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Monday, July 15, 2019

The Story Shape that Permeates Just About Everything

I've been working on a scene this last week for my next book, and it's been giving me some grief, so last Thursday I decided to sit down and focus on figuring out why I was having such a difficult time getting it on the page. (The starting of the scene came fine, but then I got to a section that was not coming together.) Some of the reasons I knew right away. The magic system in and of itself is innately difficult to write about, because of the subject matter I chose it to be about (and the lack of vocabulary we have about said subject within the English language doesn't help). I had certain plot restrictions and subtext I needed to get on the page with a careful hand, which can be really tricky if I don't want it to be annoying or blatant. And finally, I realized this section, of perhaps a half-dozen paragraphs, needed a Freytag Pyramid to work right.

You see, we often talk about the Freytag Pyramid as an overall story structure. Sure, we can talk about plot point, midpoints, and more advanced forms of story structure, but at the bare bones, a story needs to follow Freytag's Pyramid (you've heard me talk about this before). Rising action, climax, falling action. Don't underestimate the basics people! I run into writers once in a while that mock Freytag's Pyramid today, because of its simplicity. But just about every successful story structure today fits within that bare bone structure.

The longer I work in this industry, the more I realize that this structure doesn't just fit overall story structure. It fits just about everywhere in smaller sizes. As I wrote about in another post, it fits into almost every single scene. Right now I'm watching Stranger Things, and guess what? Basically every scene follows that same shape in some way: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. It's just shorter.

What's crazy is that this isn't limited to writing. Freytag's Pyramid is all over the place. You can find it in dance performances: setup, rising action, climax, falling action. You can find it in music: setup rising action, climax, falling action. You can find it . . . elsewhere ;) (hey, if I didn't acknowledge it, I knew someone would be stuck thinking it). You can find it within relationships. You can find it in storms. You can find it when you are getting groceries in the grocery store. It seems to permeate just about everything in the universe, even our sun's life cycle.

I know what you are thinking: AGAIN?! But just hang with me and read the article.

In writing, it happens over and over again. Sometimes even within paragraphs, which was exactly what my scene needed. Heck, it can even happen within sentences. Freytag's Pyramid has motion. And sometimes when I feel a scene or a part of a scene starting to go stagnant, it's because it doesn't have that shape.

Now, does Freytag's Pyramid literally need to be in everything? Of course not. There are always exceptions.

But it can happen on a very small scale.

It can happen within dialogue of a scene:


SHERLOCK: Molly, please, without asking why, just say these words.

MOLLY: What words?

SHERLOCK: I love you.

MOLLY: Leave me alone.

Rising Action

SHERLOCK: Molly, no, please, no, don’t hang up! Do not hang up!

MOLLY: Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making fun of me?

SHERLOCK: Please, I swear, you just have to listen to me.

SHERLOCK: Molly, this is for a case. It’s ... it’s a sort of experiment.

MOLLY: I’m not an experiment, Sherlock.

SHERLOCK: No, I know you’re not an experiment. You’re my friend. We’re friends. But ... please. Just ... say those words for me.

MOLLY: Please don’t do this. Just ... just ... don’t do it.

SHERLOCK: It’s very important. I can’t say why, but I promise you it is.

MOLLY: I can’t say that. I can’t ... I can’t say that to you.

SHERLOCK: Of course you can. Why can’t you?

MOLLY: You know why.

SHERLOCK: No, I don’t know why.

MOLLY: Of course you do.

SHERLOCK: Please, just say it.

MOLLY: I can’t. Not to you.


MOLLY: Because ... because it’s true.

MOLLY: Because ... it’s ... true, Sherlock.

MOLLY: It’s always been true.

SHERLOCK: Well, if it’s true, just say it anyway.

MOLLY: You b------

SHERLOCK: Say it anyway.

MOLLY: You say it. Go on. You say it first.


MOLLY: Say it. Say it like you mean it.


SHERLOCK: I love you.

SHERLOCK: I love you.


SHERLOCK: Molly, please.


MOLLY: I love you.

Falling Action

(Both John and Mycroft heave out noisy sighs of relief. Sherlock also sighs and buries his head in both hands. In her kitchen, Molly closes her eyes. She puts the phone down and raises both hands to her mouth.)

It can happen within an action:

(I'm using a poem for this one. Brackets mine. Also, FYI, you aren't actually supposed to pause at the end of each line when reading poetry, unless it has a natural pause there.)

Kissing a Horse [Also, in a lot of poems, the setup happens in the title.]
By Robert Wrigley

Of the two spoiled, barn-sour geldings
we owned that year, it was Red—
skittish and prone to explode
even at fourteen years—who’d let me
hold to my face his own [<--setup][rising action-->]: the massive labyrinthine
caverns of the nostrils, the broad plain
up the head to the eyes. He’d let me stroke
his coarse chin whiskers and take
his soft meaty underlip
in my hands, [<--the description, the detail, leads up to the moment] press my man’s carnivorous
kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one [<-- climax] [falling action -->], just
so that I could smell
the long way his breath had come from the rain
and the sun, the lungs and the heart,
from a world that meant no harm.

I consider that section the falling action, because it shows the consequences and changes from the climax.

It can happen with a single brief subject in a paragraph:

(This is a prose poem I wrote for my poetry class in college years ago. Poems are easy to grab as small-scale examples.)

Considering the Pointe Shoes
By September C. Fawkes

Whoever called them slippers, never put them on. Those boxes of cloth and glue, cage your toes and stink of fabric scraps and string bits. The ribbons snake around your ankles. The shanks jab into your soles as you, with duck feet, waddle to the wings, a hollow clunk, clunk, clunk. I once smiled when I jammed my feet inside—it was something revered, wearing Pointe shoes; something I have done more than once, more than twice, more than three years. I pressed my silk sneakers into the floor, held my breath as my insides fluttered, and, tensing my muscles, elevated to my toes, lifted one foot, and balanced in passΓ© while my palm hovered over the ballet barre. One time at a theatre I watched a ballerina glide across the stage and leap into the air. The Pointe shoes curved in crescents, molding to her feet like leather. For a moment we all soared with her: the audience, the usher, the technician in the control box; our chins lifted, our eyes shining, our lips slightly parted. Everything silent and serene, like the flight of a falcon bathed in sunlight.

I feel kind of weird talking about my own work to you guys, but hopefully this illustrates the point. The title sets us up for the subject matter of the paragraph. The paragraph starts with sort of "first experiences" or "beginning" experiences with Pointe shoes. It then rises from walking around in Pointe shoes to actually practicing them at a ballet barre, then the climax happens when we see a professional ballerina in them on stage.

When talking about processes or working within descriptions a nice trick to use is an extended metaphor that is introduced, then rises, then climaxes. In here, I tried to use bird and bird-like terms that way:

cage your toes
you, with duck feet, waddle
held my breath as my insides fluttered
my palm hovered
I watched a ballerina glide
For a moment, we all soared
like the flight of a falcon

So we move from being caged, to walking around with duck feet, to fluttering, to hovering, to gliding, to soaring, to flying like a falcon.

But on a smaller scale, there are other rising actions. Notice the progression within a single sentence.

I once smiled when I jammed my feet inside—it was something revered, wearing Pointe shoes; something I have done more than once, more than twice, more than three years.

When working on the small scale, you can also create Freytag's Pyramid within beats and rhythm.

Here is another poem I wrote for that same class that is essentially nothing more than a description of a candy shop. (Remember you don't pause at the end of the lines, unless it naturally happens. If you do, it will change the rhythm and may not illustrate my point.)

By September C. Fawkes

Where the door jingles open
with a greeting and shuts with a creaking,
an assortment of jelly beans—
yellow, blue, green, red, purple,
striped, swirled, speckled,
very cherry, French vanilla, tutti fruitti,
lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper
—burst from jars,

suckers, Congo squares, saltwater
taffy spill out of baskets,
and the heavy scent of cocoa
hangs in the air.

Where saliva thickens and greedy
customers grasp handfuls
of licorice and lollipops,

wrappers wrinkle, crinkle and twist,
glisten like linoleum, and are peeled
away like wax.

Where English toffees crunch, cementing
teeth shut, and truffles melt
across the tongue like dark velvet—
so rich it make your mouth tingle,

where bags and boxes are bunched together,
where the tinkling of glass containers permeate the room,

where sticky fingers dig
into pockets, seek change for chews,
chocolates, brownies, bon-bons, butter
cups, caramels, candied apples, coated nuts,
and haystacks,

sits a man. With white hair, creases in his face,
bifocals on the bridge of his nose, and donning
a sugar-stained apron.

This is a little trickier to talk about (especially since I'm not musical), because its the beats. Hopefully (if college me did a good enough job), you can hear a kind of crescendo. Particularly at the climax:

where sticky fingers dig
into pockets, seek change for chews,
chocolates, brownies, bon-bons, butter
cups, caramels, candied apples, coated nuts,
and haystacks,

sits a man.

And then the falling action sounds much calmer (calmer than any other stanza):

sits a man. With white hair, creases in his face,
bifocals on the bridge of his nose, and donning
a sugar-stained apron.

But still, you could break this process down further and look at smaller pieces, like within just the first stanza, which is actually not even a full sentence:

Where the door jingles open
with a greeting and shuts with a creaking,
an assortment of jelly beans—
yellow, blue, green, red, purple,
striped, swirled, speckled,
very cherry, French vanilla, tutti fruitti,
lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper
—burst from jars,

Notice the rhythm before the first comma seems rather calm. When we get to describing the actual jelly beans, it becomes more intense; this is in part because of the names, but it's also in part because it's such a long list. We aren't used to lists going on that long in creative writing, so it carries a kind of tension (when is it going to end?). It also moves from general to specific: yellow, blue --> tutti fruitti, lemon drop, and Dr. Pepper. General words often carry less . . . weight? (Not sure on the word.) Than specific words. General words are more . . . invisible, than specific words, so they pack less punch.

When writing a book, you can create similar effects, increasing the intensity in beat and rhythm as a sort of "rising action" before you hit the musical climax.

Anyway, needless to say, once I realized my paragraphs weren't working in part because they needed Freytag's Pyramid shaped within them (in my case, these paragraphs are describing an important, significant process so I couldn't skimp out on it), things got better from there. I mostly have that figured out now.

Do you really need to be this detailed and intense? Not necessarily. I just sat back and wrote down what wasn't working in order to figure out how to make it better. And in that situation, that was one of the things I needed. But I certainly think it's helpful to be aware of how Freytag's Pyramid works on the small scale and can be something we can utilize.

Unfortunately, neither of my poems that I shared today were ever picked up by any magazines when I sent them out years ago, but I'm still happy with how they turned out (even if I do see some potential flaws in them), so it was nice to finally share them with someone outside my college's English department.

P.S. Another way to look at this might be tension --> release, tension --> release, if that works for your brain more. But for me, that's too linear and not specific enough. Tension and release isn't enough to make the story work. You need to build up the tension. And often you need to set the stage. So I like setup, rising action, climax, falling action. Although in some cases, the falling action may be cut off.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Creating Fictional Languages (Conlangs)

I wish I could say I'm an amazing linguist and could give you my take on creating languages for fiction, but I'm not and I can't. 

So seems kind of strange I'm doing this post, right?

Well, recently I spent a good deal of time researching how to actually make a constructed language (the term for a constructed language is "conlang," by the way), so I could create one for a manuscript. It was easier than I was expecting (and yet more complex than I was expecting at the same time), and super fascinating! So I wanted to do a recap/review of my experience for anyone else out there looking to do this from scratch. If I can do it, chances are so can you! (For the record, I don't speak any other languages.)

I used a couple of resources, but I found this guide to be my favorite.

As Always, Start with the Basics

The idea of creating a language can seem really daunting, especially when you look at conlangs like Tolkien's Elvish or Star Trek's Klingon--which are essentially full "complete" languages. But like just about everything, you don't need to start with a huge complicated language, you need to start with the bare basics, and you know what's amazing about the basics? Everything else builds off them!

And as an added bonus, for books, you don't actually need a complete language, you just need to give the impression of one. (However, if you are the type of person who really gets into this, you might have so much fun that you don't stop and that's cool!)

At this point, some of you may be wondering if it's really necessary to even create a language--that depends on the project, the effect you want, and your personal opinion. Because I want to expand my conlang to other projects, I decided to create one--even if I only needed 4 - 6 sentences for my current WIP. πŸ˜‚πŸ™ˆ

The Very Basics

If you're like me, when you think of creating a language, you think of coming up with words and sentences. But guess what? Those aren't the very basics! Sounds are.

So if you are going to create a language from scratch, it will go in this order:

Sounds --> Syllables --> Words --> Sentences

Roughly. You might have already made up a few words, and that's okay. You can break what you have down to syllables and sounds, and when you identify those, build from there.

Selecting Sounds

Each of the three sources I used (including a linguist briefly), said to start with sound. If you aren't really sure how to do that, I'll get you going in this section.

So, there is this thing called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and it includes every sound of every language (even has clicks!). If you've looked up words in the dictionary, you've probably noticed symbols like this:

That's how to pronounce the word using IPA symbols.

You can go to and click on the symbols to hear the sounds. The chart is also organized based on where in the mouth (and how) a sound is made.

But if you want to give the impression of a real language, you shouldn't just jump in and pick a bunch randomly, because there are natural reasons certain sounds occur together and others don't.

You think I know all the ins-and-outs of those rules? No way! But this video will help guide you.

Some of the common sounds in languages include: p, t, k, s, h, m, n

Some sounds are voiced, some are not (compare how you say the "p" sound with the "b" sound--they are essentially the same, but "b" requires your vocal chords). If a language has the voiced version of an obstruent consonant (ex. "b"), it will also have the voiceless version ("p"), but not necessarily vice versa. Most languages have at least one nasal (such as "m" or "n") and one (what's called) liquid (such as "r," "l," or "w")

Most languages have five vowels, but every language has at least two.

Most languages have 20-30 sounds. But if you want a distinct language with more "character," it might be smart to go with fewer.

Making Syllables

I thought I had a good understanding of what a syllable was. After all, I remember clapping words out like "ap-ple" and "bas-ket-ball" when I was in elementary school. And as a native English speaker, that was good enough for me.

What I didn't know was that in other languages, there are actual rules for syllables!

That's when I realized my understanding of syllables was rather narrow.

But don't worry, it's still not too crazy.

You can handle it.

In general, a syllable is made up of these components: the onset, the nucleus (hey, bet you didn't know we had sciency terms), and the coda.

So in the syllable "bas" (for "basketball"), "b" is the onset, "a" is the nucleus, and "s" is the coda. Bas. Ket. The "k" is the onset, "e" is the nucleus, and "t" is the coda.

Every syllable has a nucleus (almost always a vowel), but not every syllable has an onset or a coda (for example "ap" in "apple" doesn't have an onset, and the "za" in "pizza" doesn't have a coda).

Some languages have rules for codas.

Hawaiian is what's called an "open syllable" language. That means none of their syllables have a coda. They all end on the vowel. Have you noticed? Ho-no-lu-lu. A-lo-ha. O-ha-na.

Other languages have codas, but only certain sounds can be a coda.

Mandarin has set codas. Only "n," "ng," and "r" can be codas. So every Mandarin syllable will end in "n," "ng," "r," or a vowel (nucleus) as an open syllable.

Crazy, right?

One thing I've learned from this process is that the English language is super crazy. For example, we sometimes have syllables with up to five codas! "Angsts."

Along with syllables, you'll want to consider stress. Some languages have very specific rules for stress. For example, in Finnish, stress always falls on the first syllable of a word. In Armenian, it's always the last syllable. Some have systems like "always the second-to-last syllable unless the last syllable is open." Then you have languages like English that is kinda haywire, but the stress can also change the meaning of the word, like in "present": PREsent or preSENT.

I've learned I'm kind of terrible with stress! (Luckily my language will be written more than spoken).

Hawaiian is an open syllable language. Every syllable ends in a vowel.

Creating Words

Now you can get to creating words.

First you want to create some simple root words. String together your sounds into syllables, and your syllables into words (make sure you follow any rules you set). Root words are words that can't be divided down further. Often these have simple concepts.

There is more you can go into here, like creating (believable) prefixes and suffixes, compound words, articles, plurals. If you want to make this realistic, you can check out Biblaridion's videos. He explains things like how prepositions often come from either nouns or adjectives.

Structuring Sentences

Once you have a few words, you can start making some simple sentences. First you'll need to decide the basic word order. In English, we structure basic sentences as subject, verb, object.

Here are your options:

Subject, verb, object -- I hug her.
Subject, object, verb -- I her hug.
Object, subject, verb -- Her I hug.
Object, verb, subject -- Her hug I.
Verb, subject, object -- Hug I her.
Verb, object, subject -- Hug her I.
(Note: some languages can actually go in any order, but the words have to be modified)

Then you will be able to start constructing simple sentences with your words.

Beyond that, you have adjectives, which describe nouns.

Adjectives are primarily derived from either nouns or verbs.

Derived from nouns: I hunt tall thing animal.
Derived from verbs: I hunt animal [that] is talling.

English adjectives primarily come from nouns. If your adjectives are primarily from nouns, they will go before the noun. If your adjectives come from verbs, they will go after the noun they are describing.

Similarly, prepositions originate from nouns or verbs. Likewise, if your prepositions come from nouns, they will go before the noun. If they come from verbs, they will go after (and technically be called "postpositions")

Then you have possessors ("the man's food"). Most of the time, languages will order the possessor like an adjective, so it will go where your adjectives go. Either "man's food" or "food of man."

After this basic word order, you will need to consider tenses--if your language has them. Some of them don't.

Yoda talks in a different word order than typical of English.

Language Evolution

All languages evolve and change over time. If you are trying to give the impression of a real language, yours should probably "evolve" as well. I'll be honest, some of this stuff was a little over my head, but I think if I were to go over it several times, I'd get it.

Why didn't I simulate this?

Well, luckily, my fake language is meant to be very ancient, so it wouldn't have evolved much, so I didn't stress about this part.

Here is a video on how to evolve your language phonetically.

And here is a video on how to evolve your language grammatically.

Once you have established (and written down!) all your language's sounds, structures, and grammar, you are set to create whatever sentences you need as you need them. You can "grow" your language from there, and it will stay consistent, giving the impression of a real language. Just don't forget to record all your made-up words in a dictionary. And when making new words, check to see if you can make them out of words you've already made up.

How cool is all that?

One more thing, your language may need a writing system. With that said, not all languages have had writing systems. This video will guide you through different types of writing systems, how they develop, and how they evolve. It's just as fascinating.

If you do need a language, I highly suggest Biblaridion's playlist, which will guide you through the whole process.

Until next time . . .

Vol shΔ“la hla

(P.S. If anyone who knows more about languages than me would like to chime in, feel free to comment!)

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Passive Value Heroine

Probably the majority of us have brainstormed or written her at some point, but if we haven't done that, we have encountered her, even if we didn't realized it. She's a reoccurring character type with a long history, and as a trope, she probably has a name, but I don't know what it is.

So I call her the passive value heroine.

She's a protagonist, a main viewpoint character, or a side character. Actually, she pretty much can be in any role.

But she's a female character that is valued based on what she is, rather than what she does.

Thus, her value is based on a passive trait. Not something she chose. Not something she harnessed and worked at. Something she just is.

In contrast, the passive value hero almost never appears (at least from my experience--I mean, right now, I can't think of a single one). Rarely, it seems, are males only valued solely based on what they are.

The passive value heroine can be problematic for obvious reasons.

But she's not always bad and can be balanced out or handled in successful ways.

She still appears in successful stories.

So don't feel like you have to scratch her out completely. But it's helpful to be aware of her.

But why does she keep appearing all over the place and in our writing? Even when more than ever, we are pushing for active female characters? Even when we are trying to write pro-feminist heroines, she's there. Even when she's meant to be a "strong female" lead, it's actually her, in disguise.

If you've written her, you aren't crazy. You aren't a woman-hater. And you aren't a jerk.

The reality is, she's been prevalent in storytelling for so long, that a lot of us just grab her without realizing who she is. It's subconscious.

The passive value heroine goes way back in history. I know for a fact she goes clear back to the King Arthur legends, but I'm sure she probably goes back even further than that.

The passive value heroine goes back to the King Arthur legends, and is probably even older.

You see, back in the day, in most dominating societies, female characters were valued based on passive traits. Usually these traits were things like virginity, innocence, and beauty.

Knights and male leads would revere her, go to battle, even die for her, to protect and uphold her. 

Look at those traits though. They are all passive. Virginity isn't even necessarily the exact same as being chaste. A woman could be taken advantage of, losing her virginity against her will, but still be chaste in spirit. (Okay, this could go on a historical tangent, so let's move on.) Innocence is just something someone is--it's based on a lack of experience of the world. Likewise, beauty is the same. Sure, in today's day and age, we can enhance our appearance and look more beautiful, but traditionally (and some would still argue this today) beauty is just something some people have.

Likewise, a lot of these sorts of traits are qualities that encourage inaction and inexperience. Obviously a virgin is someone who doesn't have sexual experience. Someone who is naive and innocent lacks experience of the world. And often the enemy of beauty is aging--which just comes with the experience of time.

It's kinda crazy, but in one sense, by having stories where males are willing to fight and die for their women who exemplify these qualities, we are a shaping a thought process, an ideology, that states that a passive woman is a most valuable woman, which is also a great way to keep women from progressing and being active in society.

But this idea has been perpetuated through centuries, even through the millennia.

Even today, when we try to write "strong female protagonists," a lot of us try to do it by giving the heroine a super powerful ability that she just has or is just born with.

She just is the strongest hero.

She just is the best shield.

She just is the key to saving the world.

She just is crazy talented at X.

She just is the best fighter.

In some cases, the value may be something she does obtain, but the choice for her to become or obtain said attribute, is made by other people, not her.

Someone else made her the most powerful superhero, without her consent.

Someone else did something that made her crazy talented at X.

Someone else marked her as the chosen one.

Now this doesn't mean that every female character like this is horrible and we're bad writers and this is the end of the world. But it's something we should be aware of and check in with from time to time.

Don't go overboard and run to the other extreme . . . with a similar result.

On the flip side, I don't necessarily think we all need to go write stories about heroines who aren't virgins; have so much worldly experience, they are cynical; or that are super ugly (spoiler: "ugly" is arguably still a passive trait).

Sometimes by trying to fix what we perceive to be "weak" or "passive" heroines, we go overboard to the other extremes. And (kind of hilariously) end up on just another passive value, like ugliness. (Or, instead of being weak and powerless, she's incredibly strong and powerful, and yet it's still manifested as a passive trait because of how it is handled in the story.)

Instead, we might need to write more heroines who have active value. They have value because of what they choose to do, because of talent they've worked to develop, because of experience they've made a point to gain.

A lot of times, these things may come from unexpected or unobvious areas. But at least some of her value to the story, to the other characters, to herself, and to her society, needs to come from what she actively chooses to do and be. Not what she just is or has done to her.

Sometimes I wonder if in our quest to write more "strong female heroines," we've in a strange way become afraid of rendering true active traits. Active traits don't just happen. They require personal decisions. Even sacrifices. They require actual work. And often the most rewarding active traits come from hard work, which means moments of vulnerability and struggle. Not un-ending invincibility. In fact, sometimes being vulnerable is one of the strongest things a heroine can do in a moment. And in order for a struggle to actually be a struggle, it shouldn't be something she can easily do or obtain the first time.

In our quest to write "strong female heroines" don't be afraid to let her have weaknesses, be vulnerable, and legitimately struggle. We want to avoid extremes (usually). We may not want her weak and passive about everything. But we may not want her to be powerful and invincible with everything either. (In most stories anyway. There are absolutely exceptions, and stories where that is the point. I'm using this as a generality.)

Okay, so what do you do if you have a largely passive value heroine? Are you an awful person who needs to delete the whole story? Can you never have a passive value heroine?

Of course not.

Passive value heroines can be hecka interesting in their own way.

After all, passive values actually exist. There are people who are just amazingly naturally talented at something. There are people who are just naturally drop-dead gorgeous. There are people who are so naturally goodhearted, that you may want to take on an army to keep them from being eaten alive by the world.


You (often) need to balance that passive value out with some active values. Even if it's not always obvious.

She needs to be making her own significant decisions.

She needs to be working to develop something.

She needs to be gaining some of her own experience.

You can also find ways for a heroine to develop, enhance, or take advantage of her passive values intentionally, to be more active. Maybe she is weirdly, crazy good at playing the piano. Well, so what? What does she choose to do with that? How can she actively use that to contribute to the plot? And affect other characters?

Is she naturally drop-dead gorgeous? What can she choose to do with that? What sort of choices would someone like that make? What struggles will she be confronted with that she'll have to find ways to actively overcome? Life ain't always easy for the beautiful woman.

Vanya is largely a passive value heroine

If you've been online or around, you're probably aware that The Umbrella Academy on Netflix is making waves. And guess what? One of the main characters is largely a passive value heroine. If you haven't seen it and plan to, I definitely recommend you don't read the rest of this paragraph and skip the next one. But if you have, let's talk about some things. Who is the strongest superhero in the show? Vanya. Guess what? She's full of passive value. Not only does she have a power she was just born with (like all the others), but it's the most powerful ability, and it's the most uncontrolled ability. That's a passive value heroine. To make matters worse, she believes she's normal and doesn't have any ability--why? Because someone else made the decision for her (cue entry of the patriarchy, if you want to go that direction, analytically), that she needed to believe she was normal and take medication. Forever. Through her life, she has things done to her.

But she at least has some active outlet she works on. Her violin. And she works hard at it. But then her boyfriend enters the story, and she starts discovering her powers. But guess what? It's the boyfriend making the decisions. It's the boyfriend "giving" her the ability back (patriarchy strikes again). And yet, with all that said, we see her make some of her own decisions. There is her violin, yes, but she makes her own relationship decisions. She writes her own book. She ultimately chooses to use and control her power. So she's not all passive value. She's a good example of a passive value heroine that I feel works.

So, it can be pulled off and successful.

But ultimately we need to be careful that not all her value is passive.

And we should seek out and create moments that illustrate her active value just as well.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Easiest Explanation of Semicolons ;)

Semicolons are probably the most misused and misunderstood form of punctuation. Which is ironic. Because they are actually one of the easiest.

Easier than dashes, easier than commas, easier than ellipses, quotation marks, colons, and even the interrobang (?!)

Here is all you really need to know:

Semicolons replace a period between complete sentences.

That's it.

If you know how to use a period, you know how to use a semicolon.

They make the complete sentences into one sentence. 

The problem isn't that they are actually that difficult. The problem is most of us weren't taught about them consistently in school and therefore they seem like this rare, elusive, convoluted punctuation symbol.

So when you are wondering if you can use a semicolon, do this simple test:

Can you put a period there?

If no, then you shouldn't use a semicolon.

If yes, then you can use a semicolon.

Got it?

Let's do a simple quiz. Below, some of the sentences use a semicolon properly and others improperly. Can you tell which are right and which are wrong?

1. I went to the store; she went to bed.
2. He hated turtle soup; because he found it barbaric.
3. Lucy closed her eyes; crying until she had no tears left.
4. Although Bart didn't usually like action movies, this one was great; he could have watched it all night, eyes glued to the screen, popcorn halfway to his mouth.
5. The last thing she wanted to do; was go for a job interview.
6. Spring was almost here; the buds of blossoms were beginning to unfurl.

Now do the test by replacing the semicolons with periods.

1. I went to the store. She went to bed. (correct)
2. He hated turtle soup. Because he found it barbaric. (incorrect)
3. Lucy closed her eyes. Crying until she had no tears left. (incorrect)
4. Although Bart didn't usually like action movies, this one was great. He could have watched it all night, eyes glued to the screen, popcorn halfway to his mouth. (correct)
5. The last thing she wanted to do. Was go for a job interview. (incorrect)
6. Spring was almost here. The buds of blossoms were beginning to unfurl. (correct)

You might be wondering, then what's the point? Why not just use a period?

Valid question.

Two reasons:

1. A semicolon conveys that the content of these two sentences are related and connected in some way. Sure, you can convey that without a semicolon, but for that extra bit of visual emphasis, a semicolon can be nice to use. (Just don't over use them. That's annoying.)

"I went to the store; she went to bed" conveys that these two things are related in some way. We'd need the context of what came before, but perhaps these two characters got in an argument, and this sentence is conveying they each went their separate ways after. The two actions are related.

2. Semicolons have quicker pauses than periods. In the writing industry, we often don't talk enough about beat and rhythm in sentences. Periods have longer pauses. Semicolons are shorter. When you are focused on beat, rhythm, or even pacing, a semicolon may be just what you need.

You can break this all down and get more technical, talking about independent clauses, but remember, the headline of this article is the easiest explanation. And the easiest explanation is that each side of the semicolon needs to be able to stand as a complete sentence. A semicolon implies they relate. That's it.

. . . Okay, there actually is one other way you can use a semicolon in punctuation, but it's less exciting and less used, so if you want to stop reading this article at this point, you probably can. There are also some opinions on whether or not a semicolon should be used in fiction at all, which I'm going to address after.

Still with me?


So the other time you can use a semicolon is when you are writing out lists in a sentence and one or more of the items in the list already includes a comma.

For example:

It's my dream to go to Paris, France; Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; and Tokyo, Japan.


During the summer, they hiked down canyons, over fields, and up mountains; fished in lakes, ponds, and even the sea; and shared secrets.


We were going to go swimming; watch the sunset, which was beautiful this time of year; and roast marshmallows.

This can help with clarity.

Should Semicolons be Axed from Fiction Completely?

Some people in the industry argue that you should never use semicolons in fiction because they draw attention to themselves and therefore pull the reader a little out of the story (as a distraction). Semicolons signal to the audience they are reading a story, not experiencing it. 

However, I argue that the only reason semicolons do this is because we as a society don't teach and use them correctly or regularly. If we did, they wouldn't attract attention. I think it's silly to completely ax a punctuation mark because other people are failing at it. Wouldn't it be better to instead educate people? Because semicolons do have a function and purpose in writing. Obviously, it's possible to overuse them, but ax them completely? Come on.

I'm already sad that the interrobang (?!) gets the red pen.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Undercurrent vs. Subtext vs. Theme

A while ago, I had a follower ask me to do a post about undercurrents, subtext, and themes, and how they are different, which is also one of the reasons I did that whole article about how to write theme the other week.

So basically:

I have an article about undercurrents.

I have an article about subtext.

And I now have an article about theme.

Worth noting is that "undercurrent" is a term I made up. I don't know if other people use another word for it. So if you have no clue what I mean by "undercurrent," it's probably only because you haven't read my article on it, which is fine. Whatever you want to call it, it's helpful you understand the concept.

But here's the thing, as I've thought about this post, some could easily argue that "undercurrent" and "subtext" are the same thing (and maybe that's why a term for "undercurrent" doesn't exist), but to me, they are somewhat different concepts, even if they overlap. Sorta like nectar vs. honey.

Also, I think it's important to keep in mind that I'm probably regularly evolving my ideas about writing, to some extent. And since this is a blog, you guys get to follow my process with that, so my ideas and term choices might shift a little bit, which can be confusing. (Like in my recent theme article, I had to admit to using the term "theme" to mean both "thematic statement" and "theme topic" in prior posts.)

But, I still think it's helpful to think of subtext and undercurrent as two different concepts, if two sides of the same coin.


Undercurrent to me is the "under" side of the story. I think of this more as . . . well . . . real (. . . in an imaginary/fiction sort of way.) It is the story (or stories) under the one we as an audience are following.

For example, mystery plots have an "under story." The audience follows the person who is investigating, that's the "surface" story. But the "under story" is the murderer's story (assuming this is a murder mystery) of how and why he killed the victim. We won't get a clear idea of the murderer's story until the end of the book, but we see parts of it hit the surface story (like clues and hints).

J. K. Rowling does this very well, which is why I always refer to her when talking about the concept of undercurrents. Every wizarding world story (except the last one, which is why I think it sorta failed and I wrote an article on that) has both a surface story and an undercurrent story.

Like this:

Sorcerer's Stone

Surface story: A boy finds out he's a wizard and goes to a school to learn how to wield magic.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is trying to get the Sorcerer's Stone to return to power

Chamber of Secrets

Surface story: Harry returns to Hogwarts and tries to learn who is opening the Chamber of Secrets
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is using Ginny Weasley to try to come back through a Horcrux

Prisoner of Azkaban

Surface story: While at school this year, Harry has to worry about being attacked by Sirius Black
Undercurrent story: Sirius escaped from prison to kill Peter Pettigrew as punishment for what happened with Lily and James.

Goblet of Fire

Surface story: Harry has to compete in a dangerous tournament
Undercurrent story: Barty Crouch Jr. is working to resurrect Voldemort

Order of the Phoenix

Surface story: Harry is pitted against Umbridge, who works for the ministry, and is wrecking havoc on the school.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is trying to use Harry to get the prophecy from the Department of Mysteries

Half-blood Prince

Surface story: Harry is obsessed with finding out what Malfoy is doing and is sure he is a Death Eater.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort created at least seven Horcruxes and Dumbledore is hunting them.

Deathly Hallows

Surface story: Harry is hunting and destroying Horcruxes.
Undercurrent story: The Deathly Hallows themselves, particularly the fact Voldemort wants the Elder Wand.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Surface story: Newt needs to recapture all the beasts that escaped into New York.
Undercurrent story: Grindelwald is trying to get his hands on an obscurus as a weapon.

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

Surface story: ????? (<-- missing!)
Undercurrent story: The identity (and significance) of Credence

Often by the end of the story, the undercurrent, or at least parts of it, come to the surface. Harry stops Quirrell from getting the stone, he defeats the Horcrux in the chamber, he frees Sirius Black, learns that Moody is actually Barty Crouch Jr. etc.

But often an undercurrent story will hit the surface story in some degree in some places prior.

Yes, I made this in Paint :)

The undercurrent story is still just as "real" as the surface story. We just don't see all of it (otherwise it would be another surface story), but in your fictive world, it's an additional set of events that played out.

In some rare stories, such as "Hills like White Elephants" by Earnest Hemingway, almost nothing connects the undercurrent story to the surface story, so unless someone tells you or you've studied literature, you may read the story and finish it scratching your head. You didn't know or have access to the undercurrent story, only the surface one (which was rather uneventful).

The undercurrent isn't really hitting the surface story

I like to take this a step further, and say there are even levels within the undercurrent--how "deep" it goes.

For example, we may have an undercurrent story for one Harry Potter volume, but there is also a deeper undercurrent through the whole series.

I'm not going to review all the level concepts, but if anyone wants to learn more, they're in my undercurrent article.

The undercurrent is content that is happening in the fictive world that the audience doesn't directly see fully play out.

It makes the story feel bigger than what's on the page and also draws the audience in, because it invites them to participate instead of just spectate.

But maybe the reason "undercurrent" doesn't have its own term is because a lot of people just lump it in with "subtext." After all, isn't "subtext" everything that isn't directly on the page?

At the same time, I know I'm not the only person in this industry that criticizes the ambiguity of writing terms (like "theme" and "hook" and "plot point two" and "beat" and even "ambiguity" itself). No one polices the terms, which I think makes it more difficult to teach and learn about writing. And personally, I sometimes think we lump too many concepts to the same term, so we miss out on specifics and details. It would be like calling every type of dog a "dog," and not noticing the differences between the pug and the St. Bernard. I sometimes feel we are missing the "breed" equivalent in writing terminology. We call all dogs, "dogs." This makes it more difficult to discern and harness each breed's specialties.


For undercurrents, I think of more of the larger fictive world, but for subtext, I think more of the actual book and getting it on the page (or rather, with subtext, implying it enough without putting it on the page directly). In that sense, in the book, the undercurrent usually manifests as subtext in some way.

Subtext is what is implied, but not stated directly on the page.

Since the undercurrent story/stories is not the surface story, then naturally, any sense of it that doesn't fully surface is going to show up as subtext.

But as I said above, an undercurrent story may come to the surface story, often at the end (though technically, it can surface elsewhere, I guess).

Which at that point, the undercurrent story is no longer using subtext, but now stated directly in the text. (This would be the point in all the Harry Potter books where Harry discovers the undercurrent story). It touched and went into the surface story. It is at the surface in that moment.

I guess, technically, you could have an undercurrent story that never appears as subtext in the book, and then suddenly comes to the surface at a point in the text. Like . . . surprise! Guess what else has been going on all along that we had no clue about? I'm trying to think of a specific example . . . It's like when a character suddenly reveals they have been taking dance lessons all year, but there were zero hints or subtext about it. A lot of times, this might manifest as a deus ex machina. However, if it's not vital to solving a plot problem, then it might not be one, just a bit of undercurrent that has surfaced.

Whew! This is getting technical. :)

I guess I think of subtext as more of the highway the undercurrent may take. But maybe the term "subtext" is still too ambiguous in the writing industry. Maybe like the word "theme" it actually has two or more components. The technique of subtext. And the content of subtext. But like "theme," we all point at it and just say, "nice subtext" (guilty).

In my article on subtext, I titled it "How to Write What's not Written," and it's largely about the technique of subtext. The actually process of getting it on the page indirectly.

You could say that the concept of undercurrent and the concept of subtext content largely overlap. Which is probably why me talking about each of them can be confusing. Like a lot of writing topics, it kind of gets down to how you want to categorize them (unfortunately). For example, in my series on story structure, I talked about how a lot of "story structures" are similar, but have different names and terms for the same concepts and different approaches to how to slice and dice the story. In a Hero's Journey, the "Call to Action" is essentially the "inciting incident."

The subtext content, I guess, in a sense, is in the undercurrent, because it's not stated plainly on the page. But I'm not sure that all subtext content is attached to an undercurrent story.

If one character hates broccoli, but that's never stated directly on the page, just implied, and it's never really connected to anything else in the book, then I'd probably just call it subtext content, not an undercurrent story. Maybe the fact she hates broccoli has no story behind it; it's just the way she was born.

However, in a scene, it may be subtext content and manifest on the page through subtext technique.

Let's try thinking of this and breaking this down a different way.

Subtext content is still "under" the surface, but it may not be connected to anything really. It may not have a cause and effect or tell a story or have any significance.

But an undercurrent story, which is also "under" the surface, does.

So maybe, from this perspective, I'm using "undercurrent" too ambiguously. Because subtext content is still in the "undercurrent" floating around, but may not always be connected to anything significant overall. It's in the current of the river, but not necessarily following the currents.

Still, subtext content and undercurrent story can overlap and be the same element in some scenes, but since I don't think all subtext content is part of an undercurrent story, to me, they are two different things.

(Anyone confused yet? πŸ˜†πŸ˜…)

If you are confused, no worries, you do not need to see stories the same way I do to be successful! But, for me, seeing these as different concepts, helps me be able to use them better (and helps me know what I am doing).

It's also possible to have lots of subtext content in the under part of storytelling, without having an actual undercurrent story. It is just subtext content manifested through subtext technique, that doesn't connect to an "under" plot.

Every successful story needs subtext content. Similar to what I said in the section above, subtext content also invites the reader to be a participator instead of just a spectator. And it also gives the impression that there is more to the story than what is on the page.

But I would argue that many of the most satisfying stories, and certainly the stories with some of the greatest re-read value, don't just have subtext content, but undercurrent stories--subtext content that connects to something bigger and greater (and more rewarding).

Note: Looking back, I've realized that in other places I've referred to "subtext content" as "subtext subject"--great, now I'm being ambiguous with my own terms πŸ€ͺ I might have to go through later and try to make that more cohesive.


Okay, so how does theme fit into this crazy?

Well, theme is kind of its own thing, but in storytelling, everything is interconnected, so in a lot of ways, basically nothing is its own thing. πŸ˜…

But lets not confuse ourselves more than we already have today.

The main two flaws with theme you want to watch out for, are:

1. you don't want to swing the thematic statement at everything from beginning, through middle, and to the end, and
2. you don't want to over-simplify opposing views and alternate experiences with the theme topic.

The thematic statement is meant to be the answer, the resolution, to the characters' struggles concerning the theme topic. If you are throwing the thematic statement (the "answer") all around throughout the story, it will probably be heavy-handed and preachy. Over-simplifying other perspectives and experiences only makes this worse, and actually weakens, not strengthens, the theme.

Elements of theme are often handled through subtext (both as subtext content and (obviously) subtext technique), and they can relate to undercurrent stories. Being more subtle (by using them this way), can also help you avoid problem #1 (though may not solve it completely).

For theme, I feel that undercurrent stories and subtext are just more ways to render it effectively in the narrative.

Throughout the course of a story, theme may seem to play out similar to an undercurrent story--where the theme topic is touched on in the surface story again and again, until finally the thematic statement comes to the surface at the end. But honestly, trying to look at it this way seems to muddy it more to me, and not all undercurrent stories surface.

Also, some elements of theme may be addressed directly on the surface of the text, and therefore not be subtext or undercurrent story.

For me, I like to think of theme more as its own thing.

Anyway, I hope this all hasn't been too overwhelming! And by all means, don't feel like you need to think about stories the same way I do. Take what is helpful to your writing.

Next week I'll be back with a simpler subject.

Monday, June 10, 2019

How to Write Stakes in Storytelling

Hey friends, lately I've been wanting to revisit the concept of stakes, as I've been trying to think of new ways to explain it to writers (and to understand it better myself). I'll be honest, back in the beginning, it was kind of hard for me to wrap my head around "stakes." Something about the term itself felt elusive, then when I started to get it, it felt too restrictive creatively.

What do I mean by stakes? And why are they important?

Stakes are essentially what is at risk in the story.

But still, for newer writers, I think that definition leaves them wanting.

Because the concept of "risk" can seem vague as well. Or the risk seems so obvious, that the writer never states it in the text.

Writer: Well, obviously the protagonist's life is at risk! THAT'S THE RISK!! Why do you keep asking me for the stakes???

Lately I've found it more helpful to think of stakes like this.

Stakes = Potential Consequences
Consequences. That's a word that is creeping into my mind more and more as an editor and a writer.

State potential consequences in the text.

Remember how I have been talking on and off for months about how audiences want to look forward in the story? And that tension and hooks work by getting the audience to look forward? Readers keep turning pages, because we've gotten them consider what could happen. Now they need to find out if it does happen.

It's not just about the consequences.

It's about the potential consequences.

Often in the industry you'll hear people say "Raise the stakes!"

But what does that mean?

It means raising/growing/increasing/amplifying what is at risk.

It means strengthening, deepening, broadening potential consequences.

And the audience wants and needs those potential consequences in the text, either stated directly or implied powerfully.

If you took English classes in college, you may have had your professor talk about the "So what?" question when it came to writing essays. Maybe you were writing an essay about animal rights in factory farming. Well, so what? Why do we care about that? Or maybe you were writing an essay about how eating dinner as a family has a positive impact on children. Well, so what? Maybe you were writing an essay that compared Dr. Faustus to Dr. Jekyll. Well, so what? Why do we care?

Stories where the stakes (aka, potential consequences) don't make it onto the page may result in similar responses from others.

So what?

Why do we care?

Why do I care what happens to this character?

Make me care!

How do we fix that?

I've been thinking about how one of the keys to fixing this is making sure the potential consequences, the stakes, are on the page.

You can take this back to my essay examples. When we include the potential consequences in our essays, we answer the "So what?" question. What are the consequences of factory farming on animals and humans? What are the potential consequences of eating dinner as a family? What are the consequences of Dr. Faustus and Dr. Jekyll and what conclusions can we draw from their stories?

When we talk about potential consequences, we talk about what is at risk and why we should care.

Say in the beginning of your story, your protagonist is given the task of delivering an invitation for a royal wedding to her Aunt Sadie.

Well, so what?

Why do we care?

It's your job as a writer to convey the potential consequences that will satisfy those reactions.

Consider this.

If Aunt Sadie doesn't receive the royal invitation, then a rift will come between the royal family and the protagonist's, resulting in financial and familial devastation (let's say the set up explains why this is so).

Okay, so now I'm starting to care about the wedding invitation--and whether or not Aunt Sadie gets it.

We now have financial and familial wellbeing at risk, or in other words, at stake.

But this also works in the opposite direction, which it seems like everyone in the industry forgets to talk about.

Consider the positive potential consequences as well.

If Aunt Sadie gets the invitation, then she can go to the wedding, where she hopes to network with someone of high prestige in order to start her new business, a bakery chain, that our protagonist is dreaming and dying to work in--baking is her passion.

Okay, now I'm caring about the invitation even more. Because whatever happens to it will either bring really good consequences or really bad consequences. Not only are family and finances at risk, but the protagonist's dream is affected as well.

To take it even a step further, you can sometimes add potential consequences to potential consequences.

If our protagonist isn't able to help her aunt get the bakery going within the year, then she'll be doomed to work for her father as a stenographer, which she'd hate.


Already I'm caring about whether or not this invitation gets delivered, and I just made this all up in a few minutes.

I care because of what's at risk, what's at stake, what could happen.

Now as we get the story going, we throw in some obstacles that get in the way of our protagonist delivering the invitation. What if someone recognizes what it is and tries to steal it so they can get into the wedding?  What if our protagonist accidentally loses it on the way to her aunt's house? What if a downpour of rain ruins it?

Suddenly something as simplistic as a piece of paper is riveting.

But imagine that same scenario, without getting the potential consequences. Who cares about delivering a wedding invitation, really? How much does it matter for the aunt to get it? Or for the protagonist to deliver it? So what? We don't care.

We need the potential consequences in order to get invested in the story.

But it's important to know that not all consequences are equal. Sometimes writers include potential consequences, but they fall flat. This is because the consequences aren't significant.

Another elusive term that I'm working to nail down and explain.

What makes something "significant"?

1 - It has important personal consequences, or
2 - It has far-reaching, broad consequences

You could start a story about your heroine delivering a royal wedding invitation to her aunt, and you could mention the fact it's a downpour outside, and if she's not careful, the rain will ruin the invitation (a potential consequence).

But if that's the only potential consequence you give us, guess what? Who cares? It's not personal. And it's not far-reaching.

Therefore, it is not, significant.

Why should we care if the invitation gets wet and ruined?

But if we put in the story significant potential consequences, it has a different effect. If the invitation doesn't get properly delivered, then

1 - the protagonist may not be able to live her dream helping her aunt in a bakery and will instead be stuck with a job she hates (personal), and
2 - it will cause financial and familial devastation (far-reaching and broad).

The potential consequences need to be significant.

If you look closely at all my consequence sentences, you'll notice they follow a pattern.

The "if . . . then . . ." sentence structure:

If Aunt Sadie doesn't receive the royal invitation, then a rift will come . . .
If Aunt Sadie gets the invitation, then our protagonist can pursue her dream.
If our protagonist isn't able to help her aunt, then she'll be doomed to work as a stenographer.

You can just as easily slip in "if . . . then . . ." sentence structures into your story to guarantee that the potential consequences, the stakes, are present in the text.

Unless you overdo it, most readers aren't even going to be consciously aware of them; they'll just feel the effects. 

But sometimes that idea can feel mechanical and creatively restrictive . . . and even annoying.

So it doesn't need to be so blatant. Just make sure you are conveying the IF and the THEN in the text. If you are in deep viewpoint, you can convey those concepts without having to use that sentence structure every time. You just need to convey fears and hopes your character has about what could happen.

Next time you watch a movie, or read a book, watch for IF and THEN lines. Here are some I've picked up on:

"If I don't destroy the collider, then all of Brooklyn will be gone!"
"If Rodrick knows I ratted him out, then he'll never forgive me!"
"If you become a vampire, there is one thing you'll want more than love. Blood."
"If one could locate and destroy all the horcruxes, then one can destroy Voldemort."
"If we don't fight back, then he'll take all our land, our homes, our lives we built."
"If we don't keep moving, this place will be swarming with aliens in a matter of hours."

Get the stakes, the potential consequences in the text.

Sometimes writers fail to do this because they think the stakes are obvious.

But the audience wants them in the text.

It's only annoying to them if you keep repeating the same potential consequences over and over and over and over again.

Reader: I get it!

This can also be missing from the text if the writer is trying too hard to follow the "Show, don't tell" rule religiously. Since stakes are potential consequences, you can't really show them, can you? You have to convey them through telling.

If you don't have any telling in your story, you aren't conveying potential consequences. And you aren't answering the "So what?" question.

Put the potential consequences in the text.

And as a bonus, look for opportunities to address both positive and negative consequences, perhaps even for the same story element.

IF you don't include potential consequences, THEN you will be rejected.

Related Articles:
Look Forward, Not Back, to Pull the Reader In
Tension vs. Conflict
5 Tricks that Help with Hooks
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell"

Monday, June 3, 2019

How to Write Your Story's Theme

Theme is one of those elusive words that people often use but don't fully understand in storytelling. Worse yet, there are actually a lot of misunderstandings in the writing industry and community about it.

Here's the deal: Whatever we write communicates or teaches something to the audience, whether or not we intend it to.

During His ministry, Jesus Christ used parables (aka, stories) to teach people lessons, morals, new ideas, and change culture and ideology. Whether or not you are Christian, you've likely heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan. What is the point of that story? What is it teaching? It's teaching that we should love, be kind to, and serve everyone--regardless of nationality, religious background, culture, or whatever. Everyone is our "neighbor."

A thematic statement is essentially the teaching of a story. So for the Good Samaritan, the thematic statement is, "We should love, be kind to, and serve everyone."

Let's look at some other famous stories and their thematic statements (teachings).

The Little Red Hen: If you don't contribute or work, you don't get the rewards of those efforts.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: If all we do is have fun and entertain ourselves, we won't be prepared for difficult times.

The Tortoise and the Hare: It's better to move forward at a steady pace than go so fast we burn ourselves out.

These are old, famous fables with seemingly obvious thematic statements. Often in children stories, the theme is stated more directly. For adult fiction, it may be much more subtle.

Here are some more modern examples.

The Greatest Showman: You don't need to be accepted and loved by the world, only by a few people who become your family

Spider-verse: If you get up every time you get knocked down, you'll accomplish more than you thought possible

Harry Potter: Love is the most powerful force in the world

Zootopia: To change biases in society, you first must evaluate and work on your own biases.

Les Miserables: Mercy is more powerful than justice

Legally Blonde: Someone who is beautiful, blond, and ultra-feminine can be smart and taken seriously.

Hamilton: We have no control over our legacy.

(By the way, I realize a reuse a lot of the same examples on my blog, but it's just faster and easier than grabbing something new. What matters is that you understand the concept, regardless of example.)

Thematic statement: You don't need to be accepted and loved by the world, only by a few people who become your family

Okay, so when we take English, language arts, and literature classes, we are usually just taught about thematic statements.

Which makes it difficult when you are trying to create stories, because if that's the only thing we understand about theme, and we try to write with that in mind, we often come off as sounding "preachy." As a result, many seasoned writers have actually told themselves and others not to write with any theme in mind (which has its own potential problems that I'll talk about later).

A good portion of this next section is information that comes from Amanda Rawson Hill and K. M. Weiland, because they are the two people who got me to have a clearer, conscious understanding of theme.

Okay, so we have the thematic statement, but on a broader scope, we have a theme topic. The subject or topic about which something is taught. It's the concept, without the teaching attached. It's what the theme or story is "about," in an abstract sense.

Here are the theme topics of those stories:

The Little Red Hen: Contribution and work

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Preparation

The Tortoise and the Hare: Pacing

The Greatest Showman: Acceptance

Spider-verse: Perseverance

Harry Potter: Love

Zootopia: Bias

Les Miserables: Mercy (and justice)

Legally Blonde: Being respected/taken seriously

Hamilton: Legacy

The theme topic is broader than the statement. The thematic statement is the specific teaching about that topic.

Note: People often use the word "theme" to mean either "thematic statement" OR "theme topic," which is why it can be confusing. I've done this multiple times myself, but am trying to stop. (Plus the fact my ideas on storytelling are regularly evolving, probably doesn't always help with ambiguity on my blog either)

Theme topic: Perseverance

In a strong story, the theme topic will be explored during the narrative, through plot or character or both. The story will ask (directly or indirectly) questions about the theme topic. This can happen through main characters and main plots, or side characters and subplots, or all of the above.

Let's look at some examples to illustrate what I mean.

In The Little Red Hen the theme topics of contribution and work are explored by having the red hen ask multiple characters for help (or, in other words, for contribution and work) and by having the red hen work alone. She herself is asking questions related to the topic.

In The Tortoise and the Hare, the theme topic of pacing is explored and questioned by comparing a slow character to a fast character, and as the plot unfolds, we see the choices each one makes.

In Zootopia, the theme topic of bias is explored, as a prey animal cop (the rabbit) has to interact and team up with a predator criminal (the fox), and each have biases against the other. But the theme topic is also explored in the society as a whole. Officer Hopps is told by society that she can never be a cop. Nick is told by society that because he's a fox, he must be untrustworthy. In one scenario, Hopps is trying to overcome her society's bias. In the other, Nick has given into society's bias--he will only ever be seen as a fox. Side characters and subplots explore the topic of bias as well, whether it's pitting crime on predators or dealing with nudist communities. Everywhere, the theme topic of bias is being touched on. By exploring the topic from all these different sources and perspectives, the audience is naturally confronted with questions (whether or not they are consciously aware of this). Can you succeed in a biased society, or will a biased society keep you from ever becoming what you want? In our efforts to create an unbiased society, do we criticize others' biases while remaining blind to our own? How can we create a safe, unbiased community? Are we prejudice ourselves?

Pretty deep stuff to be asking in a kid show, right? Disney is a pro at handling theme in their animated movies, so they are definitely one I'd recommend for people who want to study well done examples.

In The Greatest Showman, the theme topic of acceptance via love is explored in a similar way. As a child, P. T. Barnum is never accepted or loved by his society. His goal in life is to give the girl he loves an extravagant lifestyle, to prove to her parents, nay, to the whole world that he's worth something. Through the course of the story, he tries to do this in multiple ways: at his job, he approaches his boss with a new idea; he tries to start a museum; he starts a circus; he wants to present an opera singer to the world so that he can gain notoriety. Everywhere, the protagonist is asking for love and acceptance, and it's never enough.

But side characters and subplots explore this topic as well. Charles doesn't want to be laughed at for being small, Lettie doesn't want to be a freak for having a beard, Anne doesn't like being treated differently for being black, Phillip wants to leave high society but will be shunned, Jenny Lind never feels good enough because she comes from a low class. As we see these characters collide with other characters, and society, we are confronted with questions. Can these people ever find love and acceptance? Will they ever feel fulfilled? How can they overcome society's hate and prejudices? Are they willing to sacrifice family, income, security, personal weaknesses to get there? And furthermore, it seems that as you are finally accepted by one group of people, your are only rejected by another--can you be accepted by all circles? And does it matter if you aren't?

Often when writers fail at theme it is because they are only focused on the thematic statement. And they are therefore not fairly exploring and questioning the theme topic.

But the theme statement is the answer to the exploration and questioning, and should not be fully realized until the end. 

The theme topic of pacing is explored by comparing two characters

Let's take this a step further. We have the thematic statement. We have the theme topic. But in most stories, the beginning will have or illustrate a false thematic statement. (Alternatively, K. M. Weiland calls this "The Lie Your Character Believes.") This is almost always manifested through the protagonist in some way.

The false thematic statement is typically opposite of the thematic statement.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: The grasshopper believes that all he needs to do is have fun and entertain himself, and he doesn't need to work or prepare--that's a waste of time. OR "Having fun is more important than preparing."

The Tortoise and the Hare: The hare believes if he runs as fast as he can, he will easily win the tortoise.  OR "If I go as fast as I can, I'll be most successful."

The Greatest Showman: P. T. Barnum believes if he shows the world how amazing and successful he can be, he'll be loved and accepted by all society. OR "Once you prove you are amazing, all of society will love and accept you."

Spider-verse: Miles Morales believes that by quitting everything, he won't have to deal with any expectations. OR "If I don't persevere, I don't have to worry about expectations."

Harry Potter: Because his parents are dead, Harry Potter begins as an unloved and powerless person living in a closet. OR "Death and oppression are the most powerful forces in the world."

Zootopia: Judy Hopps believes she will fight society's biases by proving to everyone else that a bunny can be a cop. OR "To change biases in society, you must start by criticizing everyone else's."

Les Miserables: Jean Valjean was thrown in prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and when released continues to deal with extreme justice, which leads him to stealing from the church. OR "Justice is more powerful than mercy."

Hamilton: Hamilton believes he will create and build and control his legacy by never throwing away his shot. OR "If I seize every opportunity to be great, then I will leave a powerful legacy after I'm gone."

You'll notice I left out the Little Red Hen. Her story is different. From the beginning, the little red hen believes in the thematic statement--that's why she is working so hard, but the theme topic is still explored and questioned (and tested) through her interactions with the other characters. This can be done in modern stories too, but it's rarer and harder to pull off. Remember, I said writers often fail at theme when they only focus on the thematic statement, without fairly exploring or questioning the topic. In The Little Red Hen, it's all the other characters that embody the false thematic statement. They think they can enjoy the rewards without having done any work. Take note that the red hen herself isn't preachy or snooty. She adheres to her beliefs, even though it requires more of her (because no one will help, she has to do more work).

In order for stories like this to be successful, we need to see the protagonist have to struggle through more adversity to adhere to the true thematic statement. Remember how the maxim goes, "No good deed goes unpunished." These stories are more difficult to write, so I probably wouldn't recommend them to beginners, but I'm not going to say no definitively. If your protagonist starts with the true thematic statement, she still needs to struggle, if not struggle more.

Legally Blonde is similar. Elle Woods fully believes she can get into law school and get her boyfriend Warner back, despite everyone around her saying Harvard won't take someone like her seriously. Throughout the movie, Elle is constantly told she just isn't "serious" enough. However, her story varies from the red hen's, because as the theme gets questioned and explored she eventually reaches a point (at Plot Point 2), where she succumbs to the idea that no one will truly respect her, when she says something along the lines of, "All people will ever see of me is a blonde with big boobs. No one will ever take me seriously. Not even my parents." But once she receives her "final piece to the puzzle," she returns to and proves the thematic statement that someone can be beautiful, ultra-feminine and smart, respected, and taken seriously.

So the Little Red Hen and Legally Blonde are rarer variations, but keep in mind that they still legitimately question, explore, and test the theme topic (this is key).

False theme statement: To change biases in society, you must start by criticizing everyone else's

In most stories, the protagonist starts with the false theme statement and ends with the (true) theme statement, a process that typically comes about through the main character arc. (You can read more about this specifically here).

So here is how the theme may fit in, in story structure.

Protagonist believes or illustrates the false thematic statement.

The theme topic is explored through plot and characters having different experiences and providing different outlooks.

This will lead to questioning: It leads to the audience questioning. In most stories, it leads to the protagonist questioning. After all, he believes in the false thematic statement, and maybe after these encounters, he's unsure how true it is.

(Also worth noting, the middle may test and disprove wrong thematic statements other characters have.)

The middle is the "struggle" part of the theme, and on Freytag's Pyramid, the rising action. We are struggling to come to a better understanding of the theme topic.

At the second plot point, the protagonist may have an epiphany (the true thematic statement) or at least a turning point, where they now take on, embody, or demonstrate the true thematic statement.

Note: In some rare stories, the protagonist may not embody the true thematic statement, which will result in a tragic end for them. If the thematic statement is true, then they can't "survive" (literally or figuratively) if they don't learn to adhere to it. (If they "survive," that means that what you thought the true thematic statement was, was probably just another false thematic statement, and you got them mixed up somewhere.)

Note: Also, the true thematic statement may be stated prior to the ending, but the protagonist will not fully realize or embody it until the end.


The climax of the story is the ultimate test of the final, true thematic statement--does it hold up to the test? Is it proven to be true? If it's the true thematic statement, it must.

In the denouement, the true thematic statement is further validated. We proved it true in the climax, now we must validate and show its effects. This can be very brief--one example--or it can be validated again and again through multiple examples.

It's worth mentioning, too, that in a lot of highly successful stories, the antagonist embodies THE false theme statement or A false theme statement (which is one of the reasons why they fail). So Voldemort can never understand that love is more powerful than death and oppression (notice that Voldemort and Harry have similar beginnings in life). In Les Mis, Javert ultimately can't live with the fact that mercy is proven to be more powerful than justice (which is why he takes his own life). However, this tactic is not a necessity by any means, just something worth considering.

As the antagonist, Javert can't survive the true thematic statement

Now does everyone who writes successful stories consciously know and adhere to all the things I've talked about so far in this article?

Heck. No.

Remember the first of this, where I said even seasoned writers may believe you should write with no theme in mind?

Lots of people write successful stories without even thinking about a theme.


If you are aware of how theme functions, you can use that to an advantage and write even more powerful stories (and it will help you stand out from those that don't).

There are lots of stories that are good that don't follow through on this element of story structure--but I sometimes wonder: How much better and stronger could they have been if they did?

Theme is what makes a story "timeless." This is exactly why Christ's parables and Aesop's fables have withstood the test of time. Why audiences trust Disney movies for a worthwhile emotional and intellectual experience every new movie. Why classics like Les Mis or Shakespeare are still taught and studied today. Because they aren't just stories. They are perspectives on the human experience and teachings that influence lifestyle and culture. They can touch hearts and minds and shift ideology.

And even if you write a story without caring two cents about theme, it will still have a thematic statement. Because every story is teaching something--if only through action and character. But there are dangers and problems that can happen (especially in today's world), if you don't pay attention to theme at all. Take the famous children's story, The Rainbow Fish. I loved that book as a kid (and if you aren't familiar with the story, you can listen to it here), but it has problematic, unintentional teachings. It teaches that in order to have friends, you must give away personal boundaries; that you can "buy" friends; that if you want to be liked by others, you need to give them things they ask you for. Sure, it conveys that sharing makes you happier, but it has those problematic parts as well.

Did the writer intend to teach those negative things? Probably not. But in the story, they are "proven" as true thematic statements simply because of the outcome of the plot and characters.

Typically the protagonist moves from a false thematic statement to the true thematic statement

This could get all into some really deep stuff, like minority representation, biases, culture control, and censorship, but for today, let's leave that for the university classrooms. (Not to mention, for someone learning the craft of writing, it can sometimes feel super paralyzing.)

I will say that even in stories where the writer doesn't completely care for or understand theme, even if the thematic statement is good, I sometimes find myself wondering if the theme is "underdeveloped." But that doesn't mean I still can't enjoy and support the story.

For most writers, theme isn't going to make or break your ability to get published. It's not something I would tell beginning writers to stress out about straight out of the gate. But it is something that can move you from great to phenomenal.

You don't need to know your theme topic or thematic statement to start writing. I would wager, that the majority of writers don't. Often what happens is that a theme topic or thematic statement will start to naturally emerge. Then in the revision process, you can use this article to check, develop, and strengthen the theme.

You can have more than one theme. As you are writing, you may realize that there is more than one theme topic and thematic statement. Lots of stories have more than one. Like I talked about in my story structure series, Spider-verse also has themes about choice and expectations. Harry Potter is chock-full of themes. Legally Blonde includes thematic statements about having faith in people. In some cases, one theme will relate and play into another or help refine it. With all that said, there is usually one theme that emerge as the main theme.

 And that's pretty much what's worth knowing about writing your story's theme. 

"First impressions aren't always correct. You must always have faith in people. And you must have faith in yourself."