The King/Sawyer method of thematic management

In On Writing, Stephen King’s method of thematic relevance is to write the first draft as is and then find an organic theme, and pick out the threads of it in the rewrite. The Robert J. Sawyer method is to write to the specific purpose of setting the protagonist against a pre-determined thematic question.

A lot of writers will benefit from combining the two methods. I do. While writing Kakotopia(prime), the first draft of the piece had a theme for one of the two protagonists and their POV unfolded better than I could have possibly hoped.

The other protagonist existed to serve the first character on their thematic journey alone. The first character had been the kind of character that appears in the first chapter and then starts running the show. The second character had no character arc at all in the first draft.

I had to read through the second character’s story to find a hint of thematic relevance to pick out. When I found one that worked for the character and the structure of the story, I realized the work was going to need a near-total rewrite for thematic tension.

Kakotopia(prime) wasn’t a well balanced piece. The organic character written to a theme had taken over and the non-organic character only had about 30% of the story. I had to create the story beats that would bring their stories on par with each other.

For the first 60,000 words, I was able to keep the existing structure mostly in place. But by the time I crossed over the halfway point, the second half of the first draft stopped working. I could either try to perform a line-by-line complicated surgery to make what existed fit with what had to change, or I could cut 40,000 words and rewrite the ending that brings both the character plots and themes to a second, more organic for both characters’ conclusion.

I’ve cut 40k from work before and agonized over the decision for months. This was an easy snip. In fact, I had cut 40k, wrote 12k, realized the scenes could be told over a 2k bridge and cut another 10k in the same week.

King’s method isn’t easier than Sawyer’s. Going back and picking out a theme means being willing to murder actual darlings if required for the structure of the piece.

But for most writers, including myself, using Sawyer’s method of writing to a theme is still not effective enough for me to produce the level of writing I want. I work best when I use Sawyer’s method for my first draft and King’s method for the second draft/thematic tension rewrite.

It was never easy to write in a 2k story beat in the second character’s POV where no beat had existed before. To know the scene had to progress the plot meaningfully one way or the other without making significant plot changes to the overall story was difficult. But I seemed to always find something I still needed to establish in the second draft that hadn’t been established yet to fill that void with.

But it was still hard work. I had so much empathy for all the people I’ve edited work for. It’s easy — as an editor — to point out a story’s pacing is off. It’s terribly difficult — as a writer — the recognize that problem with the pacing is so severe that if changes aren’t made to it, the final work will suffer for it.

But it’s even more difficult as a writer to know exactly what changes would be required at the story level to rebalance the work so that it doesn’t feel like the tale of a protagonist and another character that just follows them around on occasion.

There were times I wanted to just pretend I didn’t see the need for any change at all. A 2k scene was an entire day’s work. I wasn’t going to get any rewriting done and it was going to add to the amount of hot copy in the third draft that was going to need careful line editing.

But if I wanted Kakotopia(prime) to be the best story I could make it so thee change had to be made. Writers who do not know how to manipulate a work’s structure to build a better reader’s experience do not know how to reach their work’s fullest potential.

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