Somewhere between the hook for a story and the theme, there exists (usually) a topic. This came home to me as I binge watched Nurse Jackie. I have very little doubt that underneath the general subject of addiction, the writers had deliberately made each episode an exploration of codependence or one of the 12 steps or deceit, etc., etc.
Now having a specific topic did not constrain the writers in terms of characters or overall season arcs. And the humor in each episode was not damaged by the serious intentions. These are terrific, well-written, well-acted episodes. But, I suspect, deliberately examining topics — either before or after drafts for written – provided concepts and coherence that made these stories powerful.
I looked at other series with regard to topics. The Sopranos seems to deal repeatedly with answering the question, can people change? And a series of challenges to attempts to change were explored within and across episodes. Breaking Bad, to me, was all about looking at the many dimensions of power and the possibilities (and consequences) of corruption.
Films often have the investigation of topics driving their plots, too. One of my favorites, Amadeus, seems to explore on one level what it means to be gifted, but on a more dominant level the toxic properties of envy.
Why does this matter to you as a writer? For one thing, understanding the topic – whether it emerged from a fast draft or was determined ahead of time — suggests story options and realistic plot turns. A topic is something that can be explored and reflected upon in an abstract way and then realized within your story world.
In fact, if you identify the topic within your story, it's likely to activate your curiosity, and that will connect you more closely with your story and enhance your commitment to doing it justice.
What you feel about your story and what drives you to write it comes through in one of the most essential qualities of good storytelling — emotional involvement. One thing I do once identified topic is look for touch points within my own life. If my brain came up with a reason to write about the topic, it's a sure bet that I'll find reasons that touched my heart and, probably, take me to the scary places where the best writing waits.
Now, identifying a topic can have its drawbacks. It can be all too easy to have characters mouth conclusions and ideas that don't fit. If the topic of a particular episode emerges in the writing, it may be that it does not fit the overall concept for a series. Especially when a topic leads to a passionate argument, it can make it difficult to edit. The structure of your work needs to be be less about making a point and more about telling a good tale, and that can be a challenge when you've become attached to your topic. You don't want to turn your story into an essay.
However, you may want to have some questions that allow you to write an essay that can inform your storytelling. And that will be the subject of next week's post.