Ok, so here on our last installment I want to go over the part that is the most important part of any story to me personally: the theme. What, at the end of the day, is your message, and how well did your story get that message across? I know you’re thinking, message? What message do I need? I am telling a story, isn’t that message enough?
You see, an amusing or interesting story has as much value as the message it is trying to convey to the reader. The better the message, the longer the impact; the weaker the message, the faster it is forgotten for the next set of words placed in front of that person. As storytellers, we want our stories to keep talking to the reader well after they put the book down and to do that, you need a message, a theme that encompasses everything you just wrote.
To further this point, you need to look at your message and ask yourself, does this scene or character do anything to further that message along, or is it there just to fill up space and to be amusing? There are a lot of things that can happen in a book that make no sense to the overall message and when all is said and done, those moments are the ones the readers are going to look at and go, “Hmmm, what was the point of that?”
In my book Taking Chances, the theme is accepting yourself for who you really are. Not trying to be the person you think you want to be, be the person you need to be. In that measure, Tyler thinks he has to be this uber-straight acting jock type guy who can never let people in on his sexuality or emotions because that doesn’t fit his mindset. Matt thinks he needs to be this stereotypical homosexual, as if there is such a thing, and when he finds he’d rather stay home and watch Disney movies than go to a club, he thinks he is failing himself. Those two characters are pretty straight forward in the message, but there was one person that needed to be in the book to me.
Patrica, the transsexual hairdresser.
She gives what I think is the most important line in the whole book, which is, “And it’s okay. Most people assume I’m dressed as a woman, you know, like I’m in drag. I am not a female impersonator and this is not drag. This is who I am. There is a difference. We are all somebody inside, and most of the time we are too chickenshit to stare that person in the face. I stared into the abyss and when it stared back, it was wearing Revlon photo-ready concealer and cherry blossom lipstick.”
She is not there to give comedy relief, and she was not there to just throw in a gender confused character, which she isn’t. Patrica, not Pat, tells Tyler the moral of the story which is really for the reader, but if you don’t tell them, I won’t. We all have someone inside of us dying to get out, but we don’t let them because of society’s expectations, manners, embarrassment; whatever the reason, we lock them inside and long for the time we can be alone and ourselves.
It’s why we don’t burst out into song in the middle of a work day when you hear a song you like, you don’t tell the woman who you work with that she in an intrusive bitch and should back off, and it is the reason you put up with so much shit from your friends— because it is just impolite to speak the blunt truth most of the time. The book is about people trapped inside themselves and are making themselves miserable. There is no prejudice that does this, no oppressive society making them, it is their own hang-ups, and it is a huge problem at times in the gay community. Because of this, many gay men who read the book loved the message because they had gone through it, while some straight readers found the book tedious because it was stupid people doing stupid things, and they couldn’t figure out why they kept doing them.
Which brings us to the second part of your theme: Who are you talking to?
You cannot please all of the people all of the time. We all know the saying, and it resonates because it is true. And you cannot write a book for every single person in the world because it would just be a jumble of random things that ended up pleasing no one. You have to know who you are trying to talk to and hope the message is so strong that it captures other people as well. When I wrote Foster High, I wrote it for gay teens going through the hell that is high school right now. I didn’t write it for the parents or for straight kids; in my mind, I was trying to talk to sixteen-year-old me and saying everything I needed to hear back then.
It turns out, though, what sixteen-year-old me needed to hear was what a lot of other people still need to hear today. It struck a chord with straight kids, their parents, a lot of people I could never imagine reading a story about two gay teens in North Texas. I like to think it is because high school sucked, sucks, and is still sucking for a lot of people. The picking that happens on gay kids happens to a lot of people for whom the message of the book—which is, do not allow someone else make you miserable—hits home with a lot more than just sixteen year old me.
But I didn’t write it that way.
You can’t allow your desire to get as many readers as possible dilute what you think is your pure message. As a writer, I can only give you one piece of advice that I think is foolproof and can only help your career.
Write unpopular truths.
Do not think just because a subject has always been handled a certain way before that means it is the only way it can be handled. Speak your truth fearlessly, and I assure you people will respond. Your voice, your message, it needs to be as loud and as strong as humanly possible to make a difference. If you think something might offend or upset someone but you know it needs to be said, say it. Say it loud and say it often. There is only one you in the world, and you have to believe first that what you are trying to say will make a difference before anyone else will.
So there it is, my final writing tip to you. Find the message of your book and make sure that each scene, each character is part of a larger machine that exists to move it forward. Don’t be afraid to upset people and never, ever let someone else make you feel that you are anything less than what you are. Do not give them that ability, not a reader, a reviewer, and never yourself.
Remember, the only way your story will have any value to anyone else is if it has value to you first. That is the god’s honest truth, and it can never steer you wrong.