Thursday, 17 September 2015

Finding your novel's theme (FOW15 Diaries)

Julie Cohen is a great author, a wonderfully bubbly lady and she runs fantastic writing workshops. My last two York festivals, I've attended her Learning story structure from Pixar and Character sessions and got an awful lot out of them.

This year, I put myself down for another one - Finding your Novel's Theme - which was held on Severus Snape Sunday. Why Severus Snape Sunday? Because Julie decreed it so.

Anyway... theme. I can't say it's something I think about consciously up front, but apparently there are people who do - which makes me a discovery writer (pantser!) rather than an analytical one (planner!).

So what is theme? Well, it's the emotional core of your book... The question you're asking... The main abstract idea you're exploring... The problem you keep returning to... The pivot on which your book turns... The cakeness of your cake.

Sorry, have I lost you on that last one? Let me explain - Julie also recommended we look up one of Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog post about theme, which uses the analogy of CAKE (among other things) to understand theme. Chuck wrote;

'In cake, every piece is a microcosm of the whole. A slice contains frosting, cake, filling. Okay, that’s not entirely true — sometimes you get a piece of cake where you get something other pieces don’t get, like a fondant rose, but really, let’s be honest, fondant tastes like sugary b***hole. Nasty stuff. So, let’s disregard that and go back to the original notion: all pieces of cake contain the essence of that cake. So it is with your story: all pieces of the story contain the essence of that story, and the essence of that story is the theme. The theme is cake, frosting, filling. In every slice you cut. Man, now I really want a piece of cake.'

(To see the rest of Chuck's post, follow this link.)

Sounds simple, doesn't it? The emotional core of your book., if you're like me and you don't start with a theme up front, how the heck do you figure it out so that every single morsel of story contains that essential essence? Does it fall into place naturally or do you have to work at it?

In already published novels, the covers will often hint at the theme - Julie's own novel, Dear Thing, is based on parenthood, reflected by a cover picturing baby shoes. Great for hinting at the reader what they might be getting. But for those of us still working on unpublished stories? Who can't use visual clues?

Well, THAT was the focus of the workshop - we had to find our own novel's theme.

Julie suggested looking at several things;
1. The main character's conflicts and desires
2. The premise of the story
3. The title and/or the first line
4. The main emotions
5. The idea or problem that as a writer, you are exploring
6. The resolution.

I tried it out with King Stone...and came to the conclusion that its central theme is 'doing the right thing'. Which sounds a little clumsy when you consider themes cover such huge issues as sacrifice, abandonment, loss, justice, identity, 'there's no place like home' and the like.

Incidentally - there was another 'doing the right thing' theme in the group, but as Julie pointed out, they would be totally different stories because as authors, we approach the theme from different directions and may choose to focus on different genres.

So, having found the theme, we moved onto a mind-map to explore it further. Here's mine:

Which gave rise to one of my favourite quotes of the weekend; 'How far you take this depends on how far you want to procrastinate.'

So with all these ideas now in the bag, how do you use them in your novel? Well, you could select subplots, using a 'branch' that is separate to your main character's branch. The central theme is reflected, but the subplot is distinctly different. You could design secondary characters to work with or against your MC. You can refine character conflicts. You could even choose your setting - in Julie's case, her parenthood theme led her to schools, hospitals, school playgrounds, antenatal classes, maternity shops and infertility clinics...all related, yet all distinctly separate.

Getting the drift?

I was surprised to see how much of my theme had subconsciously seeped into what I'd already written of King Stone; somewhere along the line, I must've given in to gut feeling and gone with where the story was heading. And as a pantser, I wonder whether that's preferable to trying to plan too much? (Although I think King Stone has been planned more than any other novel I've attempted to write, so maybe I'm moving towards a mix of the two?)

It's an interesting exercise that, having done it, I'm sure I'm going to be able to use to enrich King Stone. I can certainly see how my mind-map works for minor characters as well as main ones... And if it works for King Stone, who knows? My next WIP might start with theme rather than stumbling upon it halfway through the story.

So huge thanks again to Julie for another useful tool to go in my writer's toolkit.

And completely off-topic, I was delighted to see that Lego Hannibal (Lector), who travels everywhere with Julie, also made it to York!

Perhaps I should've introduced him to a few of the Lego peeps from the Squidge household? Next year, maybe...

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