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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Untangle Your Theme


I stumbled on this post (via Natasha Hanova) by Donald Maass, Scott Bell and Richard Volger about Story Structure (which is filled with awesome and you should read the whole thing), but this part leapt out for me:
Q: You three Story Masters each teach universal principles but also singular techniques.  What dimension of storytelling is most important to you?
Donald Maass: "... there’s another consideration that I’ll pick as my most important dimension: Whatever it is that the author wants to say, or wants us to see, understand or get.  You can call it theme.  I call it what matters to the author. I’m amazed that many authors can’t answer that basic question about their stories, or if they can the answer isn’t an emotional one. 
What in the world of the story makes you the angriest? What’s the greatest injustice? What’s the principle at stake?  What in the story is closest to your own heart? What’s the most painful parallel to your own life?  Answers those questions and you’re getting close to what matters. When you know what that is, you can use it more deliberately to build a story with meaning."
I'm struggling with my theme right now (I'm plotting out my next novel), but theme has always been difficult for me (in spite of knowing its importance). I seem to know, in a generic sense, what my story is about, and I can certainly narrow it down in terms of plot, but succinctly describing the theme has often challenged me. It's there, I just can't seem to put it in words. And I'm a writer. #sad

I already knew Donald Maass was brilliant (read his Writing the Breakout Novel and you'll see what I mean), but this simple paragraph was exactly the tool I needed to nail down my theme.

What makes me angriest in my novel? Well that was easy.


Intolerance. 

Suddenly, I had my theme in one word, without even trying. And I could see how all the threads of my story, that I thought were an amorphous tangle of plot and character arcs, were actually a multitude of expressions of  my theme: the impact of intolerance on my character, on the people she loved, on the society as a whole. It crystallized the plotting I'm doing on the next book, because I can more easily see where it needs to go and why.

Awesome.

Do you struggle with theme? Do you know it intuitively but struggle to put it into words? Or is it there from the beginning, like a guiding light for your story?


25 comments:

  1. I tend to think of it as the emotional core of the novel. And apparently I write about death a lot.

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  2. Sometimes I do but reading books with great theme have helped me a long the way. It's the heart of the story, the internal struggle of the character, it's where all the emotion lies.

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  3. I don't struggle with theme. It's one of the first things I think about when I come up with a concept.

    Love Donald's explanation. That makes perfect sense. :D

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  4. Yay for you! It can be so hard to think about "theme" (what a scary word). I love Donald Maass's book too, I re-read bits of it to help me to think more deeply about what I'm writing.

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  5. I always come up with the theme halfway through the story... that's probably why editing takes me so long! But intolerance is something that a lot of people my age don't get and it's terrible! So it's great that that's what you're writing about!

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  6. @Andrea Maass is really great at bring out that depth, you are so right! Maybe I should go back and re-read his book. :)

    @Jess Thank you for sharing that! It makes me even more passionate about writing this book(s)!

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  7. Thankfully I'm pretty sure I've got mine nailed, even if it's a secret.

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  8. I always know within the first couple scenes what important growth/emotional arc my characters will go through, which almost always makes the theme of the store pretty tangible and hits the characters right at their weaknesses.

    ...figuring out the actual plot? Well, I'm a pantser... need I say more?

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  9. Wow. Mr. Maass has a way of making abstracts very concrete. This is really a helpful quote and post, Susan. Thanks.

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  10. That is exactly what Harrison Demchick pointed out to me in his review of my MS. One of the most important emotional connections was missing, which weakened the whole story. :-)

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  11. I don't consciously think of theme. I've learned that if I do, things come off as forced. I just write the story that comes to me and if there's a theme there I might try to tease it out more in edits, but I just don't think about it. I can't, for me, or else the words come out fake.

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  12. Donald Maass and Bell (J. Scott Bell) are my favorites for techniques and solid 'how-to' instruction.

    They tell you how to analyze your work, which helps when you have to pitch it. They identify what's important. Refining it down to the core is an art unto itself.

    I could see the theme in my completed sci-fi novel after I had written two-thirds of the story. I used some of Maass' techniques to pin it down. It revolves around 'Trust' in all its permutations.

    Interesting post, Susan.

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  13. I loved Donald Maas's Breakout book (and his workbook is super cool also, if you haven't checked that out). Theme is one of the easier elements for me; I think my personality sort of tends that way, and I like to dwell on large, universal issues. I guess in my case I have to be careful not to be too heavy handed.

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  14. @1000thMonkey I used to be a pantser (now I'm a hyper plotter), so I know what you mean. Getting from Pt A to Pt B isn't as easy as it seems! :)

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  15. For me, the theme drives the plot, and I usually have a good sense of the theme from the beginning and allow it to subconsciously guide the characters through the story.

    For THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS, the theme of virtue is pretty overt from the get-go. The fun part was finding a creative way to show the theme, and its impacts, through the characters and the story. Sometimes it's tough for me to avoid being preachy.

    With RUDY TOOT-TOOT, the theme of "there's a right time and place for everything" was with me from the beginning, but it took many revisions to draw it out into a complete story.

    For my first draft of my first novel, I tried to make a novel about a theme, but quickly realized that without characters, setting, and plot, I didn't have a story.

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  16. Hi, Susan, I left you an award on my blog -- The Versatile Blogger Award. Stop by and pick it up.

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  17. I love it when things are explained in a way we can immediately understand, relate to, and apply to our work. Donald Maass is brilliant.

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  18. I don't have a clear sense of my theme when I begin a story, but as soon as I know my character and what he/she is up against, the theme crystallizes and it's always emotionally based.

    Thanks for that little excerpt! It is very reassuring! :)

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  19. Theme's not too difficult for me, though sometimes I find myself too focused on it (i.e., worrying about how the story reflects back to it) or w/ one too many sub-themes (a problem I also have with plot)

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  20. I haven't really focused so much on a theme. It's something this post has me thinking about now, especially for my WIP UNCOMMON.

    *brain hurting, steam pluming from ears as gears grudgingly turn*

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  21. I do think I have a good idea of theme when I start a book. Although I don't focus on it as I write the first draft. Thinking about my YA novel and the MG I'm working on, the themes are very close even through the stories are worlds apart. I guess I know where my head is.

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  22. My dash said you had a new post, but now it's gone!

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  23. I didn't have an issue with theme in my WIP. I didn't think of it when I thought of the plot, but after writing the draft, I saw what it was. I love Donald Maass' advice.

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers