Showing posts with label theme. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theme. Show all posts

Friday, January 3

Theme: What It Is And Why Your Story Needs One

Today I'd like to talk about theme, what it is and why it's important.


Before I say anything about theme, though, I'd like to direct you to a marvelous article about theme by Chuck Wendig, although, fair warning, Chuck loves making creative use of adult words and ... er ... images (some of which it may take a while to forget--and not in a good way). You've been warned! Here's the link: 25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about what theme is and why we should care about it, lets look at a couple of examples of well-known themes.

J.R.R. Tolkien & The Lord of the Rings

Here's what J.R.R. Tolkien had to say about the theme of his Lord of the Rings trilogy:
"But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!" (Letter 203, 1957)

"It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the 'escapes': serial longevity, and hoarding memory." (Letter 211, 1958)
Those quotations were from the Wikipedia article, Themes of Lord of the Rings.

What is stronger than the fear of death? Love and friendship

J.K. Rowling & Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling in a 2006 interview with The Telegraph, "There Would Be So Much To Tell Her ..."
"Death is the key to understanding J K Rowling. Her greatest fear - and she is completely unhesitant about this - is of someone she loves dying. 'My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic.

"'I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it.'"
Here, again, we see death as the theme. How the fear of death can give rise to all the evils of the world. 

I would suggest that the theme for many of J.K. Rowling's books can be summed up as: "Love conquers death."

Although J.K. Rowling's theme was inspired by her mother's passing--she had started writing the first of the novels as, unknown to her, her mother lay dying--it is interesting how similar it is to that of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

(This is slightly off-topic but I'll mention it since we're discussing death in Tolkien's novels and death as a theme. 

In Tolkien's universe elves lived in the past. In one of his many letters Tolkien wrote that the elves' memories were more real to them than their existence, their actions, in the present. Contrast this with humans. For humans, memories (usually) are like dreams, dimly remembered.

Where elves lived in the past, humans lived in the future. Some humans, fully apprised of the inevitability of death, were obsessed with averting it. It was this conflict--between the mortal and the immortal (between men and the elves, between the mortal Frodo and the immortal Sauron)--that fueled the events of the The Lord of the Rings

Hobbits, on the other hand, lived in the now. They knew how to enjoy a meal and delight in the company of friends. One could argue that they had the greatest of all gifts; greater even than immortality or great riches: they possessed the ability to be happy--or at least content.)

Okay, back to theme!

Theme: What Is It And Why Should I Care?

What is "theme"?

Put simply, theme is whatever it is that gives a story purpose.

A story as a whole should demonstrate the truth of a single statement. That statement is the story's thesis. Although we don't have to call such a statement a thesis. We could talk, instead, about a story's premise.

Lajos Egri held that the essence of any dramatic story is "character through conflict leading to a conclusion". The theme, or premise, of a story is what guides the characters through the story toward the conclusion. The premise puts bounds on the story, limiting it, structuring it.

Frey writes, "When you formulate your premise, remember the three C's: character, conflict, and conclusion. A dramatic story is the transformation of character thorugh crisis; the premise is a succinct statement of that transformation."

So here's what we have:
i. A character in crisis.
ii. A goal plus opposition to attaining that goal (often supplied by the antagonistic force) equels conflict.
iii. The conclusions, or resolution, of the crisis in a satisfying manner. How does the hero resolve the crisis? Does he achieve what he/she set out to? Did it resolve the crisis?
I think, explained this way, we can see the theme as an abstract articulation of the structure of the story; a generalization of the plot.

For instance, in "The Reichenbach Fall" (season 2, episode 3 of Sherlock) [spoiler warning] we see that even though Sherlock Holmes has the emotional intelligence of a dust mite, he loves his friends. He would give up his life if it meant saving theirs.

There's an expression I remember from childhood--it comes from John 15:3--"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends". So, perhaps, we could state the theme of the episode as, "Love sacrifices all," or, "Love would sacrifice all".
i. A character in crisis. Sherlock was in crisis because (apparently) he was faced with a choice: live and take revenge on Moriarty OR accept defeat, die, but save his friends.

ii. Sherlock has a goal: Moriarty wants to make London his plaything. Sherlock wants to stop him. Moriarty resists by destroying Sherlock's reputation.

iii. The matter is (or seems to be) concluded when Sherlock defeats Moriarty, fakes his death and goes into hiding.
In this way the plot can be seen as articulating the theme.

Why you should care: Your theme helps determine what material should be included, as well as excluded, from the story.

One of the advantages of knowning your story's thesis (not all stories have them, but nearly all dramatic stories do) is that it will help you figure out what should be included. It will help you structure your novel.

W.T. Price in "The Analysis of Play Construction and Dramatic Principle" claims that the underlying, unifying,  principle of a work is "the brief, logical statement or syllogism of that which has to be demonstrated by the complete action of the play."

The theme is the root idea of a story; the theme articulates its driving force.

In other words, a story is the proof of the premise given by the theme. If your premise is love conquers all then you have to make sure that, within the pages of your novel, love does indeed conquer all.

This means that if a part of your story doesn't go toward proving the premise, scrutinize it. Perhaps it needs to go. Ask yourself: if this scene were not in the novel would it be weakened? Would there be any difference? If the answer to either of those questions is "no" then I'd advise you to grit your teeth and toss it.

Okay, that's it! Often talk of theme is rather nebulous. I've tried to pin down what theme is and why it is important to writers, why having a theme can make writing simpler. And stronger.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "My hangover coffee" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, December 12

Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Theme has always been a bit of a mystery to me.

One of the ways I've thought of theme is that it's similar to the moral of a story. For instance, Hansel and Gretel. The theme might be expressed as: if something seems too good to be true it probably is. But that's vague and I felt I was missing something.

What Theme Is

Talia Vance has an excellent article on what exactly we mean by 'a story's theme'. In her article, The Power of Theme, she writes:
My take on theme in writing is simple. / What do you have to say about the human condition? That’s your theme.
Talia's agent told her that a book needs to be about more than the characters and plot and if an author can't say what that something is, and in only one sentence, then the book wasn't finished.  Each story needs
Something that makes the reader think beyond the characters and their immediate problems, intruding into the reader’s own views about the human condition, reaffirming or changing the way they look at the world.

What Theme Is Not

Talia holds that the way I had thought of theme, as being akin to the moral of a story, is incorrect. She writes:
One caveat, theme should not be confused with a moral. Themes can be dark and pessimistic. And the goal of your book is not to “teach” a certain point. Your goal is to tell a good story, and through story, share a truth about the human condition. Theme connects readers to your work in an immediate, interactive and persuasive way.

Some Examples And A Tip

Examples of themes:

- Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
- Beauty is only skin deep
- Promises are made to be broken
- A man/woman is only as good as his/her word.
Tip: At some point have one of your characters explicitly state the theme. Stating the theme "primes your audience to interpret events with your world view in mind".


The power of theme is that:
It challenges the reader to question their own beliefs. Through story, a writer can raise new questions and present a different way of looking at society, life and our own belief system. When executed well, theme can help ... people ... empathize with a different world view.
Powerful indeed.

Other articles you might like:
- Hugh Howey's Awesome Deal With Simon & Schuster And The Importance Of Agents
- Robert J. Sawyer: Showing Not Telling
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Photo credit: "Like Stars" by Mikko Luntiala under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 16

Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 6: Developing Scenes

Welcome to Part 6 of the Starburst Method! It's hard to believe we're at Part 6 already. Today we're going to be developing scenes. This part of the Starburst Method builds on work done in the first 5 sections, so I've included links to those at the bottom of this article.

Okay, let's do this!

Working from the five page synopsis you developed last week determine what scenes you need in your story. I posted the first page of my five page summary last week so this week I'll use that as an example of what I'm talking about.

Story vs Plot
Before we start creating our scenes, though, let's say a word about the difference between story and plot. I know the distinction between the two is second nature for many of you, but sometimes people think about these things differently, so let's roll up our sleeves and talk terms.

Rather than have me ramble on about this, here's what other writers have to say. In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway writes:
A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order.
A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.
Jack Hodgins, in A Passion for Narrative, writes:
We can ... think of the traditional plot as a series of causally related events, involving some sort of conflict (or tension), leading (probably) to a climax and (possibly) to a resolution.
For instance, often a novel will open with a scene that occurs in the future, perhaps just before the finale of the book when the hero or heroine is in her darkest hour and all seems lost. This is an element of plot. If, on the other hand, I were telling the story, I would start at the beginning and continue till I reached the end, relating the events of the story as they occurred in time.

I find that one of the hardest things about writing a story is breaking it into scenes and overlaying it with the structure of plot. In fact, one of the reasons I developed the Starburst Method was to help me do this!

Scenes are the building blocks of plot. In every scene there should be a goal and something preventing the protagonist attaining the goal. Usually, also, there's a twist and the protagonist will neither completely succeed or fail to attain her goal but will come a bit closer -- or perhaps fall father away. Usually only in the Dark Night of the Soul, just before the Finale, does the goal appear completely unattainable.

I think of scenes as the atoms of plot. That is, they are the smallest parts/chunks that a plot can be broken into a still make sense. Please keep in mind, though, that this is NOT coming from a screenwriter. I think that screenwriters may think of scenes a bit differently. If you're interested in screenwriting, or in how screenwriters think of scenes, I recommend getting a good book on screenwriting such as Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder.

Okay, so, we've touched on the difference between story and plot and talked a bit about what scenes are. Why did we do this? Here's why: The summary I completed in Part 5 was a summary of my story, not my plot. Although I've made sure to end each section with a cliff-hanger, I haven't completely plotted out the story. That's what we're going to do right after we break everything up into scenes.

Breaking our story up into scenes
I don't know about you, but this is one of the more difficult things for me. It's at this point I often become discouraged and want to chuck the whole thing. But we're not going to do that! We're in this together.

The elements of a scene:
- Date/time of year
- Setting: inside or outside & time of day
- Which characters are in the scene

Clear as mud? Keep in mind this is my first draft of the Starburst Method, so if anyone would like something explained at greater depth, leave a comment or write to me (go to the contact tab at the top right of this page).

Here's my first scene:

Date: I don't know the exact date yet, but I think my story will happen sometime in June. I want the weather to be hot but not stifling.

Time of day: High noon. This is going to be a showdown of sorts. Mr. Henry Winthrop, skeptic, against the beliefs of the townspeople about a death curse. Or perhaps it's Winthrop versus the curse.

Setting: The action begins outside and then moves inside the Mohan Mansion. The town is somewhere in the state of New York.

Characters: Mr. Henry Winthrop, his friend and producer of the TV series, his daughter, the local herbalist/crackpot, the architectural historian and miscellaneous members of the crew. The best friend of the recently deceased owner of the house and her niece. A reporter from the town's only newspaper.

Scene Summary:
Mr. Winthrop and crew are outside the Mohan Mansion. There is a buzz of excitement in the air. Most of the town has come out to see the filming but is being kept at a distance by the crew. Winthrop's face is flushed with excitement, the man is no doubt having the time of his life. He learnt about the Mohan Mansion when he was a boy and ever since has wanted to explore its mysteries. Now, finally, his dream is becoming a reality.

Filming begins. Winthrop talks to the camera and slowly walks up the steps toward the house when a shout rings out, "No!". It is the last owner's best friend -- she is elderly and is accompanied by her niece. The niece looks mortified. The elderly woman warns Winthrop that he must not enter the house because as soon as he sets foot inside the curse will be triggered. If he doesn't care about his life, he should think of those the other people he is putting at risk.

Winthrop finds it impossible to take her seriously but is every inch the gentlemen and instructs members of the crew to help take her home but the elderly woman fixes him with a withering glare, turns her back on them all, and slowly shuffles away, followed by her red cheeked and profusely apologizing niece.

The cameras haven't stopped rolling and Winthrop turns around and heads up the steps followed closely by the financier, the financier's niece, the historian from the metropolitan museum of history and the local historian/herbalist.

The front door has been cleared of lumber but hasn't been opened. Winthrop pauses in front of it as though suddenly unsure but then reaches out and wrenches the huge oaken door open. It creaks, wails really, giving Mr. Winthrop the shivers, despite his strict disbelief in anything beyond the material world. He quickly shakes off whatever presentiments of doom he may have felt and enters the dusty cool of the lobby. Moments later he gasps and falls to the ground, clutching his chest.

Chaos reigns. Paramedics rush toward him and an ambulance is called but it is too late. Mr. Henry Winthrop is dead.

That was a rather long summary! I have a feeling that I'll be breaking that scene up into smaller scenes. For instance, the exchange between Winthrop and the elderly woman/spinster will probably be a scene all its own.

Good luck on breaking your story up into scenes! Next week we'll be writing our rough draft.

The Starburst Method, Part 1: Creating a one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 2: Developing our one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 3: Creating a five paragraph summary
The Starburst Method, Part 4: Developing characters
The Starburst Method, Part 5: Creating a five page summary
The Starburst Method, Part 6: Developing scenes
The Starburst Method, Part 7: The character grid
The Starburst Method, Part 8: The rough draft and narrative drive

Related articles:
Character Archetypes

Photo Credit: SoundProof