As we continue the topic of using universal themes in writing, I want to talk a little about universality. Having a theme is great, but if a lot of people can’t relate to it, you’re not going to interest readers. You want your themes to have universal appeal–which means they should be common to the human condition. If your theme is weak and simplistic, it won’t have impact. But if you build it over the entire novel, weaving it in as your characters experience life and learn and grow, the theme will deepen and become entrenched in the heart of the story. As you plot out your scene, you’ll want to always ask yourself how you can tie your theme into that moment in some way, however subtly or blatantly. It’s not so much the universality of the theme, though, that determines how powerful an effect it will have; it’s how well you develop it throughout your story.
Build It Gradually
It’s fine to have a character passionate about a belief or public policy or cause. And through that character you can showcase your theme. But you want to be careful that, in your desire to send a message to your readers, you don’t sound like you’re pontificating or pushing your moral standards on your readers. You will just sound like you have an axe to grind, and that axe will end up falling on your own head by doing that. A compelling way to get your theme across is to have a character opposed at first to the belief you want them to eventually embrace, but this has to be done gradually and believably. There is a great sequence of steps author James Scott Bell presented in a workshop showing the order in which a character has to change for it to be believable. These are the things that change in the character over time, in this order:
- Core Beliefs
So, you can’t have a character talking to someone about the death penalty (which he is all for) and just through that one conversation have his belief changed (fully against) right at the heart of his core belief. I bring this out because this is how you have to think of your theme as it grows through the novel. If you want to send a message that the death penalty is wrong, how better than to start with your protagonist who is all for it but through the journey of the story ends up convicted at heart completely opposed to it. Great novels and movies do this, and their themes stick with us.
Slicker Than Slick
So here’s a movie just chock-full of theme. Not many comedy movies do such a brilliant job of juxtaposing humor with heavy issues, but City Slickers is a gem of an example. Half the time you don’t know whether to laugh or cry–if you’re paying attention.
There are two big themes happening in this movie. The most obvious is related to Mitch, Phil, and Ed and their midlife crises. They go off on adventures and try to find thrills to offset the growing truth that they are not getting any younger and maybe the best of life has passed them by. Mitch voices the problem when he says, “What if this is the best I’ll ever look, the best I’ll ever be, the best I’ll ever do–and it’s not very good?” The theme, then, is: How do we find true meaning and happiness in life–Is it something we need to look for outside . . . or inside ourselves? Can true happiness be found, or do we just have to settle for a mediocre life and learn to live with it? This major theme is closely tied up with the second one, and by answering the latter, the former is solved.
The Secret of Happiness
The second theme is presented by Curly, the trail boss. In his enigmatic way, he looks hard at Mitch and says, “Do you want to know what the secret of happiness is?” Mitch says yes, and Curly holds up his finger. “It’s this,” Curly says. “One thing.” “What? Your finger?” Mitch says. Curly explains the secret of happiness is different for each person–you have to go figure what it is, but when you do, you’ll know it–and you’ll be happy.
It may sound trite and simple, but when the three friends run into real danger and have to make tough choices, they find that being true to who they are and what they believe in is what leads them to their “one thing.” For Mitch, it’s risking his life to save Norman, the calf, as he’s swept downriver. Yet, it’s bigger than that. Mitch is suffering from feeling unimportant, that his life is meaningless, makes no difference to anyone, doesn’t matter. But when he saves Norman, his act mattered–maybe just to a cow, but the symbolism to Mitch is huge. He made a decision and gave it all he had because he believed it was the right thing to do. He wasn’t standing on the sidelines anymore but engaging in life.
Ed deals with his anger at his delinquent father, and Phil deals with his compromised and squelched life. Their problems aren’t miraculously solved by going on a cattle drive, but they do learn the true secret of happiness–and it had nothing to do with seeking out the greatest adventure or challenge “out there.” They discover, to their surprise, that happiness is in the last place they would ever imagine–inside them. Rather than look outside to find happiness, Mitch learns that he needed to change his attitude. “I’m just going to do everything better,” he tells his wife when he gets home. There’s a bit of Zen philosophy here–the collect water, chop wood realization that joy can be found in simple unimportant tasks, because even those kinds of tasks have value. This reminds me of the Scripture: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Humans Do Have a Purpose
There’s an interesting little bit at the end, when the three friends bring in the herd, to the surprise of the cattle ranchers. When Mitch, Ed, and Phil are told the cows are going to market to be butchered and wrapped in plastic, they get upset. But they’re told, “It’s not like those cows have anything to live for. This is what they’re bred for; they’re not an endangered species.” Mitch jokes: “Well, Phil doesn’t have anything to live for either, but we’re not going to kill him.” This is a nice subtle tie-in with the movie’s theme, implying that we humans do have purpose–we’re meant for more than mindless wandering from one place to another. And just as those cows have their place in the universe, so we too have a place–we just need to look inward and find out what it is. Did this movie make it big because of the brilliant script and fantastic humor? No doubt. But the rich themes took it to a much higher level, making it not just another funny movie.
This week, think about how you can gradually build your theme over the length of your novel. Consider having your protagonist or another major character in the book present the opposing view to the theme message you want to convey and come up with scene ideas in which you can have this character gradually step over to the other camp. And treat yourself to watching City Slickers, even if (like me) you’ve seen it a dozen times.