Friday, March 16, 2018

Discovering Your Theme

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

It's Fri-YAY! I hope you're ready for a little chat on craft before you head off to celebrate a week well-lived.

Last Friday, we talked about how I organize the things I've learned about my story during my early discovery writing sessions, and then we moved on to how I write a synopsis just for me so that I can use it as an outline.

Now that I've written a working synopsis, it's time to get back to the business of first-drafting. But before I do that, I want to scour my synopsis for clues to point me in the right thematic direction.

Together with setting, character (point of view), plot, and style, theme is considered one of the key elements of fiction writing. It can be defined this way:

Sometimes a work has more than one theme. Sometimes a work has one major theme and several minor themes. Sometimes a work's theme is clear and sometimes it's harder to dig out.

As an author, the hardest theme to get a hold of is often the one for the book you're currently writing. Here are some thoughts that may help you.

Sometimes a theme arrives with the story idea: Once you've seen, you can't unsee

 My debut novel, Angel Eyes, was basically the result of an idea that took the shape of a theme very early on. When this happens, it's a gift. It can direct your storytelling from beginning to end.





Sometimes a theme comes to you as you draft: Worship is warfare


The second book in my trilogy, Broken Wings, was harder. I had several guiding ideas, but the theme of worship is warfare didn't come to me until I'd first-drafted the final few scenes. At that point, a light flickered on in my tired brain and I knew how I wanted to rebuild one of my newer ranks of angel and how I wanted to restructure some of my character arcs. It was a fantastic moment, but one that took a lot of faith to get to. Until that moment I couldn't adequately answer the question, "What are you writing about?"



Sometimes, especially in series writing, the theme of a book is inevitable: Choosing not to see comes with its own bondage


By the time I got to Dark Halo, I knew what I needed to tackle. The conversation about seeing the invisible--the conversation that I'd started in book one--was still missing an important element. It was time to introduce a new question: What happens if you choose to close your eyes to everything you've seen?

But, sometimes, especially when you're early on in your career, figuring out if you have larger themes to explore can be difficult. You may have to dig a bit. Some questions to ask yourself:

Does your main character believe a lie? What is it?

Search your working synopsis. Search your opening scenes. See if you can find anything to point you to a lie your protagonist might believe. Early in JM Barrie's Peter Pan, Peter says to Wendy, "It was because I heard Mother and Father talking about what I was to be when I became a man. I don't ever want to be a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun."

The lie here is clear: Peter believes that if he grows up to be a man he won't have any fun. This lie becomes the lynch pin for a theme Barrie explores throughout the book.

Is there a task only your hero can accomplish? 

Scour that working synopsis, friends. Let your brain run wild. Is there something crucial a character in your book offers? It doesn't always have to be the protagonist. Sometimes another character is the true hero. In CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan tells Lucy and Susan, " . . . when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself started moving backward."
The ability of an innocent king to take the punishment for a treacherous subject is, at its core, a classic redemption story and this act provides us a crucial and powerful theme. The entirety of the book builds toward this moment. I wonder how early on CS Lewis identified this action?

What are YOU, the author, trying to say?

Is there an idea you want to convey with this story? Maybe:
-No one is beyond redemption
-Life is frail
-Comfort keeps us from our destiny
-We need others
-War makes monsters of us all
-Even a small light shatters the darkness
-Power corrupts
-Love is worth fighting for

All of these things are noble, worthy themes. As you write, look for different ways to highlight these ideals and provide either a question for your readers to ponder, a message, a moral, or an idea to chew on as a takeaway from your work.

Next week, we'll return to this topic and I'll give you some things to think about as you carefully, light-handedly work theme into your story.

Today, tell me, have you been able to identify a theme in your current work? What is it? How did you discover that theme?


  1. In one of my current works, I suppose a major theme is "others make us stronger," though I delight in presenting a myriad of other ideas alongside that. In my other current work--eh, that's harder, due in no small part to its enormity and, again, its plethora of possible "themes." But this post gave me a great idea for that work anyway: "themed" characters, that is, a character who is especially adamant about holding to a certain ideal. That could give me an idea of one character's plot arc... thanks!

    1. Oooo! Fun! That does seem like a great idea. It can be SO DIFFICULT to know exactly what we're saying. Sometimes we're just writing to figure out how we feel about a subject and that too is a theme, just in the form of a question.

  2. I love themes! It's one of my favorite parts of writing! Sometimes it comes easily, like in my WIP, I STARTED with the theme and built a story off of it. But in other stuff I've written, it's been harder. One book I wrote, I had no idea what the theme was. It was there in the story, but for some reason I couldn't see it until I had experienced it personally. I think it was because the MC's journey somewhat mirrored my own personal journey.

    Ooo, something I've been doing recently with theme is not revealing it until the very end of the story. Like, you think the story is going one way, and you see a theme woven in, but it's actually just a secondary theme. And then in the very last chapter, there's some sort of reveal, and the true theme comes out. Do you think that's a good idea, as long as it's written well?

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Oh, absolutely! Like you said, how well it's written will determine its success, but it sounds fascinating. I've recently had a similar idea regarding a political ideology. I can't decide if I'm brave enough to try it.

  3. I have a long series stewing in my head right now, and I'll start writing it soon. Each story has its own small theme, but the large theme is: Light spreads. The heroes show others kindness, reaching out to them in friendship and often bringing redemption to the villains, and it has a ripple effect, where the people they reached out to go on to reach out to others.

  4. Mine is the second part of Jesus' answer on the question 'wat is the greatest commentment': "love others as you love yourself" (I am not sure what it is exactly in English translations, but I am sure you know what I mean).

    I realised it at the moment the character arcs for both my protagonist, the other main character ánd the antagonist were clear to me. My protagonist needs te learn to love herself, so she can really love others, the other main character needs to learn he can love others despite his faults in the past, and the antagonist shows what happens when you reject the commentment to love others as yourself.

    1. ah, I mean commandment...

    2. Oh, interesting! I love the way you think, Marja!

  5. I think the theme of the novel I just finished is: You are not your parents. Not sure if that's /quite/ right, but it's definitely an important part of the story. Lovely post as always, Shannon! I especially love the theme of Broken Wings. <3

    1. Oh, thank you, Florid! I really dig your theme too. That's a great topic to dive into.