Nancy: Today’s Word is Theme

The theme is the beating heart of your book.

The theme is the beating heart of your book.

Judging by my posts this month, it seems I’ve spent most of January thinking about keywords that apply to my writing life and process, including intention, patience, and empathy. This past week, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about theme as a result of the confluence of disparate elements.

First, a quick definition of theme as I’m using it here, from Reference.com: “The theme of a novel or story is the major message that organizes the entire work…The theme of a work is distinct from its subject, which is what the story is ostensibly “about.” The theme is an expression of the writer’s views on that subject.”

On Wednesday, Elizabeth wrote about defining what you stand for, as well as what your characters stand for, to help uncover potential conflicts, arcs, and growth opportunities. In the comments section, Jeanne and Elizabeth wrote about the way an author’s view of the meaning of a work can change through the writing process. With this in mind, it makes sense that many writers get their first (or second or fifth) draft on the page, then step back and analyze the work to uncover the theme. Why look for the theme? To make sure a story’s major message really does organize the work and resonate throughout it, and to fix places where the story strays from it. Ignoring theme leaves the writer open to creating an ambivalent message that confuses and frustrates readers.

I daresay several of us Ladies have used this write first, identify theme later approach to our stories. In our work with Jenny Crusie, we actually learned this technique. Using a completed first draft (which, ahem, a few of us might not have completed before the beginning of the program), we completed a series of exercises to uncover the theme. And the goal really was to uncover the theme, because it should be deftly layered and woven into the story like fine, sparkly thread to catch a reader’s eye, not be jumping off the page like a sledgehammer to hit said reader over the head. By allowing the theme to emerge organically, the reasoning goes, we avoid the trap of pompous preachiness regarding our message.

But, as our illustrious teacher Jenny would say, there are many roads to Oz. I started down one of these parallel roads this past week as I began working with a story coach trained in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method of writing. Lisa’s belief is that theme should be an integral part of the discovery phase of a novel. How, she posits, can one organize work around a message without first knowing what the message is? To do so might mean a lot of wasted time, energy, and words; weeks or more of frustrating revision spent trying to retrofit the theme into an already written story; and the possibility that the story doesn’t actually have an underlying message or has given equal weight to conflicting messages.

The Story Genius approach comes with its own set of exercises. Many of these are about asking the question Why?, and then asking more questions, going deeper and deeper into every answer we give. So answering a question like Why are you writing this particular story? begins with an explanation of when, where, and how the idea occurred to you. Why is it meaningful to you, sticking with you, not letting go of you? What about it speaks to you? Don’t go with the first, easiest answer. Write that down, but then come back to it, again and again if necessary, to dive ever deeper. When you find the reason this particular story really resonates with you and your world view, you’re probably staring right into the face of your theme.

This is the first time I’m taking this upfront, deep dive journey into theme before writing the story. I won’t go into the specifics I’ve discovered about my theme, as it’s one of those things a reader should find for herself in the story. Suffice it to say, it has to do with human connections and disconnections. After just one week, I’m already seeing opportunities to echo the theme in subplots and supporting characters, show reversals that undermine the opposing view, and develop a character arc that teaches my protagonist the lesson embedded in that theme. Right now, it’s still ‘early days’ with this experiment. I’ll let you know how I fared with this approach when I get to the other side.

If you’re thinking theme doesn’t matter in your work, Lisa Cron’s forays into applying brain science to story contradict this. Whether a story’s theme resonates with our own belief system or challenges our view of the world, a well-written fiction story with a coherent theme has the power to change the people who read it. How you arrive at your theme is part of your own process and might well evolve over time. Just don’t ignore it. Theme is the beating heart of your story; don’t underestimate its importance.

How do you find and recognize themes in your own writing? If you write first and identify theme later, have you ever considered flipping this approach on its head?

8 thoughts on “Nancy: Today’s Word is Theme

  1. I’ll be interested in hearing how it goes after you finish writing your story!

    I’m one who tends to form theme into a bludgeon if I know what it is, so I try to ignore it. Anyway, just like titles, it was one of the things I totally sucked at identifying when I was in school.

    I tend to find themes when my betas read my work and question some of my decisions. I have a bad habit of including “darlings” just because they are funny, or little asides that soften my black-or-white viewpoint . . . and then find that they muddy the theme and make the betas a little antsy. Theme can be great for justifying asides and little details in the story that may seem like they could be cut (they aren’t part of the action, for example), but that I just can’t cut.

    I hate working with themes because they seem so right-brain — very hard to verbalize and they seem more like a feeling to me than something I can pin down with logical, left-brain specifics. OK, let me clarify that: I hate working with themes with my left-brain. I love the cool, slippery feelings of themes moving silently past me when I work with them with my right-brain.

    • Yes, the bludgeoning theme is a danger. Although, even that works for some writers, including some in fantasy. I’ve always thought that about Madeline L’Engle’s work (maybe that’s just me), but her stories were so engrossing, I didn’t mind at all.

      • I do like a good moral. LOL, if I agree with it, of course. There are a lot of morals that I think are kind of old-fashioned or not really kind and gentle. I don’t remember Madeline L’Engle being particularly preacher-y, but I was a kid when I last read it, and of course, in those days, everyone was preaching at kids. I loved the stories — I read everything she had in the library!

    • Hi Monika! Have you used the SG approach? Several of us ladies here on the blog found Lisa’s work independently over the past several months, and so far I think we’re all feeling really good about the work it’s helping us do.

    • That makes sense, as the theme tends to reflect a core belief of the writer. My themes seem to be variations on one core theme. Now coming to that realization, I need to pay attention to specifically how it manifests in each new project.

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