Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Keeping the Theme Alive

This month, for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog, I was in charge of the question. And it was:

Does each book/story you write have an overarching theme, and if so, do you think of it ahead of time or discover it after?

Lydia answered this question last week, and Laura took the plunge the week before that.

I'll give my answer by telling you about the project that's most on my mind at the moment. My MC for this work, Lela, has a friend who commits suicide. Lela becomes aware her friend is not resting in peace. In fact, her friend is in a terrible place, and she is suffering. So when Lela has the chance to go find her friend and rescue her, she feels compelled to do so. Later, she questions if she was manipulated into making that choice and even wonders if she was chosen to go through what she does in the story.

And that's the theme of the book: the tension between choosing and being chosen, between what's thrown at you and what you do with it, between being a victim and being an active agent in your own fate, between destiny and free will.

I'm fascinated by choice. I work with folks who feel stuck, who feel forced into things, and we discuss the fact that there's almost always a choice. THAT DOESN'T MEAN THERE'S ALWAYS A GOOD CHOICE. Sometimes you have to choose among a bunch of utterly crappy options.

Think of it this way. You're walking down a road, and a giant brick wall descends from the sky and lands in front of you, blocking the path. What do you do? Your answer will depend on who you are, your past experiences with challenges of this type, why you're walking down that road (and what you're walking away from), and what you believe awaits you at the end of it. You may not have chosen to have a brick wall land in front of you, but you sure as heck have a choice about how you respond to it (whether it feels like it or not).

I know that all books are, to a large extent, about the choices the MC makes. But what I'm talking about is the question of whether there is a choice or not, of whether destiny and fate exist, and if so, what's the role of choice in that equation?

I didn't come up with this theme in advance (nor is it the only theme for this story), but it will guide the series I hope to create based on this first book. If I have to make revisions to this current ms, I do it with this theme firmly in mind. I believe it gives the story greater depth, gives my characters something to wrestle with and grow within, and helps me stay coherent and focused as a writer.

I don't think of theme first. It evolves as the story unfolds. But once it's there and it's clear, it becomes central to how the story develops, in addition to being the thread that connects the final story to its origins.

How about you? What's your answer to this question? Do you deal in themes, or are they purely happy accidents in your writing?

For those of you who haven't yet entered, there's still time to participate in my first ever blog contest. All you have to do is tell me what you see in the inkblot! It's easy! And you could win something! Something FANTASTIC.

22 comments:

  1. My protagonist in my novel is at a crossroad in her life. She's middle-aged and wants to leave her emotionally abusive marriage. Though she's made the choice in her mind, she has to find the courage to actually do it. Her fear is more real than reality.

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  2. I do a lot of preplanning before I write my novels, and having an idea what the theme is plays a part in this. It might change during the first draft, when I realize there's a bigger theme that I hadn't seen there before. But the previous theme will still play an important part of the story.

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  3. It's funny because I'll have the plot all planned out before writing, but I'll be surprised at the theme as it surfaces in the first draft. You'd think that those two would coincide and I'd have them both figured out ahead of time, but I don't.

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  4. That theme is so great. I love it when you see how much of your own life could be reflected in the theme--it really gives it extra punch.

    Great post!

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  5. Wow, I love the themes that have come out in your novel!

    This was an awesome question and I really enjoyed reading your response.

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  6. Sometimes I'll have an inkling of the theme ahead of time, but it usually doesn't clarify entirely until after the first draft. Then part of editing is making sure I bring out the theme throughout the story.

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  7. I'm with Stina (second time my comment's started this way today), theme came up in preplanning so I could choose settings that incorporated it, but as with everything in the first draft, nothing's written in stone.
    - Sophia.

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  8. hee hee hee. free will is something that i love discussing... but it's usually in a religious context... but i LOVE that it is a theme in your story!
    anyway, i'm not sure about the themes in any of my stories... so far, i've never really done much plotting or planning... so... i guess, supposing i have themes, they come organically. eeks!

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  9. what a great theme! I haven't thought much about this but I guess an overall theme would be accepting who you are and in some cases making an effort to be the best person you can be.

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  10. I guess I did a little of both. I wanted to write a book with an inspirational female hero as a way to illustrate courage and strength coming from places we don't always expect. That became the theme of the ms, even though I just sat down one day and started writing. But I didn't really say to myself "do this to illustrate the theme" it just arose from where I ended up taking the story. But that theme is something that appears in all the work I do, to an extent, so I guess that is what fascinates me : courage and how people have it and use it.

    Your theme sounds great. I would definitely want to read more.

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  11. I usually have an overriding theme, but the door is always open for change as the story progresses. I'll begin writing and think I know my characters inside and out; but it usually happens that they teach me a thing or two and I have to shift course. :)

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  12. I usually see a specific scene or two first. Almost never are they contiguous scenes, so then I spend time making the arch so that they either fit together, or I become certain that these are from different stories.

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  13. I did a blog post about this recently (no seriously, I did). I didn't even think my wip had a theme until I went back to do some editing. I am about 30% through the first draft and, much to my surprise, I am almost drowning in themes.

    Not so big surprise: The themes are all related to issues I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the last year.

    So while I was surprised to find themes in what was supposed to be a frothy fun story, I wasn't all that surprised by what the themes turned out to be.

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  14. I had a hint of a rumor of a notion of what I wanted the theme to be, or at least the main theme, but it had to figure out how to reveal itself as the thing progressed.

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  15. I think because I was an elementary school teacher I still think the same way. Everything I write has some sort of a lesson in it. Sometimes it has a surprise lesson in the story that I hadn't planned for though.

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  16. I usually come up with characters first, so yes, theme is what drives their actions. After I figure out what I want the main character's journey to be about in terms of theme, I brainstorm premises to match it with. LOVE this part of the process :)

    By the way, your book sounds AMAZEBALLS.

    That is all...

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  17. Ah, cool post Sarah. I think my writing is a combo of planning these things and the characters walking into them. The themes, that is. I'm very into symbolism and it's hard for me not to see that in everything so I tend to focus more on the big picture and themes than I should sometimes - at least in the beginning. For example, FATUM is very much about identity (how it is formed or on the flip side - warped in the face of unique or unpleasant circumstances), what-if's and redemption. . .but that wasn't what it started out as. It started out with the characters, their situation and how they were going to hurdle the problems and then the overarching themes developed.

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  18. I'm like you. I don't think of the theme first. It kinda comes to me as I develop the story.

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  19. My themes were always a happy accident until my current WIP. I decided ahead of time what my theme was going to be (though the idea still dictated it really). So we'll see what happens as I write. Will it change? IDK

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  20. "...between being a victim and being an active agent in your own fate, between destiny and free will."

    Love those kinds of choices. And your WIP has a really cool premise.

    My current WIP is about finding truth and trusting instincts. Is it more important to dig for truths that may unravel life as you know it or should you keep the house of cards upright?

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  21. I find that when I attempt to write toward a theme I have noticed is emerging, I screw it all up. The less I try to control it, the more naturally it seems to pop up.

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  22. When I start writing I never have a specific theme in mind, but it becomes clear to me from the writing before the end. I begin with a character and one or two scenes that I have been playing over in my mind. As the story developes I can see the theme clearly and looking back it usually fits with my premise and need to write the story.

    Great post and awesome answer to your own theme question

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