Finding your theme is the most important part of the writing process
Do we really need to be constantly reminded of the ugliness of the human soul? If we keep replaying our ancient tales of tyranny, how long will it take for us to accept tyranny as a natural human behavior?
As writers, should we take responsibility for the stories we tell?
I say we should.
A story may serve to entertain, but, in its core, you can always find the author’s heart. There is certainly ugliness in the human heart, but there is also light. The writer needs to learn to live with both. So why should we show just the ugliness within?
The incubation of the heart
In its essence, the heart is the moral theme of a story. It requires the translation of raw emotions and life lessons into words, scenes, and chapters in a way that can be understood by others.
This translation is not an easy process. It needs to incubate, to be nurtured in a safe environment.
Most great stories take decades to incubate. They start developing passively long before the author sits down to write. Long before the author dreams the characters, plot, and setting.
But it doesn’t need to be a passive process. On the contrary, it should be an active process of self-discovery, constant writing, rewriting and daydreaming. Of becoming conscious of the glimpses of our own hearts in our day-to-day lives.
The heart and the moral theme
Most writers only have a couple of stories in them. They may write dozens of books, but if you pay attention you will notice that they are telling a similar story from different perspectives.
Let’s take Brandon Sanderson books as an example. The more books I read from Brandon the more I realize what a great writer he is. Brandon’s personal moral theme is quite simple and beautifully defined by Ross Newberry: “broken people save the world ”.
He’s exceptionally good at this. Brandon takes ‘broken’ characters and makes their lives infinitely miserable until they’re stripped of their weaknesses: self-pity, insecurity, shame, loss. Finally, when all seems lost he shows you the beauty and the strength within those characters, the imperfect beauty of doing what’s right. That’s Brandon’s incredibly gift; to grab broken people, give them purpose and make them shine.
That’s the theme that Brandon puts at the core of all his stories. And I never get tired of reading them. Seriously, I still feel like crying every time I remember the sacrifice of Lightsong in “Warbreaker” (which is freely available in the author’s website).
Another great example is William Makepeace Thackeray’s masterpiece: “Vanity Fair.” As the author tells you right at the beginning of the book, this is a novel without heroes. Its core message is simple: “Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?” 
The heart of the story shows us that the pursuit of our own desires is vanity. This pursuit will never satisfy us, regardless if we are meek and innocent like Amelia Sedley or if we are cynical, mischievous and amoral like Rebecca Sharp.
Craft. Structure. Editing. Plot. Characters. Story arcs. These are all important steps in storytelling and they all can be taught and learned.
But the heart of a story is different. In a way, it cannot be taught because it’s already within us. We just need to discover it, to shape it and to translate it into something that can be understood.
In my opinion, this is the single most important step in an author’s journey. And the hardest step as well.
What to do when you’re incubating?
What I hadn’t realized before is that incubation doesn’t need to be a passive process. Quite the opposite.
Incubation starts with self-discovery, and self-discovery is an active process of constantly asking questions, of actively recording your thoughts, reactions, and desires.
What you can do while you’re incubating the heart of a story:
- Reread your journal and search for recurring questions and doubts
- Write every single thought and idea that crosses your mind while you’re developing a story
- Keep your notes close at all times (seriously, don’t underestimate the power of being able to access your notes at all times – my life became so much easier since I installed Google Docs on my smartphone – which wasn’t so long ago!)
- Create a storyboard on Pinterest (if you need to visualize your characters and setting) – I stole this idea from Brian McBride’s blog !
- Draw your characters and setting (I haven’t done this is a while, but I did enjoy doing it a few years ago)
- Use writing prompts to create random scenes and see how your characters would react to them
- Make your characters talk to each other (I always find that creating conversations helps me grasp the personality of a character – I enjoy doing it even if those dialogues will never appear in the final manuscript)
I believe that if we do this every day, one day, our story will be ready to be written.
What about you? Do you have tips to share with us?
If you want to read more stories with a heart I can recommend a few books:
- “Hydranos” by Constantina Maud (you should also check her blog!)
- “Love and the Sea and Everything in Between” by Brian McBride (you should also check his blog!)
- Ideal Heroes: Mental Illness in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive | Paige Vest and Ross Newberry
- The Morality of Vanity Fair: It’s All About You | Rohan Maitze
- updates + tips on conquering writer’s block | Brian McBride