On Writing Craft, Creativity and Inspiration
by Alexander Slagg
Build the Story and the Themes Will Come
“Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”
—Stephen King, from “On Writing”
One of the inaugural duties of a newly hired editor in book publishing is to manage the slush pile. As the low editor on the totem pole at my first editing gig, I was burdened with this thankless job. It was a burden because I received 10-12 unsolicited submissions a day by mail and e-mail that I had to sincerely review and turn down. It was thankless because, indeed, no one thanked you for crushing their dreams of hitting the literary jackpot, even if you were polite about it. And overwhelmingly, the precious kittens and playful puppies I was tasked with stomping on were children’s book submissions.
No kidding. I can’t tell you how many new mothers and fathers are out there, trudging through another late night feeding or Saturday morning diaper run, and suddenly come up with a surefire kids’ book idea. Now, moms and dads are awesome—we wouldn’t be here without them. I’m a dad. But not all of us parents are dynamic storytellers. In fact, most aren’t.
The primary problem with 95 percent of these children’s book submissions was that the author put the cart before the horse. They came up with a theme, or more cringe-worthy, a moral, and then wrote the story to highlight it. As my good chum (kidding) Stephen King points out, this is backwards.
Predetermining a story's themes sets limits and boundaries on where a story can go. It fences in the free will of creativity, not allowing it to wander where it needs to go for the story. This approach confines the spontaneity of the writing process that makes it fun in the first place, sitting down with no clear idea of how you'll get a character or the plot from point A to point B. But an hour or two later, you've done it. The end result of overthinking a story before writing it is that it reads stiff and wooden, lacking the loose flow of natural storytelling.
Good storytelling is a trek through a verdant jungle, a voyage across a churning sea, a hike through a sunburnt desert canyon. It's a journey. Overarching meaning and theme cannot be known until the writer has traveled the length of the story. Only afterward, in a position to reflect on what has transpired, can these archetypal elements be noticed and identified.
The thing about themes is that they are born out of the subconscious world. As writers, we are the Greek poet Orpheus traveling into the underworld to reclaim our wife, Eurydice. The one commandment Hades gives us in return for our lost love is don't look back upon her as we climb back to the surface. We must trust that she is following us back to life. The themes in our stories will be revealed once we have completed our writing journey.
But it we short circuit the process—if we determine the themes too soon—we meet the same fate as Orpheus. Our stories will be doomed from the beginning. And we'll end up in a cave in some Thracian backwater, plucking away on a second-hand lute with wine-stained hands, lamenting the greatest story never told because we thought we knew the big picture before we even set fingers to keyboard.
Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at firstname.lastname@example.org.