Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Help! I'm Stumped and I Don't Know What To Write!


We've all been there. You sit down to write, and your poor little brain shuts down. I'm not talking about writer's block. I'm talking about feeling like writing and wanting to write, but not having a single idea of the story you want to tell. 

You've worked your way through your backlog or story ideas and nothing is needed for a publisher. Nor are you happy with any of the previous ideas in one of your little notebooks with story nuggets that may or may not still make any sense to you. 

What do you do?

Hi. I'm Sean, and I'm glad you asked. Because, well, I have answers. 

Writing Prompts

What you need is a prompt. You're not facing writer's block (because that doesn't actually exist -- it's always something else, but that's an article for another day). You're just needing that one idea that gets your brain excited. 

A prompt is exactly what it sounds like. It's something that PROMPTS you to write. You can find lists of these things all over the Internet, and every writer has a few that he/she/they use as their go-tos and stand-bys to break through the silence and start making story noise again. 

These are just a few of the ideas I use to remind my brain that I have stories to tell. Maybe they'll work for you too. 

My Quatrain of Cheat Codes

Here's my #1 brain trick. Ready? It starts like this:

What if...

I've written an entire tutorial on using "what if" questions to launch stories so I won't go too far into it here. But it's where most of my best ideas have come from. 

  • What if... the mirror in Alice in Wonderland was the same mirror as the one in Snow White? (that one became the story "The Fairest of Them All" from Required Reading Remixed (originally released in one volume as Classics Mutilated)
  • What if... a woman had an accident that made her a superhero but it also made her so dangerous that she left her family behind? (that one became the multiple stories of Starlight from Show Me a Hero)
  • What if... the KKK killed a black jazz musician in the 1930s, only it wasn't really the Klan and actually solving the crime could potentially destroy a white detective's relationship with his black lover? (that one became the cover story for The Ruby Files Vol. 2, "A Tree Falls in a Forest")

Here's another I particularly love. It's great for when I need a less traditional, more right-brained, out-of-the-box approach to coming up with story ideas. 

Pick three things

It's that simple. Just pick (or have someone pick for you) three unrelated things. This works great if you are in a conventional panel or at your table and ask people for random lists of three things to save for later. Perhaps my best story to come from this method is one called "Lake Jennifer Blair" from Show Me a Hero. I was in a story funk, and I randomly jotted down three items: a Coke can with ants crawling all over it, a duck with a blue goatee, and a cell phone. That it. Then I figured out a story that put all those elements together. Even though they had nothing to do with the plot, just figuring out why they were there and why they would have been there to begin with gave me the rest of the tale before I could finish the first paragraph. 

This little trick comes from the legend about Checkov in which he boasted he could write a story about anything. The story goes:

“. . . when asked how he wrote his stories, Chekhov laughed, snatched up the nearest object—an ashtray—and said that if Korolenko wanted a story called "The Ashtray," he could have it the next morning.” [And he did.]

So what if I stole the idea and added two more objects? It works for me. 

What's this character doing now?

Since I end up writing a lot of the same characters over and over again (it comes with the territory when you write superheroes and pulp characters), I have to always have the next story in my head ready at the helm. A lot of times I create these while I'm writing the previous story simply by throwing in some detail that most likely seems extraneous, but it becomes a kernel, a nugget to prompt that C-plot the won't be revealed until the next story sees print. The danger of this is to be careful not to add stuff that is just fluff. It still has to make sense in the context of the story it appears in, whether it initially feels "extra" or not. 

Often though, when I'm asked to revisit a character hadn't planned to write again, I just reread the stories I have written and look for some small thing to jump out at me. 

When that doesn't help, I just ask the question directly, "What's this character doing now?" That's where my Rick Ruby and The Fool stories came from (The Ruby Files and Show Me a Hero, respectively). I sit down with my brain and say, "Hey, brain, how are Rick and Evelyn doing right at this moment? Are they happy? Why or why not?" Or maybe, "Hey brain, is The Fool getting any better at being a costumed vigilante yet? What's holding her back?"

Reframe a classic

I love this one. It's a trick that many folks don't realize is common in the big world of publishing and movies. It goes like this: Think of a classic. Let's go with Alice in Wonderland. Now put it in a different setting. Okay, how 'bout an urban landscape? Okay, now tell me the story from a different character's POV? 

Whoa?! What?!

That one I just described is the wonderfully decadent film Malice in Wonderland. Some aren't so obvious though. 

Did you know that Star Wars is basically a re-skin of Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress? Or that Jane Smiley's neo-classic novel 1000 Acres in just Shakespeare's King Lear set on farmland and told from the POV of one of the "bad" sisters?

You don't even have to re-skin completely to trigger some ideas. You can simply re-theme the tale. Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves" from her collection The Bloody Chamber asked what if the story of Little Red Riding Hood was really about one girl's sexual awakening, and bam, the story took form. 

It also doesn't have to be a classic story. Reframe a song if you like. I've done that several times. Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" became a story idea about four aliens living as women in the big city. Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" became a Poverty Row thriller story idea about a trumpeter whose horn is in hock at the pawn shop to pay off a gambling debt while his new wife waits tables at a diner frequented by the gangsters he owes. 

This is also a fun, creative exercise just to loosen up your brain even if you don't use the ideas that are dreamed up. 

More Prompts

As I mentioned above, the Internet is filled with pages upon pages of writing prompts, some from individual writers, others gleaned from publishing houses and magazines about writing. Here are just a few you might want to take a look at:

Well, if that's enough to help you break the silence and get writing, I don't what will do it for you. And as always with the best writing tools and tips, steal freely and make them your own. 

Monday, April 29, 2024

Motivational Monday: Be


Bonus Post: The Indie Bookstore Day/Crazy Book Lady Photo Wrap-Up

Had a blast hanging out with folks fellow writer-folks like Bobby Nash, Jessica Nettles, and Juliet Rose this past Saturday. It was also nice meeting Stacy Olsen (THE Crazy Book Lady herself) in the flesh! 

Here's the proof!

Me and Bobby McG... well, Nash

The Neighbors

The Calm Before the Storm

Thanks again, all for making it such a fun event and special thanks to The Crazy Book Lady for hosting the excitement!

Friday, April 26, 2024


When enlisting in the United States of America military forces, young men and women take an oath to defend their country and its Constitution. Both from foreign enemies and the domestic variety. With their lives if need be.

Pfc Patrick Stone and Pfc Dan Loman met and became brothers-in-arms in the rice fields of Vietnam. Years later, having survived, their friendship extends to the other “Geezers” of the Golden Years Leisure Living facility, particularly Donald Sharky and Ron Case. As old soldiers often do, the senior warriors share time together reliving old campaigns while bemoaning the sorry state of current world affairs.

Having the frustrating job of keeping them out of trouble is the lovely resident manager, Carla Mendoza. It’s no easy task especially when the boys uncover a nest of political agitators in their own backyard. Regardless of the obstacles put in their way, these patriots honor their oath no matter whose toes need stepping on.

Veteran Darryle Purcell offers up three stories introducing a cast of remarkable men who answered the call of duty. They are representative of all the men and women who wore the uniform with pride, honor, and courage. And still do.

Adam Shaw provides the cover with the author rendering the interior illustrations.


Available now from Amazon in Paperback and soon on Kindle.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Long-Awaited SHOW ME A HERO audiobook is finally available!

 For the first time since its initial release in 2011, Show Me A Hero, my magnum opus of superhero stories is finally available as an audiobook! 

Read by Allison Cashman, the new audiobook release is unabridged and clocks in at a whopping 13 hours (plus 8 minutes) of spoken story. Cashman has a BA in Theatre Performance and a Certificate in Voice Acting from Wichita State University. She performed as a Grade School E-learning voice actor for MagiCore Learning for 2+ years and was a character voice actor in The Horologist's Legacy videogame.

Show Me A Hero is available via Amazon and Audible. 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Audible-Show-Me-a-Hero/dp/B0D2LSJHC2/

Audible: https://www.audible.com/pd/B0D2M1736S

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

15 Action/Adventure Tropes That Need To Die a Painful Death

Tropes. Ya gotta luv 'em. Without them, we'd have no shorthand to convey information with pages of unnecessary narration that disrupts the flow of our stories. Based on stereotypes and cliches, they can help and they can hurt. When they help, it only bolsters the "contract" between writer and reader. When they hurt, they can say things about both the writer and the work you may not like. The trouble is, usually, that they weren't intentional. It's just that the trope popped into your head without really thinking about it and you followed it to develop your story. 

The following list is 15 such tropes that I believe need to die a painful death, and none too soon. 

In addition to my list below, are there any that really grate you like sand at the beach? Let me know in the comments below. 

Sexist Tropes

1. Women are only good story fodder for being loved and being saved. 

Thankfully, I see lots of evidence of this one changing, at least in commercial fiction from the big publishing houses. That's because they follow marketing trends and realize the world isn't the same place it was in the 1930s or 1950s (even much of the 1970s). However, I still see a lot of this used in independent and small-to-midsize houses that are trying to recapture the glory days of men's fiction. Guys, you can still be heroes without every woman in sight becoming the damsel in distress or love interest. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Twist it a little. Have the guy who sees every woman as a potential date get labeled a misogynist or creeper. Have the dude who assumes the woman is in trouble get his ass handed to him and have to be saved by her occasionally. Share the time as the hostage between the sexes to keep it balanced. Write heroic women instead of heroic men as your next protagonist. 

2. Men who punch and shoot their way out of problems are the only real men. 

This one is also a throwback to earlier adventure fiction, but it hasn't begun to show signs of fading. Today's TV and movies (not just books) are filled with the macho types who (while they might also have a brain) primarily use their fists and firearms to solve problems. Again, the world has changed and no matter what morons on Twitter (I'm still not calling it X) say, this outdated idea of the alpha male is no longer the prevailing goal for men. Men can be smart and caring too, and can even refuse to throw a punch. It won't make them less heroic. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Have the male hero use strategy and deduction rather than threats and fights to get what he's searching for. Watch a procedural thriller rather than a Jason Statham shoot-em-up next time you feel like taking in a movie. Have the smart guy in your story get the win and the glory. Embrace the regular guy as a hero. 

3. The ability to kick, punch, or shoot are the only skills that make one an adventure hero. 

This one is hot on the heels of the previous one, but it applies not only to males but to females as well. As the action/adventure genre started to change, they only updated the window dressing. Instead of kick-ass men beating the shit out of villains, writers created kick-ass women beating the shit out of villains. A side problem this has created is the "ball-buster" heroine who exists only to make men feel emasculated. Now, don't get me wrong, way too many incels feel that just about any powerful female character who doesn't need a man is a ball-buster, AND THEY'RE WRONG. Anyway, back to the point... there are far more heroic qualities than physical strength and military prowess. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: It's similar to the ways mentioned above. Avoid writing women as men inside. Try to avoid writing men as cavemen inside. Embrace the other attributes of heroism such as honesty, loyalty, strategy, bravery, etc. 

Homophobic Tropes

4. The gay best friend.

This one was a necessary stop-gap that initially helped writers and publishers embrace diversity and include gay and lesbian characters in their work. But it became more of a stop-period instead of a stop-gap. Writers and filmmakers became satisfied with gay side characters, in much the same way black characters started off relegated to servant or sidekick roles in books and movies. I'm convinced this trope remains primarily because it can be a safety net to keep writers from embracing the LGBTQIA+ character as the hero instead of a sideline character while still ticking a diversity box.

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Go whole hog. Let the LGBTQIA+ character take the spotlight and be the protagonist. But do your homework. Don't write a stereotype. (Of course, this applies not to just protagonists but side characters as well. Don't be satisfied writing stereotypes. Talk to people. Get to know them.) Or write characters (main or otherwise) who are allies to the community or in their baby steps of learning to change if you don't feel you can do justice to writing a member of the community directly in an honest way. 

5. All LGBTQIA+ characters must have at least one stereotypical trait so "norms" can tell they're not hetero.

This one was a shorthand that helped the writers who took advantage of the "gay best friend" tope. Remember that bit about getting to know people and doing your homework as a writer? Well, they didn't. Singling out certain so-called "flaming" traits allowed some writers to include gay caricatures without actually including gay characters. It was the equivalent of writing black men known only by their basketball prowess or lengthy endowments. It was, in a word, total bullshit. A high-pitched voice, coifed hair, or a bit of a swagger when you walk does not a gay character make. We need to do better.

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: This one is so easy. Step out of your comfort zone if needed. Get to know people. Learn that people are just people. Then write them that way. After all, there's no way all straight characters would want to be identified by bad hair or constantly lusting for each member of the opposite sex they encounter.

Racist Tropes

6. Skin tone or nationality has any bearing on the quality of one's character. 

You would think this one would have died a long time ago, but sadly, traces of it remain. It's particularly easy to vilify someone of a nation your country sees as an enemy. In the '40s Nazis were an easy way to create a villain without having to give them any other traits than just being a Nazi. Some of that kind of thing is considered okay, but when just being German or just having a different pigmentation is your marker for being either a villain or even being a sort of saintly hero (simply by virtue of birth), that was what my kids like to call a "no bueno." It's more often applied to characters of Middle Eastern descent (the Muslim terrorist) today, particularly in thrillers. Or even the "Mexican Cartel" stereotype. The "noble savage" is a particularly overzealous usage of this trope, as if the addition of the word "noble" makes it any less offensive. On the other hand, assuming a lower character or intelligence for a dark-skinned or Asian character is more straightforwardly vile. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Stop. Just stop. Period. Stop it. Don't be an asshole. If you remotely think that this is a justifiable way to portray someone's internal character, go take some classes in being a good human being. A caveat -- if you are writing asshole characters, it's okay to let them think this way, but don't make it an admirable trait. 

7. The white savior. 

This one is an old one, but it still sticks around. We can trace it back to early adventure stories like She and Tarzan all the way to newer stories like Dances with Wolves, Avatar, and The Last Samurai. It started as a way for European writers to tell exciting stories about exotic locales while not having to learn much about the populations in those locales. It became terribly prominent in the world of comic books as well, with everyone from Sheena to Iron Fist embracing this trope. It actually has roots in the missionary zeal of early Protestantism, where "selfless" white men risked life and limb to go take the gospel to native peoples, all the while seeing them as a sort of lesser being in need of white culture and white religion to reach a higher, more civilized peak. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Flip it over on its ear. Have the so-called "exotic" be the savior to a group of white people. Have a member of the indigenous group rise up as the hero instead of having to bring in an outsider at all. Have the white guy in a strange land be the learner only and not the savior. Or have the self-proclaimed savior be a fake (The Man Who Would Be King) or just so inadequate to the task that he/she/they do more harm than good. 

8. Indigenous locals are exotic and trigger some kind of "otherworld" intrigue. 

If there's an indigenous group, they are special to the story in some kind of magical, supernatural, or extraordinary manner. Even the fantastic Indiana Jones flicks embrace this overdone and racist trope. There are two ways of approaching this trope, both of which need to end. The first is to add an indigenous group to your story when you need a "lost civilization" to trigger your hero's story beyond the gates of, well, maybe not Hell, but Normal. The second is to hide the weirdness and have a big reveal later that just proves the hero should have been on high alert around such a "not-normal" group he/she/they encountered. Fantasy can get away with this trope more often than other adventure stories because fantasy writers aren't limited by human races and skin colors and cultures and can custom create worlds and peoples. Phantastes and Alice in Wonderland are fantastic examples of this, one using fairy beings and the other using a whimsical world of animals and other strange beings such as playing cards.

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Take the exotic out of indigenous. In order words, let them be your portal, but don't make them so other as to be weird. Let them be a normal small town with local businesses, not a voodoo village with people secreting the back alleys at night. Have the weird happen at home instead of "in a land far away." A lot of modern urban fantasy uses this fix effectively, such as Neverwhere.

Other Prejudiced Tropes

9. Priests/Clergy are always the villains.

As the world changes and becomes less religious (or at least less Christian) than it used to be, writers, who are particularly known for their more progressive ideas in many cases, started to turn the clergy into villains. We can see this in classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and in modern works like, well, the various evil nuns in horror films. Of course, there was noting wrong with the freedom to assign even the clergy the status of the bad guys. We see this in The Crucible and in the hundreds of witch-burning characters throughout the '60s Hammer explosion. The trouble comes with the trope's overuse. Nowadays, it's an automatic assumption that if there is a religious character (a priest, a preacher, a neighbor), he/she/they will be either the villain or at least a jerk. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: It's okay to write anyone -- anyone! -- as the hero or villain. But don't stick to one type as your go-to for either. Keep readers guessing. Play against the trope. Is the aloof, quiet priest genuine or is he hiding something sinister? Is the religious woman next door really as bad as she lets on or does she have a trauma that is causing her to act that way? Just like when it comes to race or gender, people are people. Don't let a prejudice against religion cause you to fall into writing stereotypes whenever people of faith show up in your work. 

10. The moral high ground is the most satisfying. 

This one is the opposite of the previous trope. This is the one where writers make the assumption (without realizing it, most often) that the character with the moral high ground (often religiously motivated regardless of faith) is the happiest and most satisfied one. It can also be that this character becomes the most altruistic one. The idea comes from the notion that a person of some belief is a better, or at least happier person. There are years of European history behind this thought so it's not going away anytime soon. Not only that, but it is also typically applied to Buddhism and other Asian religions. That's a potentially dangerous pairing of this trope and that of "the exotic indigenous people" trope. But they're both hogwash. Statistics tell us that religious people have similar percentages of depression and divorce. And often the person who takes the so-called moral high ground invites only more stress and self-doubt into his/her/their life. Often, this trope plays out with the "sage" character in non-fantasy stories, as a character presented as the morally upright one is able to help and guide the protagonist to the best choice in the journey. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Let your moral folks be wrong, even when they believe they are right. This doesn't mean necessarily making them villains, just letting them fail to be the sage. Make them have to learn a lesson along the way too, even if they're just side characters. Allow them not to have answers or to confess doubts. Allow them to hurt. Allow them to hurt so much that they end up hurting others. Let them be human. 

11. Heroes never make immoral choices. Villains never make moral ones.

This one I learned to avoid earlier as a writer. I had a writing mentor at the time share this helpful tidbit with me: Always give your hero at least one negative trait and always give your villain at least one positive trait. The same thing holds true for the choices your heroes and villains make.  I know it was en vogue in the days of yore for villains to be all bad with no redeeming qualities and heroes to be all good (with white hats and all), but when you do that, your story suffers. This is one of the things I so loved about Haggard's She. Ayesha is a tyrant, yes, but she loves deeply, and even that positive love is her downfall as it leads to intense jealousy. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: As my former mentor said, always give your hero at least one negative trait and always give your villain at least one positive trait. Let the hero choose selfishness, not always saintliness or even goodness. Let the villain choose benevolence, not always malevolence. Nobody is one thing and one thing only, no matter how easy that makes your plot. Think more deeply. Build more complex characters. 

Overdone Tropes

12. The chosen one. Period.

This is probably my most hated trope. I am so sick of the chosen one. Don't tell me Buffy the Vampire Slayer got it right. It was overdone long before that even (as good as that show was, it would have been just as good without the "In every generation..." speech in the intro). It's even worse when it's an almost messianic character. Spielberg, for example, will go out of his way and risk a good movie just so he can put a "Christ-figure" in it (look no further than ET the Extraterrestrial and AI: Artificial Intelligence). There's nothing intrinsically wrong with it. But it has become the go-to story for fantasy and even some sci-fi nowadays. Need a plot for your epic novel series? Oh, you need a chosen one. IT'S JUST SO FREAKIN' OVERDONE. Can we please let Harry Potter and Wheel of Time be the nails in the coffin of this one and move on? Think of something new. Okay. Rant over. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: If you actually want to use this trope, please, for god's sake, flip it somehow and make it your bitch. Let the chosen one get the calling wrong as in Life of Brian or Wholly Moses. But I still feel it's best to skip the chosen one completely and have the "well, you were available and willing" one rise to the occasion instead. 

13. The unwilling hero who changes his/her/their mind to save the world.

Cozying up beside the chosen one is this way overcooked trope. It's not enough that he/she/they is chosen by prophecy or fate or God or the giant spaghetti monster from space, no, they also have to play out the same damn story in every novel, movie, and television series. It goes like this: 

What do you mean, I'm chosen?
I don't want to be chosen.
I'm going to run away and not be chosen.
Then I have a lightbulb moment and I change my mind.
Okay, I'm ready to be the chosen one now. 

OMG, there are other plots, you know. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: Burn it. Okay, I'm kidding. If you insist on walking this old road, do the unthinkable and have the chosen one accept the calling and fail... badly. Maybe the hero has to be saved by a sideline character. Maybe the chosen one is a dupe who is being public to protect the real chosen one. Let a non-chosen one be the protagonist and keep the chosen one off to the side as a peripheral character. 

14. Gunmen have an endless supply of bullets.

This one may be less of a trope and more of a cliche. But while everyone plays semantics, let's just say that Colonel Shoots-A-Lot should have run out of bullets, shells, cartridges, etc. by this point. That rifle doesn't hold that many bullets. That shotgun only shoots one or two shells at a time. And that automatic rifle runs out when the clip is empty. Besides, as a writer friend of mine pointed out recently, sometimes a reload scene can be cool too. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: This one has an easy fix. Make sure your hero has extra ammo. Then give him/her/them a place to hide to reload. If anything, this downbeat will build more of a wave of pacing into your action scene. A wave needs peaks and valleys, after all, and slowing down your prose for a reload could be the magic your story needed. 

15. Clever banter for the sake of being clever.

As much as I love the dialog of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tarantino films, it didn't take long for the talking everything about nothing to get old really fast. Dialog must serve your story. It must move the plot, show characterization, establish backstory or exposition, something!. If it can be easily cut from your story without affecting anything at all, well, if wasn't necessary. No matter how cutesy or witty it was. Now, that's not to say that characters can't talk around things that are important to them. Unlike in his poor imitations, that's what makes Tarantino's dialog work -- just like that of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. They understood that human beings will do almost anything to avoid talking about what's really on their minds. 

Ways to play off this trope to fix it: You only have two options to fix this one that I can see. (1) Cut it. Just deal with the pain and snip the hell out of it and toss it in the trash or save it for a story where it might actually matter. Or, (2) rework it to make it both witty AND needed. Let it be the thing your characters use to avoid the thing they really need to discuss to save their marriage or to deal with one betraying the other and defecting to the enemy, that kind of thing. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Show Me A Hero audiobook is almost here!

For the first time since its initial release in 2011, Show Me A Hero, my magnum opus of superhero stories will finally be coming out as an audiobook! 

Read by Allison Cashman, the new audiobook release is unabridged and clocks in at a whopping 13 hours (plus 8 minutes) of spoken story. Cashman has a BA in Theatre Performance and a Certificate in Voice Acting from Wichita State University. She performed as a Grade School E-learning voice actor for MagiCore Learning for 2+ years and was a character voice actor in The Horologist's Legacy videogame.

Show Me A Hero will be an Audible exclusive. More information coming soon!

Friday, April 19, 2024


Airship 27 Production is thrilled to announce the release of their latest title, “Towers of Metropolis Vol 2.” In 1927, German filmmaker Fritz Lang created the silent science fiction masterpiece, “Metropolis.” It remains a monumental work of imagination wherein the struggles of mankind are challenged by the soulless evolution of the mechanical age. Here, in this setting of mile-high towers of wonder, the secret sufferings of the past collide with the shining ambitions of the future. And yet, the citizens of “Metropolis” remain ever slaves of the present.

Here in this second volume of new stories, writers Dexter Fabi, Carson Demmons, and Harding McFadden revisit Lang’s supercity where all times collide and only the pure of heart can truly survive.

Artist James Lyle provides the 12 interior illustrations and cover, while Art Director Rob Davis handles the book design.


Available now at Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

This Week's Theme Is, Well, Theme

I know this opening paragraph isn't going to win me any fans in a blog about writing action-driven genre fiction, but I'm just going to write it anyway. I can't tell you how often I've heard fellow writers say in convention panels that they don't really think about or care about theme because they just want to tell a fun, action-heavy story that entertains a reader and leaves everything the same when it's over. Well, I cringe every time I hear that. I really do. 

Why? Because (1) it means those fellow creators don't really understand what theme actually is and (2) they're totally full of shit. 

Yes, I said it. 

Theme Is Historically and Contextually Important for Stories

I teach high school English in addition to writing, and our current unit is one about Short Stories and the art of small fiction. We've read Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Walker, Raymond Carver, Ambrose Bierce, and Louise Erdrich. Each of these writer's stories continues to resonate with readers because they say something and do more than just "pass the time." 

Now, just so you know, I'm not only referencing the kind of stories we read in English Lit classes, I am an avid reader of detective, horror, sci-fi, and pulp hero stories. The best of these genres too, in addition to wanting to tell a ripping yarn, also have themes that elevate them beyond just being fun, action-heavy stories that entertain. 

In fact, I'd go so far as to say the reason they can entertain in the first place is because they have something to say to the reader. Stephen King writes about childhood trauma carried into adulthood... a lot. Raymond Chandler writes about personal loss transmuted into public good. Walter Mosely writes about changing racial norms and trying to overcome them. Ray Bradbury writes about whimsy being the basis for both technology and horror. Stephen Donaldson writes about how our bad decisions play a great hand in determining what we think of as our fate. The Golden Amazon tells us about absolute power corrupting absolutely while The Spider tells us that sometimes fighting evil can taint us with some of that evil. 

Don't get me wrong, the trouble with much "Literature" with a capital L is that it has a lot to say but fails to entertain. However, that doesn't make the opposite a better, more honest option. It's equally a failure to write a story that entertains but fails to have something to say. Those stories (and trust me, I've read more than a few in old Pulp mag reprints) disappear from my brain almost immediately. 

It's the ones that do more that stick around, even if they're not the best written or the kind that gets anthologized in high school and college textbooks. Theme isn't about longevity. It isn't about your Literature class. It isn't about being discussed at author forums and writing conventions. It's about every story being itself. It's about every story, no, your story mattering to someone, anyone, a reader out there. 

Again, writing with a theme doesn't mean said theme has to be an indicator of high art. Some may. Some may not. But ultimate, for me, it gets down to this statement from Abbie Emmons: 

If we don't understand why what's happening matters to our characters, we don't know why it matters to us. 
(from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ot3jkbmBKsc)

I want to break that down into two parts. 

What Is Theme and Why Does It Work?

The first part of Emmons' statement is "why what's happening matters to our characters." That covers PLOT and STORY. Plot is exactly that, what's happening to our characters. Story is why it matters to them. Plot alone can't sustain a story, either novel or short story. It's why even bad horror movies usually involve a character trying to overcome some kind of trauma instead of a generic anybody (except when that's the central theme -- that it can happen to anyone) as a hero or most often final girl. The horror of the killer/ghost/monster is what enables them to process that trauma (loss of a kid, family member, sight, job, etc.) It's what is at stake beyond simply living and dying or beating the villain. It's that awesome marriage between plot and CHARACTER. Get those two together with a bottle of wine and some Wynton Marsalis, and trust me, soon you'll see a baby called story. 

Story then determines your THEME even if you're not planning it out on the front end of storytelling. It's this second part of Emmons' statement: "why it matters to us." 

This is where, I'll admit, a lot of the issues genre writers (particularly pulp writers) can have with theme begins. Theme usually involves change, or at least the opportunity to change, or failure to change. But, the argument goes, pulp heroes aren't supposed to change. That's the whole point of reading their stories. They have a fan base because they're consistent characters. 

I agree. There are certain things about certain characters that can't change, at least not permanently. Frank Fradella had a saying while I was Vice President of Cyber Age Adventures/iHero Entertainment that went like this: "Don't blow up Cleveland; we're going to need that later." 

This works to the benefit of some characters, particularly those who can face their flaws, traumas, and issues and still refuse to change no matter the pressure they face. Batman often faces the need or desire to kill the Joker, and the theme of that story is not whether he actually will or not, but how he walks that tightrope. That can be compelling every time even though the reader knows there's no way Bruce is going to pull the trigger. 

On the other hand, this works to the detriment of some characters, particularly those who are perfect and have no flaws or struggles, no matter the pressures or issues they face. It's the one reason I've never been a fan of Doc Savage. I don't mind that he is physically perfect and always wins, but he never struggles with anything. He never faces any failure in his past or present. He never struggles with emotional baggage. And rarely does his support cast. They can be as flat as cardboard cut-outs. 

I know, if you didn't tune out at the first paragraph, that comment about Doc Savage just sent many of the rest of you running for the hills. 

I present Superman as a counter to the good Doc though. Although Clark is the pinnacle of physical perfection and the sheer embodiment of American values of mom, baseball, and apple pie, he still struggles. He knows that his superheroic identity puts those he loves in danger, so he fights to keep it secret, which can screw up his everyday life (with work, with Lois, etc.). He also faces doubt when his choices for winning don't include an "American values" option. How does a man with a perfect record choose between two bad options and then live with the consequences? Those are great Superman stories. Of course, the best Superman stories figure out a way to choose neither but it doesn't come easily, hence "why what happens matters to the characters" is still a part of the story. The theme of trying to remain true to your own nature is also a theme. But without a conflict that forces that theme, a hero like Doc Savage never changes for different reasons than Superman. 

Note: Maybe this happens in other Doc Savage novels, but in the several I've read before I gave up, Doc Perfect is never allowed to have a flaw or less-than-perfect choice to confront.

What Isn't Theme?

I hope you didn't miss this sentence just a few paragraphs above: "Story then determines your theme." Theme is always an organic outgrowth from your story. Now, remember, story isn't plot. Story is plot and character working together to make the plot matter. 

That's why many writers who may not consciously write with a theme in mind tend to have them show up by nature of the kind of characters they write, the kind of stories they tell, and the kind of outcomes that happen in those stories. As most writers know, it's a difficult thing to keep yourself out of your stories -- and not just in a Mary Sue or Marty Stu way. The beliefs that have guided you through life, the ideals to which you ascribe, the politics you try not to discuss at Thanksgiving -- all of that stuff seems to find a way to seep into your work as if it escapes through your fingertips as you type. (Hell, maybe it actually does. That's as good an explanation for it as any other I've seen.)

If you can't find it yourself, and you're any writer worth your storytelling salt, don't worry. Astute readers will find it for you. Even if you're one of the writers I was talking about in the first paragraph. You still end up writing variations on a theme, and the sum total of your body of work will shine a spotlight on it. Just be warned, sometimes those themes may not say the kind of things you want to be said about your writing. (Such as women only exist for saving and men who don't punch their way out of trouble aren't real men, but that's an essay for another day.) 

Nor is a theme a moral. We're not talking about fables or allegories when we talk about theme. Yes, the best of those still have themes. You can't turn a page in Lord of the Rings, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, or even "The Little Match Girl" or "The Ugly Duckling" without bumping into theme. But the moral isn't the theme. Themes can lead to lessons as we confront things about ourselves as readers, as writers, as critics, etc., but the lesson itself is never the theme. 

So, all this to say: Don't be afraid of the concept of your story having a theme. Don't be afraid to talk about it or bring it up at convention panels. And for god's sake, don't think that decrying the concept of theme from your position behind a table or podium at a conference or convention makes you somehow more honest than other writers. That's about as honest as being an ironic hipster. If your work resonates with someone, you have a theme that reader has identified and identified with -- even if you didn't intentionally approach the work with a theme as you pantsed your way through writing. 

Yes, I acknowledge that even Doc Savage has a theme that folks resonate with. I see my own hypocrisy just fine, thank you. (LOL). 

To paraphrase Aerosmith: Theme on, theme on, theme on, theme until your writing dreams come true! #sorrynotsorry