Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Of Befuddlement and Theme

It’s not enough to know how to do something. You have to know how to speak and/or write it, meaning that you use the correct vocabulary. And then, if you know how to communicate it, you can teach it to others.

When I taught 4th and 5th grade, mastery of multiplication included vocabulary words like factor, multiple, and product. Easy!

No one asked me to teach calculus. Reason #1: I didn’t know how to do calculus. #2: I didn’t know calculus-ese.

For the last year, I’ve been focusing on mastering the concept of story structure.

This should be straight forward. Stories have been around since people formed language, and much of what the ancients wrote about story—Plato and Aristotle, for instance—is still true today. Good stories share common attributes.  And there are lots and lots of books out there to teach me everything I need to know.

A smidgen of frustration (understatement) entered my quest for knowledge because people who write about writing, don't use the same vocabulary. For instance, there's "theme." Theme influences character arc and the internal and external conflicts of a story. In fact, theme should influence absolutely everything in a story.

Again, talking about theme should be straight forward.

It’s not.

Especially if you read more than one book on the subject. Maybe I should have been a mathematician, specializing in elementary math skills. There’s not an ounce of ambiguity about the definition of a sum or what a rhombus looks like.  (Polygons rule!)

But I’m a writer. I should have read ONE really good book about structure and been satisfied. Instead, I read five, which has landed me straight into the category of befuddlement. (The Category of Befuddlement would be a great book title. Dibs!)

I’ve experienced this befuddlement because each author presented different definitions for theme that were enough alike that I could eventually say, “Ah-ha! They’re talking about theme!” But two of the authors gave theme a new name. 

Is theme a bad word?

The first book I read, of course, was John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, strongly suggested by Bonnie. Truby says at the beginning of the “Moral Argument” chapter that “a great story is not simply a sequence of events or surprises designed to entertain an audience. It is a sequence of actions, with moral implications and effects, designed to express a larger theme.”

I get that. Tell me more!

Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world. It is your moral vision. Whenever you present a character using means to reach an end, you are presenting a moral predicament, exploring the question of right action, and making a moral argument about how best to live. Your moral vision is totally original to you and expressing it to an audience is one of the main purposes of telling a story.

This was a new way for me to look at theme, but it made sense. When I tested the idea against stories I’d read, it worked. Suzanne Collins must believe that personal sacrifice is the highest form of love. Lisa See believes traditions can tie a family together and rip them apart. Anne Tyler believes that what we may think is loving, others see as belittling and settling.

Alan Watt in The 90-Day Novel comes up with his own name for theme. He calls theme the dilemma.

There is a dilemma at the heart of every story…It is the core struggle around which every character in the story revolves. Some people call this the theme (Thanks for the hint, Mr. Watt.) or the dramatic question. It is personal to the hero yet universally relatable to the reader.”

Most recently, I picked up The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. He’s talking about theme as the moral premise. This is how he introduces moral premise:

Every…physical obstacle that the protagonist confronts is rooted in a single psychological, spiritual, or emotional obstacle. And to overcome the many physical obstacles, the protagonist must first overcome the singular psychological obstacle that his journey…is really about…Moral Premise—a statement of truth about the protagonist’s psychological predicament.

These authors are saying very similar things about theme. It’s up to me to create a working definition of theme for my writing. I’m very tempted to go back where I started, with Truby—“theme is how the author believes the world should work.” While these other writers on theme have deepened, corroborated, and expanded my understanding, I prefer this simple yet widely applicable definition. 

Distilling down the themes of books you’ve read—or written—is a great exercise. I’m a bit tardy, but I’ve done just that for my novels, plus my work in progress:

Like a Watered Garden: Expanding our perception of others allows us to grow and gain independence.

Always Green: Friendship is the best foundation for romantic love.

In Every Flower:  Being a family requires more courage than love and the ability to bend and stand against resistance.

The Queen of Sleepy Eye: Harsh judgment of others leads to self-incrimination. Forgiveness leads to personal growth and deeper love.

Seeing Things: We hang on to those we love by surrendering our desire to control them.

Goodness & Mercy: Running away from guilt only brings us back where we started.

Ring!: To free ourselves from regret, we must live without excuses and embrace living in the present.

Notice that theme is not the storyline (plot) or premise (one sentence that tells what happens to start a story and what the protagonist is going to do about it). Theme is the underlying truth of the story from the author's perspective.

What are the themes from your stories? What frustrations have you come across as you’ve learned the craft of writing? Is there a danger in reading too many writing books? What contradictory advice have you been given either by a teacher or in a book? And by the way, if I've got this theme-thing all wrong, tell me now!


Megan Sayer said...

Patti I SO understand your frustration here! I've had exactly the same complaint, over exactly the same subject - vocabulary.
The first book I ever read about plot structure was Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, which impacted me profoundly. I read it a number of times over a couple of years, allowing radical new ideas of story to develop and mature in my mind. However, the next book on the subject, Larry Brook's Story Engineering, some seven years afterwards, preached an entirely different set of events, rules, structures.
Both books, however, were built on the premise that there is one universal story structure that undergirds everything. I couldn't understand how two books could preach the same message of universality yet list different ingredients - it made no sense.
I figured it out. It was a major Eureka moment in the back yard, and suddenly I "got" story. In a funny way I attribute that breakthrough to the very fact of the differences in vocabulary - the fact that I was forced to work through the differences helped me to not just parrot other people's ideas but understand them for myself.
Incidentally, Truby uses different language, and a different set of ingredients to both the other two. But, once again, he's saying exactly the same things. Phew!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

You know, I think there are so many definitions of theme because so many writers want to publish writing books. :)

Theme, for me, is the tiny thought that swims around my thoughts, leading me down channels and, hopefully, into some great open water.

Paint Chips: God is faithful to us, even when we aren't faithful to Him.

Novel in Progress: We learn mercy best when we are in need of it.

Theme was one of those things that terrified me until I realized how it must be reduced to its simplest form. That realization changed my writing.

S. F. Foxfire said...

While reading this post, my heart started punching my ribs. Hard. I wasn't sure if my stories had theme, but . . . let me do the break-down real quick. I've got an inkling.

Initium: As long as we're running from the past, we're running from the future, and only by forgiving ourselves from the former can we embrace the latter.

Rise of the Order: We have two choices to make in life, and that's whether to serve God or deny Him. Each choice determines how our character develops.

The Second Hand's Shadow: No matter who we are or where we come from, God can use us and still wants to know us.

Well . . . that wasn't too hard. And I have no need to panic now. Phoo! You really freaked me out, there, Patti. Don't do that! (haha)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I think the reason I love the topic of theme so much is how it's greatly tied in to the psychological core of any work.

Reminds me of words you quoted:
moral vision
heart of every story
core struggle

Great food for thought.
~ Wendy

Pamela King Cable said...

I have three shelves of books on the craft of writing. Befuddlement is a great word for all of them. A writer can get so wrapped up in the craft, so shook up about theme, pace, point of view, etc. that the story itself suffers.

It's dangerous to read so many writing books. I agree.

My humble opinion is to know all the rules so you can break them. Because, frankly, the reader doesn't care.

For example, I don't care that Pat Conroy introduces new characters in the beginning, middle, and end of his stories. Beach Music was one of the best stories I ever read. He breaks just about all the rules in the that big, thick novel. I doubt his readers paid much attention to those rules as they were wisked away to Rome, the Low Country of South Carolina, and a gripping story of the Holocaust set smack dab in the middle of the book.

Agreed, Pat Conroy can get away with it, but do you see my point?

Follow the rules. Know them. Study the craft inside and out. Worry about theme, understand it, and use it correctly. But if you don't have a great story to tell, none of it makes any difference.

Patti Hill said...

Megan: Yes, the struggle to connect all the varying "dots" has a great payoff of understanding.

Susie: I sometimes wonder if the way to make money in the book-writing industry is to write the one-among-many definitive books on writing the great novel. And I agree, theme is whittling the essence of your story down to its simplest form.

S.F.: Well done!

Wendy: The better we understand the human experience, the more compelling and relevant our themes will be.

Pamela: It does take a gifted writer to break the rules and make it work. Pat Conroy is definitely that. I like what you said, "Study the craft inside and out. Worry about theme, understand it, and use it correctly. But if you don't have a great story to tell, none of it makes any difference."

Lori Benton said...

Truby's definition of theme resonates with me. When I read his, characters from favorite books and TV shows sprang instantly to mind, with a sense of how they act in the world and why. When I read the others, I was too busy sorting out the meaning of the words to think that deeply about it. Befuddlement pretty much describes it. No doubt that's my failing, not theirs.

Bonnie Grove said...

This is a wonderful article, Patti. And so true--the things that swirl in our minds as we study the craft can cramp our fingers when we go to write the story. It's a fine line and every writers needs to decide for herself when enough is enough when it comes to reading books on writing.

Re: Truby's book--I think what is important to remember about his book is that he is offering a structure technique, not a book on how to write a novel. He doesn't pretend to know how to write a novel, he only moves us through history via movies (and a few novels) to show us how to make sense out of story structure.

That's important: he pulls stories out of history. In other words, he doesn't say: use this structure and you will be among the first to create good stories. He looks at stories that have passed the test of time, and said, "Look this story has these elements used to their best potential."

The book is focused on screenwriting--and for that reason, I think novelists can benefit from it because it flattens and simplifies concepts without imposing an outside vision for your story.

For me, Truby's book was what I was looking for: a way to unroll story structure onto the table, label it's parts, and then begin to knit the bones of story together in my mind. It's all I needed to go on because that's how my brain works. Give me a crumb and I'll make apple pie with it.

Anonymous said...

Patti, this is an excellent post. I too have been -- and remain -- befuddled over theme and other aspects of story. But this really helped define theme in a simpler, easier-to-grasp way. Notice I didn't say "easy" or "simple" because it still isn't, but it helps a lot. I'm going to try to identify theme in the books I've wtitten as an exercise from this post.

I agree that reading too many books on the craft of writing leades directly to BEFUDDLEMENT. I've attempted Truby's, and quite frankly it scares me. But because I trust you and Bonnie and Katy, I'll try again. But my personal favorite is Write Away by Elizabeth George. I have so many tabs on the pages you can't see the edge of the book. She defines theme as "the basic truth about which you are writing ... the conflicts your characters engage in ... are reflections of the theme."

Again, this is a really great post, and it's generating great comments.

Patti Hill said...

Lori: I'm with you! Truby wins for clarity.

Bonnie: You've pointed out an important difference about Truby's book when you say that he uses stories that have stood the test of time as illustrations. He doesn't necessarily say, like some, that if you write this way your novel will break out.

Sharon: I LOVE Elizabeth George, too. Can you see why I'm befuddled?

Henrietta Frankensee said...

The theme of my book is, God loves things that we don't. As in Jonah and the Ninevites. That is probably our biggest quarrel with Him. Thanks Patti, I wouldn't have thought that clearly without your encouragement. I am unlikely to read any books on writing for a long time yet. Too immature to take instruction. I like it in smaller doses a la Novelmatters.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, thank you for the great post. I agree, Truby's definition is clearest, but I love what Stanley said, that every physical obsticle is rooted in the spiritual - probably because that resembles my personal worldview.

It may be possible to read too many books on writing, but I doubt I would stop even if I knew it was so.

Patti Hill said...

Henrietta: We're teachers at heart, so we're happy to oblige you. Besides, you give us more than we could ever share with you.

Katy: I've enjoyed reading Stanley very much. And he has a great blog, too.

Cherry Odelberg said...

That was quite helpful!