Monday, January 30, 2017

How To Strengthen The Theme Of Your Book During Edits



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.


For some writers, the theme comes first. This is often true for those who write children's literature. The author is passionate about healthy body image, kindness, or something else, and the story is crafted around teaching the reader.

Some writers figure out their theme before they write the first draft, same as they do their characters and plot, but other writers (like me) figure it out as they write.



When I start a story, I typically have a general idea of what some potential themes might be, but nothing specific. Usually during the first draft I reach a moment where I think, "Wow, I had no idea that this story was going to be about what it means to be free/how vulnerable love makes us/the correlation between risk and reward."

What I love about this method of discovering my theme is how organic the message feels. I didn't lay the story out in a way that would sell my point, and my characters are not just props for my message. While there are lots of thing to love about figuring out your theme as you write the first draft, there are also a few common weaknesses that I've learned to watch for in edits:

The theme isn't as strong and effective as it could be.


This happens to me with every book. Because I'm figuring out the theme as I write, there are always scenes early in the novel that aren't as focused and strong as they could be. I know that wording is vague, but I do think a lot of the editorial work regarding theme is about "feel" and "instinct" and "what the story needs."

While you don't want every sentence to point to your overall theme, you also need to be mindful of how each scene supports the overarching message. I once read a novel where the author took so many different stances on so many different issues that it didn't read like a cohesive story. There were all these tangents. One chapter a character would be wrestling with an unwanted pregnancy and decisions, the next character would be dealing with ethics in journalism, the third a character would struggle with honesty. It was very jarring.

I read this book as part of a book club, and a friend who's not a writer said to me, "Good novels feel like trees. This book feels like a bush." I found her word picture really insightful, and I think of it when I'm editing and I notice tangents the story takes that don't serve the overall theme.

My expression of the theme is unintentionally one-dimensional.

If you write a book specifically to deal with a theme, you hopefully were very careful in your planning so that you wouldn't cross over into preaching. Especially if your theme has to do with political issues (or the political issue is a vessel for your theme). You made sure to cover multiple sides of your point, and you were smart about who was saying what and how they were being portrayed.

If your theme arose organically, however, you have possibly been insensitive about opposing viewpoints and didn't even realize it. Maybe it's because your theme feels like an undisputed truth to you. Say your theme is "It's best to be honest."

Sure, we can probably all agree that honesty is great. But a smart writer knows that gray areas exist and that one of the best ways to serve the story is to raise those questions. How honest is too honest? What if your honesty puts somebody else at risk? Keep on going with that train of thought, and then find ways in your story to raise those questions.

I'm not saying what I think I'm saying. (And I'm accidentally saying things that I don't mean!)

This can happen whether or not you've planned out your theme. Jill Williamson was one of my early readers for The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet. When she sent me her feedback, she highlighted a few problematic areas and said, "I know this isn't something you believe, but in these scenes, it sounds like you're saying Hispanics and Caucasians can't be good friends."

My response was, "WHAT?!?!?"

That's not a viewpoint I've ever held, and I never intended to say anything at all about race in the story, especially not that. How was it possible that she was taking away that message?

Fortunately, the fix was pretty easy, but it's something I never would have noticed without her help. Because we know what we mean, we can't always be trusted to hear how it could sound to someone else. Yet another reason to be thankful for critique partners!

Where does theme fall in the process for you? Do you know what it is before you start writing? Do you discover it as you write?

15 comments:

  1. Ah, theme. This can be such a tricky part for me. I feel like I'm a mix - I do tend to go into the story with some idea of what I want the theme to be, and then it gets fleshed out as I write - but I definitely have trouble making the theme clear. It often doesn't come across to critique partners. What are some of the ways you like to make your theme clear?

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    1. I think it can be okay if the theme isn't 100% clear to your critique partners. That means you haven't crossed over into preaching, which is great.

      It's hard for me to give examples without using a specific theme. Say your theme is "love can overcome any obstacle." Then you would want to make sure you have situations in your story that cause questions to be raised about the resilience of love. And it would be important for your main character to have very strong beliefs about love, one way or the other. If your main character doesn't feel strongly about the theme, it's hard for it to come through.

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    2. That's certainly true. I don't want to be preachy!

      Okay, that makes sense. It can be so hard to implement, but it definitely does need to start with the character. For my current WIP, the theme is more something learned than something known from the beginning. I have four POV characters, and they all have related, but different goals. Ultimately, I think their related themes really come down to finding purpose. Which sounds cliche as I write it. But it's also really important, so there's that... Anyway, thanks, Mrs. Morrill!

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  2. "Because we know what we mean, we can't always be trusted to hear how it could sound to someone else."

    Yes! This is so true. It's especially hard to portray a POV character's perspective/worldview when that worldview isn't necessarily your own, nor is it something you're trying to promote. I always hope that readers will continue reading until the end of my story before they try to understand the messages I'm trying to relay. Often the theme isn't unveiled until the very end of the story, after the character has gone through her character change.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    Tessa

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    1. Yes, I've had that thought too, Tessa! When you're showing a change of heart in a character, you have to show that messy beginning part too.

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  3. I'very been thinking about this a lot lately. I'm hoping to have an exercise that helpshe with this, but it'seems hard to do in this format. For me, I learn so much about what I think as I watched my characters learn about life and the world around them. Theme arises organically for me as well. Especially early on. I love these thoughts, Steph. So much to stew on.

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    1. Also, I should not comment from my phone! Bwahahahaha.

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    2. I thought your comment was lovely :)

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  4. I often have a planned theme, one that ties in with character growth and/or the plot, but it often doesn't come through right on the first draft and takes lots of tweaking.

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    1. That's been true for me the few times I've known ahead of time too. Something I really liked about knowing the theme ahead of time was being able to tether it to my character's growth from the beginning.

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  5. I'm pretty sure I begin to realize the theme after the first draft. Sometimes after a couple drafts which is later than I would like. Interesting about the difference between a bush and tree. Really makes me wonder if I have conflicting or too many themes.

    Also, on a totally different note, awhile back you shared part of your process - how you write the first three drafts and then create a synopsis. On my current WIP, I used that same method, and the first draft of the synopsis was so easy to make. Now I'm trying to construct one for a book I've already been working on for 7 years, and it has not been fun. Thank you so much for sharing your process! I feel like I've clambered onto the next step with writing because of that. Writing a synopsis at that point is almost like an outline, but it also isn't too structured or scary for a non-plotter like me :)

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    1. That makes me so happy! Yes, I felt like I stumbled upon some sort of writing hack the first time I wrote my first three chapters and then did the synopsis instead of waiting until the end. I'm glad it worked for you too!

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  6. I've written books with the intent of having powerful themes but not knowing what they are. Discovering theme is one of the best parts of writing and what really makes a story. That's why it's so hard to get right.

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  7. This was very helpful for me, since theme is a hard thing for me to nail down. After chewing over this post for a while, I decided that one theme in my first book (the only one that has made it to the editing phase thus far) is that the compassion and honesty of a few minor characters are more valuable than the aggression and brute strength of the main character. Some of these ideas came into play in the writing phase, but I added several key scenes in the editing phase. Thus, I think the writing phase guides me toward themes and the editing phase cements them. Thank you for delivering such a thought-provoking topic, Mrs. Morrill!

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