Friday, September 7, 2012

The Theme is Out There

I smiled when I read Katy’s Monday post about truth. My husband and I are currently watching through the X-Files TV series on Netflix. Mulder and Scully’s search for truth is fraught with lies which, when taken together, lead to truth. How is that possible?

Someone once said that truth is the version of events the majority agree upon.  Especially when it comes to murky events like history (Churchill famously said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”)

Fiction is about telling the truth via the valley of the shadow of lies.

So what sort of truth are we talking about here?

My dad loves to tell me that Louis L’Amour stories are accurate. “If, in one of his stories, he says there’s a rock in such and such a place, if you go to that place that rock will be there.”

Dad tells me this often, using the voice and posture of one truly impressed with L’Amour’s precision. It is, my dad seems to think, important not to mess up a good story by throwing rocks around willy-nilly.

Look around any bookstore and you’ll see heaps of fiction based on “actual events,” or “real history,” or “inspired by the author’s experience.” There’s something enticing about the story being real.

Real is true, but that doesn’t make it Truth.

When we talk about truth in fiction, what we mean is how affecting is the story’s ability to examine strings of small truths that lead up to the unveiling of a singular large truth?

This is theme at work.

As a story swims upstream to its end, the writer endeavors to explore as many facets and versions of the singular truth as possible within the limits of character and story.

Doesn’t that sound lovely?

So, if theme is the exploration of deep truth, why do writers struggle with theme? (And we all do)

In my journey from fly-by-my-pants to full-fledged planner, the one aspect of outlining I’ve resisted hardest has been writing a theme line. A single sentence that encapsulates the life-essence of the story I am creating.
It’s taken me years to surrender to the theme line. Why? At first, I thought it was because theme is supposed to be organic, something that springs out of my characters and their interactions.


Then, I was convinced that theme was too multifaceted to truly be captured in a sentence. After all, why write a whole novel about it if a single string of words does the trick?

Wrong again.

Recently, I discovered the true root of my resistance: theme lines read like clichés.

To quote a famous saying, writers are to avoid clichés like the plague.

Flee from them! Curse them. Expunge them from the sacred carvings.

So, when I sit my writer self in the chair and hammer up the scaffolding for my precious, profound story, writing a pithy theme line feels close to treason.

Insert Valium here.

Theme line is not an end unto itself. It’s a guidepost pointing to the ultimate large truth that lingers with the reader after they have finished the last page.

It is the meeting place for the moral conflict between characters.

It is the high bar the hero must clear (or fail to clear) in order to change from who he is at the beginning of the story.

Cliché though it may sound, a theme line is important (critical?) to your story.

There’s a pile of reasons why, but mostly it’s because the theme line encapsulates the Truth you desire to tell in your story. Without a clear vision of the central truth you wish to convey, you are in danger of writing a story that contains a cluster of small truths that lead the reader nowhere.

I’m working on two novels*. One is a complex story that includes time jumping. I’ve been thinking about this story for about 2 years. The theme line: Only when we accept our true self can we find peace.

Deceptively simple. Hedging close to the cliché line (if it doesn’t just stomp all over it), and it doesn’t begin to reveal the complexity of the story. But look what it does:

1)   Tells me where to start my main character reveal: she does not accept her true self. She’s hiding something specific from herself.
2)   Points toward the protag’s weakness and need.
3)   Guides me toward the ways in which my protag will act (especially the kinds of immoral actions she will take)
4)   Reveals the first point of attack by my opponent and by allies (a good ally will attack the protag out of love and a desire to fix the problem).
5)   Helps me develop all my other characters as variations of the same theme.
6)   Informs the unique method I will use to tell the story and reveal the hidden secrets in the plot.
7)   Gives me a moral ending to the story—something to prove or, in some cases, disprove. It tells me what my hero will learn at the end (to accept herself, and to stop lying to get what she wants)
When it comes to crafting your novel, the theme is in there, and getting it down on paper will help you get the truth out there.

*For interested parties, the theme line for the second novel I’m working on is still in process, but at this point in time it reads: Sometimes a great love must be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes, Bonnie. Yes. I'm beginning to see your point about converting from a pantser to a planner.

You win. I admit it.

Now, if you will please excuse me, I need to do some theme writing.

Thank you.

Patti Hill said...

Wonderful post, Bonnie. I think another reason we avoid theme is our high school experiences. We were given quite a different definition to work with, something like the broad truths of humanity. Man vs. nature. Man's inhumanity to man. The quest for self-identity. Okay. Yeah. But very impersonal and far too grand. Thanks for showing how theme shapes a story. Bravo!

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie, if your experience is anything like mine, it's not *me* that won you over, it's the treadmill of publication that did it.
The adage is: you have a lifetime to write your first novel, and six months to write your second.

Patti: A very good point--while all theme can be viewed from that great height, it isn't helpful in the writing process.
Now that you mention it, most of the struggle of creating a novel can be summed up by how well the writer was able to bring the story into sharp focus, not too high above so we miss the details, not so close so that we miss the point. You're so smart, Patti!

Debra E. Marvin said...

As a flagrant plotter and obsessive charter who tries to use about six different methods to do so (and just bought a new plotting book...) I am going to copy out your points about theme. (oooh, a list! lovely!)


no matter how much you plan and work on that plot and theme and hero's journey and moral premise, I have found I need to be waist deep in the character's lives before the true theme emerges. And then it's so obvious I cringe in case someone was watching my stupidity.

Zan Marie said...

You've nailed theme with this statement:

"Theme line is not an end unto itself. It’s a guidepost pointing to the ultimate large truth that lingers with the reader after they have finished the last page."

What a clear way to explain it. Thanks.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

6 months??? Ah, pooh biscuits. I'm behind.

Bonnie Grove said...

Debra: You gotta go with what works for you! Everyone is different, but I think the point is to get to that theme line at some point so you can emerge with a story that speaks Truth--whatever truth is.

Zan: Glad I could help. It's taken me years to be able to express it so plainly.

Susie: oops.

Kathleen Popa said...

Okay, Bonnie. Now I want to work on my theme line.

Pooh biscuits.

Unknown said...

I think you are an incredible writer. Honestly, I have not read any of your books yet. BIG Emphasis on the word yet! I happened upon your blog today while looking for tips on learning to write. The way you explain the writing process is so awesome. I was starting to get frustrated and wanted to give up. You have given me a renewed sense of interest. If your blogs are any reflection of how good your books are (I am sure they are) then I can't wait to get my hands on one. Again thanks for the writing tips and God Bless.

Joyce Magnin said...

Here's the thing, there is a difference between theme and premise.One is foggy, the other is rock solid. You say your theme is, "only when we accept our true self can we find peace." I would say that this is your premise, the notion, the point you have set out to prove (or disprove) through the telling of your story which may and probably will have many themes to explore as long as it all somehow leads to the proof of your premise.I would say the premise of the Wizard of OZ is that "There is no place like home, etc." but there are many themes within the story. Having a rock solid premise allows us to explore other themes inside the story. Just my thoughts.

Bonnie Grove said...

Katy: You still love me, though.

Rylee: A very big welcome to you! Thanks for joining this community of writers and readers. Very glad you're here.

Joyce:I think that totally works. Premise, theme--as long as you, the writer, know and label the tools you're using and use them in the way that works for your novel, then you are absolutely right.

In terms of theme, yes, there are several that are explored within a novel (smaller truths), but each of these themes identify and swim toward the central theme of the novel.

I think you and I are speaking the same language, just a different dialect. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, I know people will be inspired by them!