This past weekend I attended a two-day writing class taught by Brian McDonald, author of Invisible Ink and The Golden Theme. Brian is an award-winning writer/director/producer who has worked in film, television and comic books for more than twenty-five years. He has taught story construction at Pixar studios, Disney Feature Animation and Lucasfilm’s ILM. The class consisted mostly of film students and screenplay writers, but I found that the information could be directly applied to novel writing because the necessary components of storytelling are the same, no matter what medium is used to tell it.
One of the most important things I learned was that the writer needs to know the armature (or theme) before even beginning a story. In other words, what is the lesson this story will convey? Or as Brian puts it, “What survival information will the story give others?” He proposes that throughout history, stories have been created to pass on information; to teach lessons. The theme is the backbone of the story. It is the structure upon which we must hang everything else, as we are spinning the tale. He said as long as we know our theme, and stay grounded in it, we will not get sidetracked with fancy subplots or lose sight of our main goal.
Brian emphasized that all themes have to be something that can be proven. For example, “revenge” is not a theme because you can’t prove revenge. However, “Revenge is sweet” could be a theme because your story can set out to prove why it is sweet. “Love” is not a theme, but “Love is all that matters” could be a theme, etc. Even after an entire weekend of studying themes in movies and stories, I find that I still struggle with it. Most of the time I can feel what a story conveys, but it’s hard for me to put it into a single sentence. I’ll just have to keep practicing until it gets easier.
One of the best things Brian told our class today is this: “You have to love something enough to want to be bad at it.” He said that nobody starts out being a professional guitarist. Olympic skaters aren’t born that way. Broadway plays aren’t written overnight. If you really want something, you have to work at it and accept that you’re going to be bad for a while. You have to love it enough to be okay with that. I found this strangely uplifting. I’m going to try to remember this the next time I read something I wrote and think, “Wow, this is garbagio.” Because hey, at least I’ll know I’m on the right track!