Writing Tip: Don’t Focus on Theme (in the first draft)

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I gave away what I’m going to be talking about in my title. But this is really important, so please read on…

The first time I sat down to write a novel, I had a very good idea of what the theme was going to be. It was going to be about loss of innocence, about the temporariness of everything, about how you can’t go back and relive the past no matter how much you want to. (Super original, I know.) I thought that if I had these themes firmly in mind while I was writing the novel, it would make it much easier to get a good book written in the first draft.

I was wrong.

The problem is this: when you’re focusing on theme, you’re not focusing on story. And story is really what it’s all about. The reason people read (fiction) is to be told a great story. That’s your #1 job as a writer. That’s always your #1 job.

Theme is important, to be sure. But it shouldn’t come into play in your first draft.

And despite my knowing this, I still went into my third novel with a theme in mind. Now, in the actual writing, I’m finding myself straying further and further from my intended theme–and I have to remind myself that that’s okay. Desirable, even.

Stephen King actually backs me up. In the best writing book ever, he says, “Starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with the story.” And that’s what your first draft’s about; getting the story down on page. It’s not until your second draft (or third, or fourth) that you should go back in and pull out the theme. For example, King didn’t really have a theme in mind when he wrote The Stand. But upon a rereading of the first draft, he found that it was about whether or not mankind can ever learn from its mistakes (which gives that novel its awesome last line.)

It’s hard not to focus on theme, I know. You spend all this time writing a book–of course it’s going to mean something, especially to you. But books are not for imparting lessons. They’re for telling stories. And that should always be your #1 goal.

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