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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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Turning Pro

The follow-up to the bestseller The War of Art, Turning Pro navigates the passage from the amateur life to a professional practice.

You don’t need to take a course or buy a product. All you have to do is change your mind.
—Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro is the first official book released by Mr. Pressfield on his own publishing company, together with Shawn Coyne, Black Irish Books.

TURNING PRO IS FREE, BUT IT’S NOT EASY.

When we turn pro, we give up a life that we may have become extremely comfortable with. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own.

TURNING PRO IS FREE, BUT IT DEMANDS SACRIFICE.

The passage from amateur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

WHAT WE GET WHEN WE TURN PRO.

What we get when we turn pro is we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and live out.

[The following are the first two chapters of Turning Pro:]

TURNING PRO

BOOK ONE THE AMATEUR LIFE

1. THE HUMAN CONDITION

The Daily Show reported recently that scientists in Japan had invented a robot that is capable of recognizing its own reflection in a mirror.

“When the robot learns to hate what it sees,” said Jon Stewart, “it will have achieved full humanity.”

2. THREE MODELS OF SELF-TRANSFORMATION

When we hate our lives and ourselves, two models present themselves as modes of salvation.

The first is the therapeutic model. In the therapeutic model, we are told (or we tell ourselves) that we are “sick.” What ails us is a “condition” or a “disease.”

A condition or a disease may be remedied by “treatment.”

Right now we are “ill.” After treatment, we will be “well.” Then we will be happy and will be able to function productively in society and in the world.

That’s one way of looking at our troubles.

The second way is the moralistic model. The moralistic model is about good and evil. The reason we are unhappy, we are told (or tell ourselves) is that we have done something “wrong.” We have committed a “crime” or a “sin.”

In some versions of the moralistic model, we don’t even have to have done anything wrong. The human being, we are told, was born wrong.

The answer to the condition of wrongness is punishment and penance. When we have “served our sentence” and “atoned for our sins,” we will be “pardoned” and “released.” Then we will be happy and will be able to function productively in society and in the world.

This book proposes a third model.

The model this book proposes is the model of the amateur and the professional.

The thesis of this book is that what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs.

The solution, this book suggests, is that we turn pro.

Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy. You don’t need to take a course or buy a product. All you have to do is change your mind.

Turning pro is free, but it’s not without cost. When we turn pro, we give up a life with which we may have become extremely comfortable. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own. We may have to give up friends, lovers, even spouses.

Turning pro is free, but it demands sacrifice. The passage is often accompanied by an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It hurts. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

Turning pro is not for everyone. We have to be a little crazy to do it, or even to want to. In many ways the passage chooses us; we don’t choose it. We simply have no alternative.

What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you were when you turn pro.

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