Last time, I introduced the idea of identifying and exploring your story topic as a way to deepen your connection with your work, find interesting development options, and make the experience more coherent for readers and audiences.
After having done this in a shoot from the hip way, I've reworked my process to interrogate the work and create a clear statement I can use as a guide. I ask questions, and then I write a brief essay (usually about 100 words) about the story's topic.
I've found this so useful that it has become a standard practice for me (most often after a draft is complete, but it could be done as part of development beforehand). To illustrate it, I'll work through the questions with a well-known (and wonderful) story, that of the film Casablanca. If you don't know the movie, watch it right away. It is one of the classics for good reasons.
What does the story explore? Though I could (and have) come up with other topics, the main one here seems to be connection and responsibility.
What does the character explore? Initially, Rick, the protagonist has no connections and is not interested in developing them.
“What is your nationality?” “…I’m a drunkard.”
“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
"I stick my neck out for nobody."
But Rick has loved before, and the possibility of love causes him to look at that connection, friendships, empathy for those in trouble, his hunger for justice, and, ultimately, the pivotal issue of his time.
"I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the
problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this
crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
Rick also experiences the benefits of connection. Again, the change is dramatic, from
“Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”
“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
Who is the audience? Upon it's release, I think most people saw Casablance as a propaganda piece (Variety called it, "splendid anti-Axis propaganda") aimed rousing an American audience to fight the Nazis. One pointed remark:
“I’d bet they’re asleep in New York. I’d bet they’re asleep all over America…”
But the story reaches far beyond its own time into ours. The audience is not just reluctant Americans looking for an adventure story. It is one of the great works of art, inspiring generations, worldwide.
At this point in my analysis, I take a fresh look at the theme. To me topics are subsidiary to themes, so this provides a check. My own take on Casablanca's theme is that sacrifice humanizes us (which seems to fit my stated topic).
What is the story about? If the pain and loss we suffer has meaning to us, it opens us to experiencing the miracle of living.
Why does it matter? Viktor Frankl introduced the idea of Logotherapy, with the premise humans "are motivated by a will to meaning, an inner pull to find a meaning in life." With meaning, "people will be willing to sacrifice and people will find strengths they did not know they had when they think there is something more important than their comfort." According the the Victor Frankl Institute, "we can help those who are suffering by turning their attention away from themselves and on to something they care for enough to want to do it for its own sake, not for any personal gain."
How does this relate to me? My life has not been free from discomforts and suffering. I also am deeply empathetic when faced with the suffering of others. Making sense of suffering, finding ways to come to grips with suffering, to find and express, and to create and maintain routes to positive values leads to more happiness, acceptance, and social connection in my life.
What are my touch points? I'm not going to get overly personal here, but I do not set limits as I work through the questions and the essays for my own works. In private notes for this work, I would undoubtedly reflect on particular losses, injustices, frustrations, and grieving in my own experience and the experiences of those I know well.
Evidence for the topic (connection and responsibility).
Note: This is not about proving this topic is a good choice for Casablanca. It is about identifying instances that explore the stated topic. For a work that is not mine, the list may be set, but I always try to go further with any story I've written, even if the draft is "complete." Without being comprehensive, in Casablanca:
1 Rick sacrifices love for a higher cause.
2 Rick rescues a woman from Louie's clutches by rigging the roulette wheel.
3 Rick risks the wrath of the Nazis (via the Vichy government) by allowing the Marseilles to be sung.
I like to call this out specifically. People go to fictional books and movies for the emotional experience. Finding that within the topic and stating it gives it prominence.
Casablanca is rich in emotion. Most obviously, with the love story, which includes deceit, betrayal, reconciliation, passion, and caring. But connection also shows up in terms of righting injustices that easily might be ignored, small kindnesses, friendship, loyalty, respect, honor, and more.
What the ending needs (to accomplish). The joy of Casablanca is Rick, who had become a loner, connecting with others, from the individual level to people in community (at an historic level). I love the way this is expressed not just with sacrificing love for the higher cause of defeating the Nazi, but with something more immediate:
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
You may want to shuffle the questions around and even revisit your answers as your understanding of your story deepens. Your next step is to write the essay. I always write as if I am sharing my insights with a specific person I think would be interested. I'm not trying to convince them my topic is the only key or even the best choice for illuminating and exploring the work. The only qualification is that it resonates with me personally and I have the urge to share it.
This, to me, seems reasonable. I want whatever story I'm writing to reach me on a emotional level and to be something I have a passion to share with at least one other person. Often, when I write, the essence is known, if not articulated, in the first draft. But the essay challenges my understanding and ensures that it is clear enough to communicate well, without my missing major elements.
In practice, this enhances my enjoyment of the work, especially as I enter the revision process. I hope you find it useful as well.