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07 March 2012 @ 07:19 am
Writing Wednesday: On Theme  
I find that whenever an author talks about the theme of the book first, the plot tends to be rather dull and the characters thin. I don't know why this is true. It's perfectly possibly for other people to talk about the theme of an author's book and for it to be a wonderful book, but somehow it doesn't work for the author to do it. This may just be cultural prejudice, that I think authors should be modest, do their work, and let others interpret it. Or maybe put in a different way, authors are part of the culture that they are. Good writing actually reflects that culture and to some extent satisfies it. Analytical or critical writing about story tends to try to see the culture from a different vantage point, and it's not actually that helpful for a creator to do that.

Writers who are excited about the plots of their books, on the other hand, sometimes bother me just a little because it feels as if they have no awareness of the fact that they are writing within a culture and that they have certain prejudices because of that culture. Just because you think a certain plot line is "cool," does not necessarily mean that the plot line in question doesn't have a ton of cultural baggage that goes with it. So it can be useful to be aware on some level, though perhaps not on the creator level, what the meta-meaning of your story is. If that sounds like it completely contradicts the above paragraph, I'm sorry. I'll try to make it more clear as I go on here.

Writers who are excited about the characters of their book are the ones I most often find to be writing stories that interest me. This does not at all mean that I do not care about plot or theme. I do enormously. And it may be only a false correlation on my part. I don't know. I often think of myself as someone who cares about character first, but that doesn't mean that when I start writing, it's the character that comes to me first. Or even that character means anything when isolated from plot. In reality, characters are what they do and what they say in the book. They aren't real. They don't exist outside of the pages of the book. And the best characters are those who change and are honed by the way in which they deal with really tricky plot problems. But I think this is because life feels that way to me, and perhaps I am looking for fiction that *feels* like life, which is actually quite different from realism.

What is interesting to me is that one of the things I get asked to talk a lot about is plot, so people seem to think I do it well. As I have been thinking about plot lately, it occurred to me that generally plots are generated in one of two ways:

1. Everything your characters wants most and wants least happens during the course of the novel, often requiring sacrifice of the one for the resolution of the other. (Of course, this means that your character must first of all want something very, very badly--and also be afraid of something in equal portion.)

2. What happens in the plot to the character is utterly unexpected and unanticipated and the end result of this plot is that the character comes to see that the world isn't what the character thought in the beginning. (This means that your character must have some strong ideas about how the world works and what it is to begin with, which may seem obvious but isn't necessarily.)

These are both excellent ways to plot a novel, at least in general terms. Some writers use them both. Some lean heavily on only one or the other. Both *feel* true to me in terms of real life.

But here are some questions to ask yourself that are really about theme, much as I hate to admit that I think it's something an author may want to think about, though perhaps not talk about. In the end, I think most authors unconsciously put theme into their novel simply by the choices they make in terms of plot and character. The possibilities you allow in your world say a lot about you as a person, which is part of the reason that writing can feel so much like disrobing in a full room of gawking strangers.

a. What is the meta-story you are telling? (Hint--it's not just a story about a boy on a spaceship or a girl with magic. My daughter's English teacher says that a theme is a statement, not a single word.)
b. What are you saying about men and women, about race relations, about power, about community and individuals, about faith and hope?
c. What are you saying about art, about truth, beauty, justice, about love and honor, about satisfaction and contentment, about dreams?
d. What are the rules of your world, both stated and unstated? What is possible? What is not possible? Or maybe put better, who can do what and who can't?
e. What stories are you retelling (and don't get me started on originality--everyone is retelling one story or another)? You should be able to name half a dozen stories that are twined into yours in a full-length novel. Think Greek myth, fairy tales, history, or even classic movies if it helps.
f. What makes your book uniquely yours? What are the parts that no one else could have written and how do those parts come out of your life and your soul?
eshakespeareshakespear on March 9th, 2012 06:54 am (UTC)
I've been thinking about plotting a lot lately, too. This was very timely. I love the concept of everything the MC wants least and wants most must happen in the book and he must sacrifice the one for the other. Wow. Thank you!

I've been struggling with learning how to turn my WIP into a satisfying and cohesive story. And I knew I just wasn't getting it. I knew he needed trials but...blech...it was all a bit of a hodge-podge of struggles. Finally I feel like I'm seeing what needs to happen to make my character transform.

Thanks Mette!