Themes are for parks like Disneyland, not for books. When it comes to writing, I prefer to sculpt my stories around an armature.

I came upon this concept in an extraordinary little writing book called Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald. I admit my eyes glaze over when someone even says the word “theme” to me. McDonald noticed the same thing happening with his writing students. So he began looking at story through the eyes of a sculptor. A sculptor builds an armature to act as a skeleton for the artwork. No one ever sees the skeleton or armature, but, without it, the piece would fall apart.

In story crafting, the armature is the idea upon which you hang your story. “It is what you want to say with your piece,” McDonald explained. He uses the old joke about marriage to illustrate: “Marriage is not a word; it’s a sentence.” Although talking about theme can seem like a life sentence with no parole, talking about armature is freeing. Your story is not about a single word—love, friendship, competition, war, revenge. It is a whole sentence, and that sentence or armature gives it shape.

“One way to look at your armature is what is called, in children’s fables, ‘the moral’,” McDonald says. “The armature is your point. Your story is sculpted around this point.” Here are some examples of armatures:

  • Wizard of Oz: There’s no place like home.
  • E.T.: When are you going to grow up and learn how other people feel for a change?
  • Of Mice and Men: People need companionship.

As I was writing my novel, Book of Mercy, I thought all along the theme was censorship. After all, the dylsexic hero Antigone Brown does fight book banning in her town. But upon revision, I discovered again and again that the point of the story was about the lengths parents, or anyone, will go to protect the ones they love. So my armature was “There are more things worth fighting for than you can ever imagine.”

Revision is when you are really shaping your story around its armature. The beauty of thinking in the simplistic terms of an armature instead of the complicated mess of theme is that, when you are revising your work, you see immediately which scenes stick to the skeleton of your story and make it stronger and which scenes could fall away without any loss to your artistic vision. This is when things get thrilling, even better than riding the world’s craziest roller coaster at an amusement park.

Do you get all tangled up in theme? What is the one sentence armature of your book?