The Importance of Theme: Finding Your Story’s North Star

June 13, 2007
Category: Uncategorized

An effective piece of writing contains a single dominant message. In many newsrooms it’s called the “focus,” or the “spine” of the story. “Take” or “angle” is the magazine world’s terminology.

Whatever the term, it all boils down to one word: theme.

Discovering the theme is crucial to the two interested parties at polar ends of the storytelling experience: the reader, viewer or listener; and the writer, both of whom rely on the theme to produce and experience a unified story. This is what I believe.

So it was with great pleasure that I came across a note of gratitude that author and former Washington Post writer Paul Hendrickson paid to a key figure who helped him produce his 2003 book “Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and its Legacy.”

On the book’s cover, stretching from back to front, is a riveting 1962 Life magazine photograph of seven Mississippi lawmen who look on as one of their number brandishes a billy club. They are readying themselves to foil an attempt by federal authorities to enroll an Air Force veteran named James H. Meredith as the first black student in the University of Mississippi.

Henry James once said that a good story is both a picture and an idea and that the picture and the idea should be interfused,” Hendrickson begins a “bibliographic essay” about his book’s sources.

He traces the germ of his book to Feb. 19, 1995, when he stood in a Berkley, Calif., bookstore paging through an outsized text of black-and-white images titled “Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore.”

On page 55, amid familiar photographs taken in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, “of fire hoses and dogs baring their fangs on their choke chains,” he came across that image; “that stopped me in my tracks.”

“It was a good while before I understood that the book I set out to write, as I stood there, wasn’t about the photograph so much as it was about what came down from those seven Mississippi faces. I didn’t begin to get that part until after my editor of two decades, Jonathan Segal of Knopf, had studied the image and had then told me in a single word where the true direction of the story lay: ‘legacies.’ “

With that theme as his north star, Hendrickson navigated his way through years of field reporting, research, composition and revision. As his editor predicted, his book told the historic and sad tale, not only of those southern lawmen, but of the way their legacies played out, some in sorrow, others in denial, in succeeding years and later, in the lives of their sons and grandsons.

And, as Hendrickson says, it all came down to a single word, one defined as “anything handed down from the past.”

There are many ways to discover your story’s theme: write a headline, a budget line, a title.

Defining the theme in one word is my favorite technique because one of the principal definitions of theme is “meaning in a word.” Merged with the journalistic paradigm of five W’s and an H, that theme, or working hypothesis, can help you make the necessary decisions on the way to publication, from reporting and organizing to drafting and revising.

  • What’s my story really about?
  • Who’s the story about? Who are the major characters, the minor ones?
  • Where and when are the best places and times to find the story? What are the story’s settings? What are the story’s timelines? Often these elements lie outside a reporter’s regular hours and location but they are vital to a story’s power. You must go to them.
  • When should the story begin and end? And what to do about the mushy middle? What shape best supports the theme?
  • How did the story happen, unfold, come to be? What happened? What’s the plot?
  • Why am I telling this story? Perhaps the most important question, one that readers, viewers and listeners are always wondering as they decide whether to continue or retreat from news stories: “Why does it matter?”

Those are just some of the ways that the one-word themes guide the writer.

The best ones resonate. They reflect universal qualities and truths about what it means to be human. They connect the domains journalists spend their time in, such as law enforcement, politics, education, with news audiences. Every domain has its own jargon, mores and rules. A theme lays down a bridge between consumers and the news they need to function as citizens in a democracy.

It’s a fortunate writer who gets to work with an editor like Jonathan Segal, one who understands that a single word holds the promise of an entire book. But you can give yourself, or another writer, that same a gift: a compass that points to the north star and helps you navigate journeys that lead to places where the best stories are found. Try it.

Working on a story? What’s it really about? In one word.