My husband grew up in rural Texas before there were TVs or computers. His family entertained themselves by playing cards, board games, and telling stories. He says his dad, Lee, had five brothers, Paul, Red, Henry, John, and Joe. When the family got together for special occasions, those six men would sit around and tell stories. They had all lived through the great depression and had made money by hunting coons and selling the pelts. In those days, a good coon pelt could bring as much as $2.00, which was a tremendous amount of money back then. A good coon dog was more valuable than a car.
My husband says he looked forward to those family get-togethers. His favorite part of the day was sitting and listening to those men tell stories. He can’t talk about it without smiling. Here is one of his favorites.
Red sipped his ice tea then glanced at his brother. “Lee, don’t you have a good coon dog? It’s supposed to be a full moon, we could get some huntin’ in tonight.”
“I had me a coon dog that was so smart he’d hit the woods and bring me back a coon. I didn’t even have to go with him.”
“How’d you tell him what you wanted if you weren’t with him?”
Lee lit a cigarette, then leaned back in his chair as he blew smoke toward the clouds. “Well, that dog was so smart all I had to do was show him a stick, and he’d hit the woods and wouldn’t come back ‘till he had a coon the same size. I don’t know how he did it, but you could lay that coon on that stick nose to tail, and it was always a match.”
“What happened to that dog? I’d a hung on to him if he was mine.”
“Well, that’s when the story gets sad.” He drew deep on his cigarette, then blew a smoke ring into the air. “That old woman and I were moving from Blessing to Palacious, and I walked out of the house with the ironing board. That dog saw it, and he jumped up and hit the woods, and I haven’t seen him since.”
Yes, this is a tall tale. Lee and his brothers excelled at telling tall tales, and those stories are now being passed down through generations of their families, still generating smiles.
Why am I telling you this? Our lives are full of stories. Whether it’s a tall tale, an email, a blog post, or a novel – they are all stories. And all of them, if written well, have one thing in common; they make a point.
When Lee told his story about his smart coon dog, his point was to entertain. When I share a blog post, my point is to share a bit of information I’ve learned which may interest or help someone else. Even my novel has a point, a lesson that I want my protagonist to learn as she struggles through the events of the plot.
A couple of weeks ago, I planned to write a blog on the theme of story. A topic which many how-to writing books say is crucial. I struggled for hours trying to write the post, but the words just wouldn’t come. I was frustrated. I decided to take a walk in the sunshine, which resulted in a topic change for my post. After the topic change, the words flowed easily. What was the difference?
The difference was that I knew what I wanted to say about walking in the sunshine, but I hadn’t yet determined what point I wanted to make about themes. Without a point in mind, I couldn’t write the post.
“Ask yourself: What do I want to say to someone? What is the thing I want to teach them that they don’t already know? Unless readers have some idea what your point is, they won’t know what anything means. And, as you write, neither will you.
Think about it in real life. Your co-worker is rambling on about something, you struggle mightily to keep exasperation off your face, thinking, ‘Okay, okay, what’s your point?’
But I’d wager you never, ever, think, ‘Okay, okay, what’s your theme?” (Cron, Forget theme!...", 2013)
I would never ask someone what their theme was, in fact, the idea makes me laugh.
“That isn’t to say that as a writer you might not know your theme from the get go, but even then, focusing on it can do more damage than it’s worth. Why? ‘Cause by definition, theme revolves around a universal. And as we know, there are a gazillion ways to render any universal. So rather than helping you zero in on the particular story you’re telling, settling on a ‘theme’ tends to leave you with a general, abstract concept that can feel overwhelming …
The takeaway is: You can never get from the universal (aka the theme) to the specific (aka the story itself). Only through the very specific can you reveal a universal truth.
Your point, on the other hand, is what your story is saying, specifically – and that’s what you need to sharpen before you begin writing.” (Cron, Forget theme!...", 2013)
I have struggled with the idea of theme and developing one for my novel for a long time. Not only have I not been able to do it, I still fail to see the need, or why so many writers think it is crucial. However, after reading Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius, I have no problem seeing the importance of establishing the point of my story before I even start writing.
“Your story’s point is your guiding star, the yardstick by which you can gauge the meaning of everything that happens, and so keep your story on course.
As the inspiring teacher I’ve been working with recently asked a group of rapt first graders: ‘When your mom tells you you’re going on vacation, what’s the first question you ask?’ They all grinned, this was an easy question. ‘Where are we going!’ they chimed.
‘Yeah,’ one earnest little boy said, ‘Otherwise, how will you know what to pack?’
Same with a story. ‘What’s the point?’ equals ‘Where are we going?’ If you don’t know it from the beginning, how can you craft a story that will take you there? And, even more important, encourage your reader to come along for the ride.” (Cron, Forget theme!...", 2013)
You may not be writing a novel, but the same principle applies to emails, blogs, and tall tales. The next time you sit down to tell a story, ask yourself: What’s my point?
Cron, L. (2013, December 12). Forget theme! Instead ask, "And so, what's my point?". Retrieved from Writer Unboxed: http://writerunboxed.com/2013/12/12/forget-theme-instead-ask-and-so-whats-my-point
Cron, L. (2016). Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). New York: Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House.