–okay, not so much intellectual.) If I wanted to write a story about the impact of faith on lives and what it means to have faith in something that you can’t see, then “faith comes without seeing” might be how I would eventually refine this idea. However, it might take me awhile to refine that idea and simplify it to those four words. I might or might not realize I’m writing about faith in someone or something until I’ve been writing for a while. I have to keep asking myself what it is I’m trying to say.

Premise

A premise is like a formula: if this is true and this is true, then this is true, or conversely, if this is false and this is false, then this is false. If faith comes without seeing and faith is believing without proof, then faith is not tangible. It is another way of asking yourself what your story is about and how do you prove what you are saying. It is not so much about finding the perfect formula as it is looking at your idea from different angles. When you can clearly state a formula, you can clearly write what you want to say.

Spiritual Theme or Universal Truth

A spiritual theme is based on spiritual truths or religious moralities, and a universal truth is a belief or value based on what your culture or society as a whole believes to be true or important to adhere to. It is a larger purpose for your writing. These are often the same truth or value. By figuring out what you want to say that resonates with the world, you can write deeper thoughts and dialogue that will have a stronger impact on your readers. “Faith is the basis for friendship.” I might be talking about a friendship like David and Jonathan’s from the Bible or two soldiers on the battlefield protecting each other or two women crossing the prairie lands in covered wagons keeping each other sane. This is just a deeper look at your theme of faith and what it means and gives you another idea for developing your story.

Logline

Although used more as a screenwriting term, it aids all creative writing processes. Defining your entire story into one dynamic sentence, and condensing it to 25 words helps you to clearly define what your story is, and it gives you a quick pitch when talking about your story. If the listener gets excited from your logline, you know you have something. If their eyes glaze over, either the story is not clear to your or to them, or isn’t refined to a dynamic essence that will intrigue readers, which could indicate that your story idea needs work. “John escapes capture and struggles toward Las Vegas to stop Murray from releasing a bio-chemical into Hoover Dam the night before the Democratic Presidential Convention.” This starts with John in trouble, keeps him in trouble, gives him a goal and an enemy and says what the problem is with a time clamp of “the night before.” There should be a sense of energy.

Dramatic Question

Can you phrase your story in terms of a question that reflects what you are trying to say and that will entice your readers to want to read your story to learn the answer? “Lost at sea, Candace and Lori survive a boating accident, but will they survive each other?” The question should tell what’s at stake by asking the reader to anticipate the answer to the question.

It takes lots of practice to write these five concepts well. Sometimes it is a strong, dynamic logline or dramatic question that is full of energy that inspires the story. Screenplays are sometimes optioned on these two concepts when they are strong and appealing.

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