Theme Through Intent

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently, I spoke at a local book club. The readers posed interesting questions about my life as a writer, but I also learned a few things from them. For example, the special needs teacher said her students are “unable to visualize movies in their head” like we do when we read. This deviance stems from all the visual images presented to us through TV, movies, video games and such. These young people haven’t developed the ability to imagine beyond the words on the page.

This statement took me aback. I understand that not everyone likes reading fiction, and it’s a gift when words on a page transport you to another place in your mind, but I never realized some people can’t see beyond the actual words themselves. If this deficit is allowed to grow, we’ll lose generations of readers to literal translation.

Another book club member, an English teacher, had this to say:

“On our tests, students are given a passage to read and then asked to explain the author’s intent. I once asked an author if they knew the theme of their story before they wrote it, and their answer was no. They write the story as it comes. How about you?”

“My intent is to entertain,” I said. “That’s it. I want to give my readers a few hours of escape from their mundane routine and all the bad news out there. My goal is to write a fast-paced story that captures their attention.”

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And this is true. I’ve had a writer friend who is a literature professor look at my work and find all sorts of symbolism. Excuse me? I had no idea it was there. Must have been subconscious. I do not set out to sprinkle meaningful symbols related to a theme into my story content. I just write the book.

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However, I do know what life lesson my main character has to learn by the end of the story. This is essential for character growth and makes your fictional people seem more real. Usually, I include this emotional realization in my synopsis or plotting notes. It doesn’t always turn out the way I’d planned. Sometimes, this insight evolves differently as I write the story. Or maybe a secondary character has a lesson to learn this time around.

For example, in the book I just finished, I have a couple of paragraphs in my notes under the heading, “What does Marla learn?” Now maybe these lessons could be construed as the book’s theme, but I did not consult these going forward to write the story. To be so analytical would have stopped me dead. Fine arts grad students can pay attention to these details, but I have to write the book as it unfolds. So did I meet the intent that I’d originally set out for my character? Yes, in some respects I covered those points. But do they constitute the main theme of my work? Only my readers will be able to tell me the answer to that question. I can’t see it for myself.

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How about you? Do you deliberately devise a theme and the symbolism to support it before writing the story, or does it evolve from the storytelling itself? How do you even tell if a theme is present? Or is it the same as the life lesson learned by one of the characters?

Note: I have a Contest going to celebrate the release of Hair Raiser, #2 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. This title had been originally published by Kensington and is now available in a revised and updated Author’s Edition. Enter to win a signed hardcover copy of Shear Murder and a $10 Starbucks gift card. http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest
 

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Reader Friday: Are Messages Poison?

“I try very hard to stay away from the word ‘message,’ because I think it’s poison in fiction. I think you tell your story and then the reader gets to decide what he or she will learn from your story. And if they don’t want to learn anything from it, that’s their choice.” – Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge To Terabithia, in an interview on NPR


Agree or disagree?

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Do You Know What You Want to Say?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


“If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” – Samuel Goldwyn
Do you send a message in your fiction? Nothing wrong with that. You can’t read Atlas Shruggedor On The Road or To Kill A Mockingbird without picking up that the writers had something on their minds that drove them in the writing. And each of those books still sell tens of thousands of copies per year.
But good old Sam Goldwyn knew that if you get too didactic, the story suffers. You have to let the characters live and breathe and act like real people in response to the story elements. You don’t want to manipulate them so much that the reader thinks you’ve moved from storytelling to sermonizing.
Still, at the end of any book or story, an author will have left something for the reader to think about. It can’t be helped. That’s the nature of story.
Which bring us to Theme.  Theme (or as I call it, Meaning) is the “big idea.” It is what emerges once the central conflict is resolved. The famous writing teacher William Foster-Harris believed that all great stories could be explained in a “moral formula,” the struggle between sets of values:
Value 1 vs. Value 2 => Outcome.
You plug in your values thus:
            Love vs. Ambition => Love.
In other words, the value of love overcomes in the struggle against ambition. If one were writing a tragedy, the outcome would be the opposite, with ambition winning, but at the cost of lost love.
Writing teacher Lajos Egri posed a similar idea in The Art of Dramatic Writing. He called it the “Premise.” It is expressed in a moral formula as well, as in Justice overcomes deceit.
The question today, writer, is whether you are being intentional about your theme.
Not all writers know their theme when they start writing. They have characters and a plot idea, and they let the writing unfold as it will. They may not think about theme at all. They may simply write about characters involved in the struggle of the plot, knowing that struggle will eventually end. Most of the time that’s how I approach it in my own writing. But I do, at some point, identify what it is my emerging story is trying to say—because, of course, it’s really mein there somewhere.
But even writers who say they never think about theme end up saying something. It can’t be helped. All stories have meaning, whether the author is purposeful about it or not. Why? Because readers are wired for it. We are always looking for meaning, trying to make sense of the world. Indeed, one of the reasons we have storytellers is to help our fellow creatures through the mythical dark forest, otherwise known as life.
Perhaps, then, it would be wise to be a little more conscious of your theme. Whether you start out with one or find it along the way, try to identify the unifying message. Then you can go back in the revision process and weave symbols, metaphors and thematic dialogue into the tale.
It also helps to know your theme in case you get questions. I wrote a short story that stoked some controversy among a section of my reader base. I got a few emails, and one consternated face-to-face query, asking why I wrote such a disturbing and eerie tale.  
I responded that I was actually trying to write a profoundly moral tale. One that had a very clear meaning (to me, at least). I shaped the plot precisely to be disturbing (think Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents)  because the theme would not be as powerfully presented otherwise.
I would be very interested in seeing if you find the meaning I intended. That’s why I’ve made the story, “Autumnal,” free on Kindle today through Wednesday. I’d love it if you got it, read it, and told me via Twitter what you think the meaning is. Use #Autumnal for the discussion.
As for you, dear author, talk about this in the comments: Do you know what you want to say when you start a story? Are you a “theme-first” kind of writer? Or do you prefer to let the characters duke it out and leave it at that?

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What the Hell Do You Want to Say to Me?

You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation. – Leon Uris
This week I’ll be leaving for Houston to teach alongside the mythic structure guru, Christopher Vogler, and the breakout novel sage, Donald Maass. Three intensive days with a room full of writers, talking about what we all love–the craft of fiction.
So it seems apt for this post to riff on a question that Mr. Maass poses at the end of his book, The Fire in Fiction.Maass wants to know what you have invested in your story, where the blood flow is. He asks, “What the hell do you want to say to me?”
Which brings us to the subject of theme, or premise. It’s the part of the writing craft a lot of writers seem to struggle with.
I’ve been reading some resources of late on the subject. Some suggest that you must know your theme up front, or your manuscript will wander. Yet many successful authors say they concentrate on the story itself and “find” the theme as they go along.
Either approach will work as long as you let the theme arise organically out of a plot that shows a character with a high stakes objective, opposed by a stronger force.
For example, in the film The Fugitive you have an innocent man on the run from the law, trying to find the man who murdered his wife. He’s got an opposing force in the U.S. Marshal’s office (embodied by Sam Gerard, super lawman). Forced to keep ahead of the law, Dr. Richard Kimble finds resources within himself he never knew existed, and eventually proves his innocence while nailing the bad guy.


So what is the theme, or premise, of The Fugitive? You could state it in several ways:
– Dogged determination leads to justice
– A good man will ultimately prevail over evil
– Fighting for what’s right, even against the law, leads to the truth
As a writer, you probably have a sense of what your theme is simply by knowing how your character will come out at the end. And you definitely should know at least that much.
For example, when I wrote Try Dying I knew my lawyer protagonist would find out who killed his fiancé, the one true love of his life, and in doing so prevail over the bad guys. In my head, then, I was thinking something along the lines of True love will pursue justice for the slain lover, and win.
That’s what the hell I was trying to say. And I believed it passionately, which is the key to a premise that works. The reader has to believe you believe it.
At some point in your writing –– before you begin or soon after you get going –– ask the following questions:
1.  At the end, what is the condition of your Lead character? Has he won or lost?
2. What is the “take away” from that condition? What will the reader think you are saying about life?
3. Most important: Do you believe it passionately?If not, why are you writing it?
Here’s an example. In Casablanca, what is Rick’s condition at the end of the movie? He has found a reason to stop his self destructive behavior (drunkenness) and his isolation (because of perceived betrayal). He’s found the inspiration he needs to go back into the world and rejoin the fight for freedom against the Nazis.
What’s the take away? True love will sacrifice for a greater good, and restore a person to a life worth living.

Rick sacrifices his true love, Ilsa, because she is married to another man and that man is essential to the war effort. Rick knows that if he and Ilsa go off together she’ll regret it (“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”)
Coming as it did during the early years of World War II, it’s clear the filmmakers believed this passionately, because that sort of sacrifice for a greater good is what the government was calling upon its citizens to do.
So use those three power questions to find a premise worth writing about.
How about you? Do you consciously identify the themes in your stories? Do you discover them as you go along? Or do you just let it happen as the characters determine?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in detail, as I am currently working on a chapter on theme for a new collection. Let’s have a conversation. 

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One Plus One Equals Three

James Scott Bell

Joe’s recent post about theme put in mind this quote from The Boss:

“I’ve always believed the greatest rock and roll musicians are desperate men. You’ve got to have something bothering you all the time. My songs are good because … it’s like in art and love, hey, one and one makes three. In music, if it makes two, you’ve failed, my friends. You know, if you’re painting, if all you’ve got is your paint and your canvas, you’ve failed. If all you got is your notes, you’ve failed. You’ve got to find that third thing that you don’t completely understand, but that is truly coming up from inside of you. And you can set it any place, you can choose any type of character, but if you don’t reach down and touch that thing, then you’re just not gonna have anything to say, and it’s not gonna feel like it has life and breath in it, you’re not gonna create something real, and it’s not gonna feel authentic. So I worked hard on those things.” – Bruce Springsteen
We need to get that. Your book, if it’s going to go anywhere, has to be about more than what it is about. It has to dig deep somewhere, so the readers think there’s a “there” there, something the author really cares about.
An “inner ferret,” as grandmaster thriller author David Morrell puts it. Others might call it heart. Still others, like the late great Red Smith, say, “Just open a vein.”
But your novel should be something that moves your insides around.
How do you find it?
Start making a list. Make a list of things that bother you, that get your juices flowing. I often ask writing students what is something that would make them throw a chair out the window? Write about that thing. Put that feeling inside your Lead character.
Or make a list of memories that are vivid to you. Why are they vivid? Because your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Find that thing.
Ray Bradbury started making a list of nouns of remembrance when he was young. He came up with nouns like THE LAKE, THE CRICKETS, THE SKELETON, THE NIGHT, and so on. Each one of these referred to something from his childhood. He went into those memories and mined them for stories.
Childhood fears seem to play a big role not only for Bradbury, but also King and Koontz. Figuring out why justice is worth going for in a world that seems dead set against it animates Michael Connelly . . . and me. That seems to be a consistent thread throughout my novels.
Maybe that’s because I was brought up by a dad who was an L.A. lawyer who often represented the poor accused of crimes. He had a passion for the Constitution and criminal justice. I guess I absorbed that.
So what about you? Is there some “inner ferret” that drives your writing? What equals three for you?
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Thinking about Theme

theme (Small) We often discuss the different elements of writing fiction here at TKZ. Topics such as plot, narration, characterization, dialog, and point of view are just a few that come up now and then. But a topic that’s not touched on as often is theme. Theme is usually a global statement on what a book is about. Theme goes beyond plot by conveying the message that supports the structure of the story. In many instances, it expresses a lofty idea usually revolving around human emotions or life in general.

A good starting point in determining a book’s theme is to first establish its subject or topic. This is normally expressed in a one-word description such as love, revenge, jealousy, fear, deceit, betrayal, etc. The theme can then be found by turning the subject or topic into a short, focused statement.

So for instance, if the subject of a novel is fear, the theme could be fear exposes the true nature of an individual. If the subject is revenge, the theme could be by taking revenge, you become just like your enemy. If the topic is betrayal, the theme might be that betrayal only hurts the ones you love.

A book’s theme can teach or preach. The former is preferred. No one wants to be preached to. But we all desire to build upon or confirm our beliefs. The theme can address “big” issues such as the meaning of life. Or something more manageable like crime doesn’t pay.

Whatever the theme, all stories have them. How well they come across without being “in your face” relies on the skill of the author.

What is the subject or topic of your favorite book(s)? And what was the theme? Did you feel the writer was teaching or preaching? How about your own work? Do you knowingly have a theme before you start writing?

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