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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

What is Your Novel About?

By Steven Pressfield
Published: February 3, 2016

 

I was talking to a friend who runs a successful Hollywood literary agency. She represents screenwriters. Before she opened her doors, she said, she spent a year doing nothing but reading scripts, searching for promising young writers. She read well over 500 screenplays.

Paddy Chayefsky, the only three-time solo Oscar winner for Best Screenplay

Paddy Chayefsky, the only three-time solo Oscar winner for Best Screenplay

“How many,” she asked me, “do you think were worth representing?”

Before I could reply, she answered.

“None.”

I believe her.

I’ve read a boatload of screenplays and novel manuscripts myself. Many have interesting, even brilliant premises. Fascinating characters abound; there’s lots of clever dialogue, surprising plot twists, mind-blowing set-pieces. And a lot of what I (and my agent friend) have read is really good writing.

But almost none of it works.

Why?

What’s missing?

“The scripts,” my friend said, “were almost never about anything.”

Theme.

She was talking about theme.

This is a subject I’ve become rabid about. I’m not even sure why. For years I myself wrote without the slightest clue of what theme was. I couldn’t have defined it if you had hung me by my thumbs over a seething volcano. I had no idea that it was important. I didn’t even know what it was.

I was just like all those failing writers. In fact I was failing myself.

Robert McKee tells the following story (forgive me; I’ve cited it before).

As a young writer-director he got the chance to interview the great playwright and screenwriter Paddy (“Network,” “Marty” “The Hospital”) Chayefsky, the only three-time solo Oscar winner for Best Screenplay.

 

As soon as I figure out what the theme of my play is [said Chayefsky], I type it in a single line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t 100% on-theme.

 

For me, that quote was a life-changer. The light bulb went off. I finally got it.

I’m going to take the next few weeks on this blog and address nothing but theme.

Maybe you’ll hate this subject. Maybe I’ll bore you to death. Maybe you’ll say to yourself, “I dunno why this dude keeps going off on this. It’s all so obvious.”

Clearly it isn’t obvious, or my literary agent friend wouldn’t have read five hundred scripts and come up with zero that she cared to represent.

Okay.

What is “theme?”

Why is it so important?

How can five hundred writers bang out scripts—scripts that in many other respects are excellent, or at least interesting—that are about nothing?

Let’s start with a corollary to that question.

“What happens when a script is about nothing? (And I don’t mean like Seinfeld, which is decidedly not about nothing.) What does a novel with no theme feel like?”

It feels empty.

It feels hollow.

When you set it down, your expression is a blank stare. You feel like you’ve just consumed a meal that provided zero nutrition. You wonder, “Why did the writer even write this at all?”

Here’s a related concept that also helped me tremendously when I began to grasp it:

 

Every major character must represent something that is greater than himself or herself.

 

Jay Gatsby represents something.

Daisy Buchanan represents something.

The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represents something.

Atticus Finch represents something.

Don Corleone represents something.

Huckleberry Finn represents something.

The 500 protagonists in my literary agent friend’s screenplays represented (I’m guessing) nothing but themselves. X was X. X did not stand for Y or Z. That’s why the scripts felt so hollow. That why they left the reader feeling starved and cheated.

Here’s a third related principle:

 

The protagonist represents the theme.

 

Am I boring you yet? If this is tedious to you, if you feel your eyes glazing over as they might in some soporific graduate seminar, may I suggest that you release all hope or ambition of succeeding (or even having fun) as a writer.

This stuff is seminal.

You have to know it.

Forgive me for ranting. Like I said, this subject makes me insane.

Back to characters, back to theme.

A story, any story, has to be about something. It must have a theme.

The hero of the story represents the theme.

The villain represents the counter-theme.

In the climax, hero and villain clash to the death (at least figurative death) on-theme.

In the next few weeks we’ll get into this subject in excruciating detail. But let me sign off this post with a single thought.

It is very, very hard to figure out your theme.

It’s back-breaking, brain-busting labor.

Resistance becomes monumental.

Even Paddy Chayefsky had to struggle. (Note how he says, “Once I figure out the theme … ” Meaning he did not know it at the start. He was operating on instinct.)

Theme is hard work.

But you and I have to do it. There’s no getting around it—unless we want to be one of those five hundred in our literary agent’s reject pile.

[P.S. Thanks to Juan Taylor, who suggested this subject and urged that I try a few posts addressing it.]

 


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The Legend of Bagger Vance

Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense.
—Sports Illustrated
Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker.
—The Los Angeles Times
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback

In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete—a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.

[This first passage is from the book's very beginning.]

A NOTE TO THE READER

In May of 1931 an exhibition match was held over 36 holes between the two greatest golfers of their day, Walter Hagen and Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones, Jr. The match was the second and last between the two immortals (Hagen shelled Jones, 12 and 11 over 72 holes, at the first in Sarasota, Florida in 1926.) This second match was held at what was, at the time, the most costly and ambitious golf layout ever built in America, the Links at Krewe Island, Georgia.

Much has been written about the rather odd events of that long day. We have Grantland Rice's dispatches to the New York Tribune, which were published at that time. The notes and diaries of O.B. Keeler devote several quite absorbing pages to the match. And of course the reports from the dozens of newspapers and sporting journals which covered the event.

One aspect of that day, however, has been largely overlooked, or rather treated as a footnote, an oddity or sideshow. I refer to the inclusion in the competition, at the insistence of the citizens of Savannah, of a local champion, who in fact held his own quite honorably with the two golfing titans.

I was fortunate enough to witness that match, aged ten, from the privileged and intimate vantage of assisting the local champion's caddie. I was present for many of the events leading up to the day, for the match itself, as well as certain previously unrecorded adventures in its aftermath.

For many years, it has been my intention to commit my memory of these events to paper. However, a long and crowded career as a physician, husband, and father of six has prevented me from finding the time I felt the effort deserved.

In candor, another factor has made me reluctant to make public these recollections. That is the rather fantastical aspect of a number of the events of that day. I was afraid that a true accounting would be misinterpreted or, worse, disbelieved. The facts, I feared, would either be discounted as the product of a ten-year-old's overactive imagination or, when perceived as the recollections of a man past seventy, be dismissed as burnished and embellished reminiscences whose truth has been lost over time in the telling and retelling.

The fact is, I have never told this story. Portions I have recounted to my wife in private; fragments have been imparted on specific occasion to my children. But I have never retold the story, to others or even to myself, in its entirety.

Until recently, that is. Attempting to counsel a troubled young friend, for whom I felt the tale might have significance, I passed an entire night, till sunrise, recounting the story verbally. It made such a profound impression on my young friend that I decided at last to try my hand at putting it down in written form.

This volume is that attempt.

I have chosen, for reasons which will become apparent, to tell the tale much as I recounted it that night. It is a story of a type of golfer, and a type of golf, which I fear has long since vanished from the scene. But I intend this record not merely as an exercise in reminiscence or nostalgia. For the events of that day had profound and far-reaching consequences on me and on others who participated, particularly the local champion referred to above.

His name was Rannulph Junah, and Bagger Vance was his caddie.

Hardison L. Greaves, M.D.
Savannah, Georgia
May, 1995

"The Legend of Bagger Vance is such an entertaining book on the surface you hardly realize you are being taught some of life's greatest truths. Pressfield has seamlessly brought together that rare combination of fun and enlightenment in a novel that seems destined to take its place alongside some of the great works in golf literature."
—Links Magazine
"The Legend of Bagger Vance is quite simply the best golf novel I have ever read, but it is so much more than that. We all know that the true game is played against one's inner self. Steven Pressfield has captured the essence of that battle better than any of his predecessors. I was utterly riveted by this work of art, and literally covered with goose bumps for many hours until I had finished it at a single sitting."
—Ben Wright, author of Good Bounces and Bad Lies and The Spirit of Golf
"Truly a delight. Even now when I play in professional tournaments I think of the positive effect Bagger Vance had on everyone associated with him. He will be with me for many years to come."
—Patty Sheehan, Solheim Cup captain and member of LPGA Hall of Fame
"Pure magic! I read it straight through in one sitting. It should be required reading for anyone who loves the game and has a sense of its history and mystery."
—Deane Beman, former Commissioner of the PGA Tour
"The Field of Dreams of golf . . . the only golf novel ever written that earns 'couldn't put it down' accolades. This is a book that will remain with readers for a while, and will certainly emerge every time they step on a golf course."
—Book Page
"Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense."
—Sports Illustrated
"Good stuff . . . a philosophical fantasy imagined on a golf course, heavy with fog, storm, fireworks and howling winds of supernatural forces."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker."
—The Los Angeles Times
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The Legend of Bagger Vance
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