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 Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.
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.
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?