Theme and intent can be interchangeable. Intent is a term I’ve taken from screenwriters. It took me almost ten years of writing and fifteen manuscripts to realize the critical importance of having an intent to my stories, beyond simply being entertaining and having that intent in my conscious mind.

Some in the business of screenwriting say you should be able to state your intent in three words.

  • Love conquers all
  • Honesty defeats greed
  • Honor versus loyalty

There are others who say you need to be able to state it in one word:

  • Relationships
  • Honesty
  • Faith
  • Fathers

What Is My Intent?

What do you want readers to walk away with emotionally when they finish reading your story? This is a question many authors don’t ask themselves and it’s one of the most important questions because it’s the readers whom you need to keep coming back for more. When you consider intent, consider your readers first.

Filmmakers have to think about what they want the viewer to feel when they walk out of the theater. This is one reason there are so few negative endings in films. That’s not to say you can’t have a dark ending. It’s more to point out that you need to be aware of the effect of a dark ending.

pretty womanI’ve seen some excellent films where the ending was dark and bleak—and often most realistic—but most of those films were not box office blockbusters. The original screenplay for Pretty Woman was called Five Thousand Dollars. And the Richard Gere character drives away at the end. Realistic, yes. Would it have succeeded as much as the rewrite?

I’m not saying you have to have happy endings and make your reader happy. I’m saying you have to know what feeling you want the reader to experience and make sure you deliver. Larry McMurtry is a master writer and most of his stories have rather bleak endings.

I think that the more negative the intent, the better you have to be as a writer to keep the reader involved. To take readers on a dark and relatively unhappy journey, you have to be very good to keep them in the boat.


  • What do you feel? Why are you writing this book?
  • What do you want readers to feel? Do you want them to feel one way or another? Or do you prefer to make it more nebulous where readers could argue about the book’s message and intent?
  • You always have an intent. Make sure you know it consciously.
  • Positive versus negative. Your call, but negative is a harder sell to readers.
  • Beware of lecturing. It’s called info-dumping. Also, if you take a stand on some matter, realize you run the chance of alienating 50% of your readers. In some instances this is a good thing as it could bring you attention.
  • Resolution–the payoff to the reader. Intent peaks in the last scene in the book.

The more a reader feels about a book, the more he will get into it. Feeling comes out of the three aspects of a novel:

  1. Idea
  2. Intent
  3. Characters

If you know and, more importantly, have a good feel for each of these three before you begin writing, you increase the quality of your work.

Do you know what your intent is?

Also, I have two slots left for the 27-28 June Write on the River workshop.  Drop me a line if interested and I can offer you a discount.