I was talking to one of my clients last week about a group she is part of at her college. She and several other instructors get together once a month in an informal critique group. They share their writing and provide feedback. Kind of a nice way to break the monotony of grading papers. She noted that one of the instructors was working on a piece and it was really going no where. His writing was fine, the voice was great, but everyone in the group kept asking one question over and over again...why?
The problem for this author is that he really didn't know where the story was going. He didn't really have a purpose. Apparently, he had thought of this great character and wanted to tell his story. The problem was, even he did not know why he wanted to.
Having a purpose for your story, essentially the theme of the story is crucial for any author. Before you even start writing, you need to establish that purpose. In the business world, we call this "the take-away." What is it that you want the readers to take away from the story? You can have great characters and action in the story, but everything needs to have a reason. Everything needs to head to that one ultimate "take-away."
In the academic world, when you write research papers, you always start with a thesis statement. This is the thing you are trying to prove. Once you have that thesis, when you go out and gather your evidence and start to organize it, all of the evidence has one goal - to prove the thesis. When you add that evidence, you provide analysis that supports that thesis. Writing a novel is no different.
There are a lot of times when I read a submission and love the writing but struggle to know why the author wrote the story that way. They insert characters that are certainly interesting and write action scenes that are truly beautiful writing, but without a reason, these become nothing more than vignettes in a random collection of pages.
Now, a lot of authors I talk to will try to convince me that they often "discover" the theme after they write. While this might sound like a valid approach to writing, authors are still just putting in scenes and words that have no real purpose other than to fill space.
This is all an issue of pre-writing activities. Go ahead and find those great characters, just like the instructor did, but before you really get going, ask yourself what you want to tell about this character. What journey do you want them to take? Once you get that, everything you do in the story will now have a purpose.