Today's issue is theme. I suck at figuring out theme, but I just read A Story is a Promise by Bill Johnson, and Bill spends some time on theme (though the author refers to it as "premise," it's the same thing.)
The author gives examples of premises to well-known stories.
Romeo and Juliet - Great Love defies even death
It seems so obvious in retrospect. Others examples of theme statements the author uses are:
Going through the pain of young love leads to growth.
Hate destroys those who wield it as a weapon.
Which, guess what? Could also be applied to Romeo and Juliet. As well as half a million other stories. Which makes me crazy. How is knowing what feels like a generic statement about your story helpful? I just don't see it.
But what was useful—what gave me a completely different perspective—were the open ended statements the author posed to help get me to the premise.
My story is about...
The movement of my story toward the resolution of its promise can be described as...
The fulfillment of my story is....
Okay, so I'm also crappy at figuring out how to use these without an example to follow. The author, thank heavens, provides one. Using Rocky again, he proposes:
Rocky is a story about someone discovering within himself the courage to overcome insurmountable obstacles.
He neglects to give a tidy statement for the second statement but specifies that it must involve the actions of the main character moving toward the story's ultimate goal.
The fulfillment of Rocky is that Rocky's courage to overcome the odds proves he is somebody to himself and the world.
Which leads to a premise/theme of:
The courage to persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles leads to self-respect
...and we're back to a statement that could be applied to just about every story in the world. And that I find too general to be useful.
But the questions used to get there? Ah, those I found useful. Those helped me grasp something about a story that's been giving me fits for months. I've started the story, stopped, backed up, changed direction, stopped, started again and on and on in a viscous cycle. But these questions have helped me to realize that what I was trying to write about is that paralyzing emotion when you love someone so much that they become your hostages to fortune. Once I got that, suddenly, everything about the story crystallized. I understood not only the heroine's issue, but I knew what the issues were for the subplots and secondary characters, and how to make them resonate with the heroine's issue.
Hallelujah! I've just taken a giant step to solving my story issues.
The author threw one last open ended statement out there, almost like a bonus:
The message I want the reader to walk away with is....
Which is theme, yes, but maybe that little tweak in perspective is what I needed to make it resonate for me. Maybe it will help it resonate for you, too.