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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Got Theme?

Recently in my role as TKZ admin and self-appointed den mother, I noticed that we were getting a lot of traffic related to the topic of “developing a theme in fiction writing.” Since searches for that topic take people to an article I wrote back in 2009, I think it makes sense to revisit the subject of theme.


A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is authority versus chaos.

Theme vs. Subject 
We should not confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” Joe Moore wrote an excellent post a while back about how to distinguish between a story’s subject and its theme.

Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought. But having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension and depth to our stories.

Using a character-driven approach to develop a theme

I like to use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of A KILLER WORKOUT was “Mean Girls Suffer Last”. That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

What’s your theme?

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?

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