Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Theme, simply put, is the Why of your story. James Scott Bell calls it “the meta-message”: the insight, lesson, or new way of seeing things you want readers to take away from your story (Story and Structure, 130).

Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com). 
To use a cooking metaphor, theme is a powerful flavor that should be able to be tasted all through a work.

Theme is woven though the shape of the story arc, through ethical dilemmas characters face, through which characters are given the role of hero and villain, through key characters’ attitudes, through characters’ conversations (including their word choices and allusions to other artistic works), through setting and description, through pacing the plot to emphasize some actions and characters over others.

And yet, theme is one of those aspects of fiction that seems to deeply divide the writing community.

Some say you should know your theme and be able to state it as a sentence. Others say if you can state a theme as a sentence, then it’s probably a pretty lousy one that’s poorly crafted and about an inch deep.

Some believe you should have the theme fairly firmly cemented in your mind by the time you go from rough to second draft. Others say you likely won’t recognize the theme until you’re many drafts deep in the process.

I suspect some of these arguments fall along the planner/pantser fault line in the writing community.

The planners would want to know what the overarching thematic thrust is before they commit much to paper. And being tidy, they might even go so far as to draft a dozen versions of their statement of theme early in the process.

Pantsers are more likely to let the story unfold and see where their imagination takes them. Multiple themes might emerge that must then be winnowed until the best remain. Pantser themes that grow out of this process are more likely to be multi-faceted, not easy to sum up in a sentence.

Of course, there are also those who question whether you “need” a theme at all. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, argues you will regret avoiding the issue of theme. He compares stories without a theme to a conversation with a horrible bore at a party. You walk away wondering what the point was to his ramble, and remember almost nothing of the content--only the discomfort of having to hear it (229).

I struggle to think of a single story that doesn’t some thematic content, even if it’s a bit unshaped. Humans are meaning-making beings. Even elementary students’ rambling, episodic tales have thematic elements. They express an underlying ethic that values some things and repudiates others, deems traits worthy of reward or punishment, shows goals as worth pursuing or avoiding, characterizes relational patterns as positive or negative.

The question therefore becomes not whether one will have a theme, but how much will you shape it? At what phase of the process?

As you contemplate theme, here are some key ideas to consider.

What is this story actually about? Love? Risk? Healing? Community? Individualism? Maturation?
What is the nature of my hero’s journey? Away from what and toward what?
What virtues will I advocate and reward? What vices will I criticize and punish?
What symbols best illustrate my theme?
What other literature or films can I allude to that have elements that could support my theme?

How actively do you shape your stories’ themes? At what phase? 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 Laurel Garver
Theme, simply put, is the Why of your story. James Scott Bell calls it “the meta-message”: the insight, lesson, or new way of seeing things you want readers to take away from your story (Story and Structure, 130).

Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com). 
To use a cooking metaphor, theme is a powerful flavor that should be able to be tasted all through a work.

Theme is woven though the shape of the story arc, through ethical dilemmas characters face, through which characters are given the role of hero and villain, through key characters’ attitudes, through characters’ conversations (including their word choices and allusions to other artistic works), through setting and description, through pacing the plot to emphasize some actions and characters over others.

And yet, theme is one of those aspects of fiction that seems to deeply divide the writing community.

Some say you should know your theme and be able to state it as a sentence. Others say if you can state a theme as a sentence, then it’s probably a pretty lousy one that’s poorly crafted and about an inch deep.

Some believe you should have the theme fairly firmly cemented in your mind by the time you go from rough to second draft. Others say you likely won’t recognize the theme until you’re many drafts deep in the process.

I suspect some of these arguments fall along the planner/pantser fault line in the writing community.

The planners would want to know what the overarching thematic thrust is before they commit much to paper. And being tidy, they might even go so far as to draft a dozen versions of their statement of theme early in the process.

Pantsers are more likely to let the story unfold and see where their imagination takes them. Multiple themes might emerge that must then be winnowed until the best remain. Pantser themes that grow out of this process are more likely to be multi-faceted, not easy to sum up in a sentence.

Of course, there are also those who question whether you “need” a theme at all. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, argues you will regret avoiding the issue of theme. He compares stories without a theme to a conversation with a horrible bore at a party. You walk away wondering what the point was to his ramble, and remember almost nothing of the content--only the discomfort of having to hear it (229).

I struggle to think of a single story that doesn’t some thematic content, even if it’s a bit unshaped. Humans are meaning-making beings. Even elementary students’ rambling, episodic tales have thematic elements. They express an underlying ethic that values some things and repudiates others, deems traits worthy of reward or punishment, shows goals as worth pursuing or avoiding, characterizes relational patterns as positive or negative.

The question therefore becomes not whether one will have a theme, but how much will you shape it? At what phase of the process?

As you contemplate theme, here are some key ideas to consider.

What is this story actually about? Love? Risk? Healing? Community? Individualism? Maturation?
What is the nature of my hero’s journey? Away from what and toward what?
What virtues will I advocate and reward? What vices will I criticize and punish?
What symbols best illustrate my theme?
What other literature or films can I allude to that have elements that could support my theme?

How actively do you shape your stories’ themes? At what phase? 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I'd intended to blog once I got back from Florida, where I was helping my mother prepare to move from independent to assisted living in her retirement community. What I didn't anticipate was arriving there with a toothache that turned out to be an abscessed molar. Fortunately, mom's dentist put me on an antibiotic, and we had so much to do that tasks rather than pain occupied most of my thoughts. But I kind of crashed when I got home. A root canal has alleviated the worst pain, and I'm slowly returning to normal.

Photo credit: sideshowmom from morguefile.com 
The primary task while in Florida was to help my mom choose a small portion of her copious belongings to move to her new studio apartment. Oddly enough, most of the purging process was pretty painless, because Mom hadn't even looked at some of her belongings in a decade, or realized she had no use for some items in her "new life" in which all meals are served in a dining room--no more meal prep or clean-up.


For over a year, she had resisted making the move, even though she was painfully lonely and isolated, because she falsely believed she needed a bigger apartment. All this stuff was holding her back from moving ahead, being in a better environment.

The whole experience got me thinking deeply about my relationship to not only stuff, but also ideas that can keep a person stuck. To extend my moving-prep metaphor, first step to overcoming the junk crammed in the closets is to open the door and actually look at it.

Here are a handful of ideas that can limit you, keep you stuck.

  • No one cares what I have to say; I'm a nobody.
  • No one else is writing about ___, so it must be a stupid idea.
  • Everyone is writing in __ genre, so I should, too.
  • That's way too complicated.
  • If I try this new thing, it will be such a time-suck, I'll go under.
  • I can't build a new routine, it's just too hard.
  • I can't afford ___ (to attend a conference, a pro editor, a computer that doesn't crash). 
  • This technique worked for me in the past.
  • All the experts say ___ will guarantee me success.
  • I'm scared of ___ (rejection, public speaking, not having a steady income).
  • My family needs X, Y, Z from me.
  • I can't ask so-and-so to pitch in, they'll just say no and make me resentful. 
  • My one experience doing ___ was so bad, no way will I try it again.
  • I can't approach X or Y, they are way too busy.
  • I don't have a head for ____ (marketing, social media, business).
  • What if I do this new thing at the wrong time and it flops?
  • What if people read my work and think I'm ____ (weird, unhinged, a heretic, a bad parent)?
  • I didn't do such-and-such perfectly the first time, so I might as well quit now.
  • This is really hard, therefore I must not have any natural talent and should quit.

Wow, that was kind of frightening, wasn't it? But I've had a lot of these thoughts, or heard them in some form from writer friends.

I don't have a quick fix for self-sabotage. But I know for sure that remaining in denial isn't going to resolve the problem any more than refusing to see the doctor about that weird mole will prevent you from having skin cancer.

So take the time to open that metaphorical dark cabinet where you've stuffed your worries and fears. Bring them into the light, examine them. Then consider how they might be false and need to be trashed, pronto. Or perhaps they seem true, but tell only part of the story. The unwritten part might involve a creative work-around, a challenge you just need to contemplate for a while, and a solution will come in time.

Do you ever emotionally "clean house"? What negative thoughts plague you that you'd like to jettison?
Wednesday, July 22, 2015 Laurel Garver
I'd intended to blog once I got back from Florida, where I was helping my mother prepare to move from independent to assisted living in her retirement community. What I didn't anticipate was arriving there with a toothache that turned out to be an abscessed molar. Fortunately, mom's dentist put me on an antibiotic, and we had so much to do that tasks rather than pain occupied most of my thoughts. But I kind of crashed when I got home. A root canal has alleviated the worst pain, and I'm slowly returning to normal.

Photo credit: sideshowmom from morguefile.com 
The primary task while in Florida was to help my mom choose a small portion of her copious belongings to move to her new studio apartment. Oddly enough, most of the purging process was pretty painless, because Mom hadn't even looked at some of her belongings in a decade, or realized she had no use for some items in her "new life" in which all meals are served in a dining room--no more meal prep or clean-up.


For over a year, she had resisted making the move, even though she was painfully lonely and isolated, because she falsely believed she needed a bigger apartment. All this stuff was holding her back from moving ahead, being in a better environment.

The whole experience got me thinking deeply about my relationship to not only stuff, but also ideas that can keep a person stuck. To extend my moving-prep metaphor, first step to overcoming the junk crammed in the closets is to open the door and actually look at it.

Here are a handful of ideas that can limit you, keep you stuck.

  • No one cares what I have to say; I'm a nobody.
  • No one else is writing about ___, so it must be a stupid idea.
  • Everyone is writing in __ genre, so I should, too.
  • That's way too complicated.
  • If I try this new thing, it will be such a time-suck, I'll go under.
  • I can't build a new routine, it's just too hard.
  • I can't afford ___ (to attend a conference, a pro editor, a computer that doesn't crash). 
  • This technique worked for me in the past.
  • All the experts say ___ will guarantee me success.
  • I'm scared of ___ (rejection, public speaking, not having a steady income).
  • My family needs X, Y, Z from me.
  • I can't ask so-and-so to pitch in, they'll just say no and make me resentful. 
  • My one experience doing ___ was so bad, no way will I try it again.
  • I can't approach X or Y, they are way too busy.
  • I don't have a head for ____ (marketing, social media, business).
  • What if I do this new thing at the wrong time and it flops?
  • What if people read my work and think I'm ____ (weird, unhinged, a heretic, a bad parent)?
  • I didn't do such-and-such perfectly the first time, so I might as well quit now.
  • This is really hard, therefore I must not have any natural talent and should quit.

Wow, that was kind of frightening, wasn't it? But I've had a lot of these thoughts, or heard them in some form from writer friends.

I don't have a quick fix for self-sabotage. But I know for sure that remaining in denial isn't going to resolve the problem any more than refusing to see the doctor about that weird mole will prevent you from having skin cancer.

So take the time to open that metaphorical dark cabinet where you've stuffed your worries and fears. Bring them into the light, examine them. Then consider how they might be false and need to be trashed, pronto. Or perhaps they seem true, but tell only part of the story. The unwritten part might involve a creative work-around, a challenge you just need to contemplate for a while, and a solution will come in time.

Do you ever emotionally "clean house"? What negative thoughts plague you that you'd like to jettison?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he thinks will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special objects in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?
Wednesday, July 01, 2015 Laurel Garver
Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he thinks will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special objects in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?