A guy I know once told me he likes to—has to—start with a theme and then write a story that illustrates it.
Oh, my god! Stop! It makes my brain hurt to think about it.
What I told this guy was that theme happens. I submit myself as proof.
First, theme is, according to a handy little website called Novel-Writing-Help.com, the lesson or the meaning of a piece of fiction. “The surface storytelling satisfies the reader's need to escape and to be entertained,” NWH says, while “the sub-surface ‘meaning’ of the story satisfies their need to draw a moral, or a lesson, or a conclusion from the events, thus furthering their understanding of the human condition.”
Anyways, I wrote the screenplay Metal Mom in 1995. It’s about a woman who quit being a heavy metal singer to raise a family, and what happens in her family and her life when she resumes her career twenty years later.
I started writing Fast Lane in 2009. It’s about a woman who insinuates herself into the life of a billionaire playboy with a plan to destroy him because she thinks he promotes bad attitudes about women.
Both have female leads. Both contain healthy doses of comedy. Other than that, they don’t have much in common.
Until you muck into that murky sub-surface.
There, Metal Mom and Fast Lane have two big things in common. Both heroines start out wanting something but getting something else that turns out to be better. And both women show dramatically different faces to the world, depending on which part of the world they’re in at the moment.
In Fast Lane, Lara exudes confidence and acts at ease with her physical attributes—as long as she’s in the presence of the people she has to fool. But alone in her room, she’s beset with doubt and fear and the suspicion that she’s just not good enough.
In Metal Mom, Anna is a badass on stage, a commanding presence in her hand-made T-shirt, tight black pants and fright wig hair. At home, she’s a minivan-driving suburbanite in mom jeans and a conservative bob.
Did I plan this stuff? Did I say, “I believe I shall write two pieces in which women behave differently in different situations and don’t get what they want, but like what they do get even better?”
No. I’ve written twenty screenplays and two novels, and I have never plotted with theme aforethought. And yet, these two themes reliably emerge in almost every piece of fiction I’ve ever written. Not that I noticed. Someone had to point it out.
All of which says something about me, I suppose. Like my heroines and heroes, I didn’t always get what I was after, but cherish most of what I’ve got. Do I wear different faces in different places? Try to convince the people who have heard me throw around F-bombs as though they were commas that there are people who have never heard me utter a swear beginning with any initial.
It also says to me—and to you, ManWARriors—that there’s no reason to worry about theme. Theme is sneaky. Theme is aggressive. Theme will make itself known even when you don’t think about it.
Or, maybe, especially when you don’t.