Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 9: Adding a Theme


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.


This is week nine of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I posted Chapter 7 of THIRST yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read it.

  

Recap

In case you're just joining us, or if you missed a week or two, here is a recap of what we've done so far:

Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.


Week three was Storyworld. Week four: maps and floorplans. Week five: protagonists and main characters. Week six: side characters. Week seven: prewriting. Week eight: plot structures.

Today's topic: Adding a theme

Simply put, theme is what your story says about life and the human condition. It's what your story means to the reader. It can be powerful and life-changing or just plain fun. There are many different ways theme can be used in a novel. It can be obvious or subtle, leave readers with a question or some kind of feeling, reveal a universal truth, or inspire readers to a higher level of humanity.

Theme is a tricky beast. A lot of people will tell you that you can't choose your theme before your write your book or it will come off as preachy. And while I'll agree that it certainly could come through as too preachy, that's not always the case. I think it's a good idea to at least have some sort of plan as to what you're trying to say in your story. You might know exactly. Or you might think you don't have a theme because you are just trying to write an entertaining story. But even in the most entertaining blockbuster story, the hero has an inner need, a lie he or she believes. And that in itself can be a theme. Here are some other ways theme can rise out of a story:

1. Reveals the human condition: Themes show people as they are. Real people. Flawed people. Stuck in the trenches and doing life as best they can. Think of the cast of Les Miserables, A Christmas Carol, or Sense and Sensibility, all classics that are still popular today. These are books that reveal the human condition at its best and worst.

2. Illustrates a universal truth: Themes can be presented as adages or proverbs. For example: "After sunshine comes the storm," "a man is known by the company he keeps," or "what goes around, comes around."

3. Inspires readers to a higher level of humanity: In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean continually does more and more to help everyone he meets. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge wants to make the most of his life. And in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood's brush with death helped her understand much about life and her sister Elinor's behavior as she admits in this scene from the movie:

MARIANNE: [Speaking of Willoughby] If his present regrets are half as painful as mine, he will suffer enough.
ELINOR: Do you compare your conduct with his?
MARIANNE: No. I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.

4. Allegory: An allegory is a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. Many themes can be found in allegories. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is one of the most well-known allegories in fiction. It tells the biblical story of creation, Christ's crucifixion, and his resurrection all in the character of Aslan and how he interacts with the children in the story.

5. Issues-based: I meet a lot of writers who tell me they are writing a novel about ________. (Fill in the blank with any hot button issue.) This is one of the more dangerous ways to go about theme because authors who write these types of stories are setting out (usually passionately) to give their argument on this chosen "theme." And that argument can often come across as preachy. Still, this can be a great way to start a story. Just make sure that you work extra hard to weave this theme in organically with the plot and character arcs so that it feels natural. This is the difference between making your reader cry and making your reader throw the book across the room. One is good. One is not.

6. Asks a question: A theme can simply pose a question to the reader, for example: "Are angels real?" Then, through the story, that very question is explored. These types of stories work best when the author doesn't answer the question but gets the reader thinking about what the answer might be.


Ways to Work in Theme

When you have an idea of what your theme is, how do you work it into your story? My short answer is: don't. Have it simmering in the back of your mind. And you might also have a few scenes in which the theme will be discussed of faced. But theme works best when it happens naturally through the actions of the character. Write your story and see what your character does. Here are some ways themes might manifest:

1. Plot: Your theme can come out in the action of the story. In The Hunger Games, the plot forces Katniss to fight and kill. Killing and war are not her ideas. The plot forces her into those events.

2. Character Growth: Every character should have a lie he or she believes. Helping your character get past that lie is a great way of working in a theme. You can also use Blake Snyder's Six Things That Need Fixing to show your character grow and change. Going back to Katniss in The Hunger Games, themes rise naturally out of how she responds to the action of the story. She sacrifices herself to protect her sister Rue. She wears the mockingjay pin, which the viewers turn into a symbol of opposition against the government.

3. Symbolism: This is when you use symbols to represent your theme. Symbolism can be shown in word choice, description (colors, light and darkness, temperature, size, etc), animals, broken things, letters, characters, nature, or whatever you choose to fashion into a symbol. In The Hunger Games, the mockingjay is a symbol of independence, of something that has broken free from the control of the Capitol. When Katniss wears the mockingjay pin, she is saying without words that she is all about the things that the bird symbolizes.

4. Title: Pride and Prejudice says it all. Working your theme into your title can be a clever way to make it plain to the reader.

5. Wait and see: I've often been surprised to finish a story and be able to see a theme that has come out in the pages. A theme I didn't plan. No matter what themes I might set out to get the reader thinking about, when I write the actual story, they change, morph. Sometimes totally new themes emerge. So don't stress too much about nailing down one strong theme for your story. It will come.

Archived posts related to theme
Here are some posts I found in the Go Teen Writers archives that might help you as you consider potential themes for your story:

36 Plot Ideas for Your Novel (If you chose a plot from this list, that plot type can help you with your theme. But keep in mind. A theme is not one word. (My meme below is a bad example!) A theme says something about that word. "War" is not a theme. "War is bad" is a theme. Or "war is a necessary evil," etc. What are you trying to say in your story?)


My initial thoughts on the theme of THIRST

This is what I planned out for the themes in THIRST back when I was in the brainstorming stages. It's not much, but it's a start. And as I write, I will continually be watching for other themes to emerge.

In matters of life or death, what do you thirst for? Survival? Freedom? Water? 
Water makes life possible. People can't live without it. But is water a right or a possession?
When Eli and his friends reach The Safe Lands compound, the landowners make a list of rules, withholding water for disobedience. Eli feels strongly that withholding water violates people's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and that thirsty people will never be peaceful.


Assignment time

Think about the theme of your story. Do you know it right away? What are you trying to say in your novel? Can you find a subject that shows up again and again? Does your character face a particular evil?

Once you’ve figured out the theme, ask yourself the following questions:

Does your theme mesh well with your plot and character arcs?

Is your theme the best fit for the story you're trying to tell?

Is there any way you could tweak the theme, plot, or character arcs to strengthen the impact of your theme?


A Warning

Whatever you plan in advance before you write your story should be kept in the back of your mind. Don't force it into the story where it doesn't fit. Don't force it into your character's journey. To write a good story, you have to stay true to your characters and let the story's action unfold organically. There will be plenty of time to tweak your theme during the rewrite stage so that it becomes more prominent. One of the biggest problems in storytelling is lack of subtlety, so don't forget that less is always more.

Also note, I try to keep up with all the questions in the comments section of each week's blog post, but I sometimes get behind and miss some, and I don't want to! If you've asked me a question over a week ago and I still haven't answered, please email me your question at jill@jillwilliamson.com so I can answer it.







30 comments:

  1. I have two themes in my story that work right out of the character arcs: You can't always be in control & Family sticks together. The first theme applies mainly to my MC--she wants to always be able to protect those she loves and know what's going to happen. By the end of the story she realizes that sometimes there's going to be ambiguity in her life and that's okay. The second theme applies to the relationships between my characters.

    Thanks so much for the post, Mrs. Williamson! Can't wait for next week's!

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    1. It's pretty good to have multiple themes. Even though one may ultimately become stronger or be more obvious, subtly and variety are appreciated by the reader.

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    2. Sound great, Linea! Those are both good. Next week will be fun, I think. 😊

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  2. In the book I am writing, the plot IS the theme...or the MC is.. In other words, I was blessed by a story that had from the beginning a theme inseparable from itself.

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    1. That's pretty cool. I have found myself having a clear theme on my last three projects which all started with inspiring names! How did you come up with your concept?

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    2. The concept originated from a rough scene in my head that wouldn't leave me alone: A 'Chosen One' and his friend. A misunderstood prophecy. A plot in which the 'Chosen' proved unqualified for the task. A journey in which the friend (obliviously) gained the qualities of the prophecy itself.

      It is a story in which the theme is strongly felt, but very hard to express in hard language. Something about the paradox of a God-given destiny and a person's own free will, and an encompassing sense of unutterable awe.

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    3. I think that's awesome, Savannah. There is so much good stuff wrapped up in your story idea. Can't wait to hear how it develops as you go along.

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  3. I'm not entirely sure about mine, normally I figure out my theme whilst writing. I guess maybe it's about friendship? And about hope in dark times.
    Also, about why you shouldn't go up to randomly-appearing magic houses. Stuff goes wrong then.

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    1. Lol! A lesson many a fantasy character should learn:)

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    2. It's good that you usually figure them out while writing. Those are both great starts, too. And teleporting magic houses...? That's pretty much amazing,

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  4. The first thing that comes to my mind isn't so much of a theme as a trait that's supposed to be expressed in my story: courage. But I suppose my real theme is doing what needs to be done--no matter what.

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    1. Traits are often the beginning of great themes. When you come at theme from such an angle, there are a LOT of possibilities as to the exploration of the concept at hand.

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    2. That's a really great start. And courage is a fabulous topic to write about in our characters. Maybe your character's view of courage could change. Maybe he/she first thinks of courage as doing A, B, and C. But the story asks something different. And maybe he/she needs to learn that there are many different types of courage.

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  5. I haven't spent a lot of time on theme, but I want it to be centered around mercy and forgiveness :)

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    1. It's good to be open. I'm sure your theme will come to light (become more specific since mercy and forgiveness are both good concepts to explore) the more you get into it. Good themes are pretty abstract and open-ended, so don't worry about it too much.

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    2. Those are both so powerful, Abi. That's life changing stuff. Sounds awesome.

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  6. I'm not quite so sure on my theme yet, but I think I know the general direction. I think things like revenge, forgiveness, and self doubt will all play a part :).

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    1. A good revenge/forgiveness tale is always fun! My basic theme runs around those lines since my MC is an assassin.

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    2. A great combination, Jason. I love stories of revenge that end in forgiveness.

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  7. Theme isn't really my strong point but I'd say mine is about being willing to build strong relationships (between my main character and her friends, her family, and, most importantly, God). I can't wait to look at the articles you listed, Jill.
    Also, this is pretty random, but I'm thrilled to be able to continue my storyworld research in a BIG way--my story is set in Hawaii and I'm going to be spending time on one of the islands in a few weeks. I can't wait to put some first-hand experiences into my manuscript!! So...if anyone has a few tips for "research trips", I'd love to hear them.
    Thanks for another wonderful Wednesday post, Jill.

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    1. That's marvelous! I don't know much about Hawaii, but congratulations:) You'll have so much fun. If you want research tips, you could try searching through GTW posts, you can find about anything with the search engine.

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    2. Life is about building strong relationships. Love that, Taylor. And, wow! Have fun in Hawaii! If I were you, I'd make a list of things you'll need to know for your scenes. For example: local foods served at restaurants. Also, lots of description stuff. You might take time each day just writing paragraph descriptions of different places. Describe the colors, the smells, the temperature and how the humidity feels on your skin. Sounds. Birds, insects, other animals... All that kind of stuff you can't get so easily from pictures online.

      There are a few links to research posts on the Storyworld post. Scroll down to contemporary and historical. Maybe some of those posts will help too.

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2016/02/wewritebooks-post-3-storyworld.html?m=1

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    3. Thanks for the great advice, Jill! I'm especially looking forward to "researching" Hawaiian food...yum!

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  8. I always start with the theme of a story before I actually tell it, unless I'm doing a retelling of something. I start with a theme because it is how I find the will to finish the story.

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    1. That's a unique way to find an ending!

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  9. I'm not great when it comes to themes. I think mine will basically about self-confidence and stereotypes.

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  10. The main themes in most of my planned and current projects so far center around the importance of family and the need to stand up for what's right in whatever way you can.

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  11. Another helpful post!!

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