Theme

Why do you write? Is it because it’s fun? Is it because you want to make money? Do you want to be famous, with lines of people waiting to get your signature on their hardcover edition of your novel?

I write because I have something to say.

Writing because it’s fun is a waste of time. Writing because you want to get rich and famous is irrational. To write well, you must write with a satisfactory purpose. This is where theme enters the stage. Theme is the underlying topic of your story. It’s your personal message to the reader. When the reader turns the last page, they’ll be forced to think about your theme and its implications. Novels worth their word count will leave an imprint on the mind of the reader through the theme.

But first: why do you need a theme in your story? Can’t it just be entertaining? Novels that lack a definable theme are not worth the time they take to read. They are like a huge pile of marshmallow fluff: tasty, sweet, and completely unsatisfying. Unless you want to write a forgettable story that only serves to dull the mind of the reader, please include a theme.

Stories that contain a strong theme are always thought-provoking and meaningful. Unfortunately, poor literature and films have given themes a bad name. These stories contain themes that are thought-provoking and worthy–but they aren’t delivered correctly. The themes are shoved at the audience and often include some type of altar-call, creating a preachy effect where the audience is left gagging at the message that was forced down their throats.

So how do you include a theme without being preachy?

The theme needs to be subtle enough to disallow a sententious story-line, but clear enough to force the reader to think. It sounds more complicated than it is. To keep from delivering a preachy theme, don’t include any obvious challenge to the reader. Don’t explicitly state your theme, or include a paragraph of prose or character dialogue praising it. To convey a clear theme, do make the story revolve in some way around the theme. Do allow the theme to affect the characters and their transformation arcs.

As a writer, you walk a fine line between entertaining and challenging. Themes must be dealt with subtly, or the reader will set down the book in irritation at the sermons. My favorite way of developing theme is through characters. You can expose the theme through their actions, reactions, dialogue, and the way they view the world. For example, if your theme is courage, you can display the theme in the journey of a cowardly character who learns to be brave. A theme can be displayed through a character’s value as well.

Theme can also be portrayed through plot. Like I stated before, your plot should revolve in some visible way around the theme. If you’re writing a theme of friendship, you should probably include a point of conflict in your plot where the value of friendship is demonstrated (through conflict, contrast, etc). My novel Virago is centered around a few themes: honesty, sacrifice, and love. The main conflict in the plot comes from a character’s dishonesty. Through the revelation of the character’s lies, the heroine learns how much her family sacrificed to keep her safe–and thus learned that love is worth the sacrifice.

If you’re having trouble thinking of a theme on your own, here’s a list of commonly used themes to prompt your imagination.

Coming of age

Compassion (vs apathy)

Courage

Faith

Friendship

Honor

Hope

Human nature

Humility (vs pride)

Illusion of control

Independence

Justice

Knowledge (vs ignorance)

Love

Loyalty

Pain of war

Peace

Political (capitalism, socialism, fascism, etc)

Power

Power of words

Self-awareness

Seven deadly sins (avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, wrath)

Talent

True beauty

Unpredictability of the future

When picking your theme, choose one that means something to you–your passion will seep between the lines and bring the values to life. Remember to keep it subtle, but clear.

You have something to say, so say it.

To Plot or Not to Plot (Part Two)

In Part One, we examined the 5 main types of plot: Classic, Flash-Back, Flash-Forward, Parallel, and Episodic. Now we’ll analyze the events in a story according to Freytag’s Pyramid.

Before Gustav Freytag produced his Pyramid, Aristotle birthed the idea. He put forth the idea of a plot as a three-part structure, with a beginning, middle and end. Horace, a Roman drama critic, disagreed, and brought up his thoughts on structure (“A play should not be longer or shorter than five acts”). Though they disagreed on the specifics, both of these men believed in a core plot structure of multiple acts. In other words, they put stock in the idea of a story with multiple major divisions. Let’s skip ahead, to Freytag. In reviewing older drama, he formulated the idea behind Freytag’s Pyramid. At its core, this structure revolves around five acts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Here’s something you may not have have been taught in literature class: Freytag originally intended for his five-act structure to be applied only to Shakespearean and ancient Greek dramas. So why is it so commonly used today? Because it works. Freytag’s Pyramid is the basic, bare-bones structure of most stories, and it provides a logical formula.

https://i1.wp.com/iws2.collin.edu/mtolleson/2332/freytag.gif

It begins with exposition. Here, you expose characters and setting, and introduce the theme. Readers catch a glimpse of the main character’s normal world before being thrust into the action.

Then, rising action begins to pump up pressure. The actions become more complicated, and the plot moves towards a breaking point. In the rising action, the job of the writer is to build tension with every scene.

The climax is the moment of greatest conflict–who will win? This is the breaking point, the moment the tension of the rising action built up, little by little. It is generally a turning point, where the main character’s fate is changed (for better or worse is at the writer’s discretion).

The tension between the main character and the villain unfolds during the falling action. This part contains a final moment of suspense, the showdown between villain and hero, where one or the other wins definitively.

Denouement is the French word for “untying.” Here, the writer wraps up the plot and finishes the conflict. The main character returns to the normal world, and the tension is released like air from a balloon.

For some, Freytag’s Pyramid is all they need to plot. For others, it’s too broad. I recommend beginning with the basics–map out your novel using this formula. It will allow you to begin with a middle ground: not too much plot, but not too little, either. If you found it too specific to work with, plot less. If you realized you needed to have more planned out, write a more detailed outline. I’ve tried a few different strict outlines, one of them being the One Year Novel curriculum, and I’ve tried writing freestyle, and while they worked, they didn’t feel right for my personal style. Thus, I developed my own three-act formula. It’s lengthy and detailed, but it works for me. You might need to try out a few different plot methods before you find your own sweet spot, and that’s alright.

I structure my novels into three acts: beginning, middle, and end. Every act has its own story arc, for which I use Freytag’s Pyramid, but there is always a specific goal for each act.

In Act One, the hero must be forced to accept the story goal. Act Two centers around the bulk of action and tension as the hero struggles to complete the story goal, discovering its worth and what s/he must sacrifice to achieve it, and it ends with the moment of ultimate defeat. The beginning of Act Three is dedicated to renewing the hero’s resolve to fight for the story goal, and the climax is the climax of the entire novel, the showdown between hero and villain.

I start with an outline, where I describe the exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action of every Act in one sentence. Once I have a broad plot, I go into details like subplots and character arcs. Then I divide the action into chapters, and then into scenes. (Yes, I actually plan out most of the scenes.)

But because I’m one of those irritating people who like to plan everything, it gets more detailed. I have trouble making scenes cause each other (like falling dominoes) in my novels, so I make lists of my ‘domino scenes.’ These scenes include (but are not limited to) the inciting moment, the scene where the hero accepts the story goal, plot twists, the moment of defeat (when the villain has the hero all but beaten), and the final confrontation between villain and hero. I look at the causes and effects, and work them into the plot.

You’re probably wide-eyed and horrified at my plotting methods. (She actually does all that?) Your plotting depends on you. Some people have only a vague idea before diving in. Others (like me), have everything planned on a color-coded story map. It might take a while to find your method. Try new things. Trial and error works, painful though it may be.

No one has the perfect formula for the perfect story. As much as I’d love to believe my plotting method would work for everyone, it wouldn’t–many (if not most) people would be driven mad by the amount of research and pre-planning I put into my stories. If you haven’t found your sweet spot, do your research. Look up different methods, and see what works for you and what doesn’t.

To Plot or Not to Plot (Part One)

Most young writers I know laugh at the idea of plotting their stories. For some of them, it works, but most “pansters” I’ve known have ended up in a rut by the middle of their story. When I began writing, I started working on a novel that I hadn’t plotted. I was fifty thousand words in before I realized that my novel lacked something: plot. Sure, things happened, but it was more of a diary of day-to-day life with a random disaster here and there. Plot is necessary to your story. If you are one of those blessed people who can finish a readable draft without a plot, consider yourself lucky, and move on. But everyone else, keep reading.

First: what is plot? My favorite definition (and the one I consider most accurate) is “The pattern of events or main story in a narrative or drama.” It’s not just a series of random happenings, it’s a pattern, a formula. In most stories, the basic plot method can be traced back to one of five: classic, flash-back, flash-forward, parallel, or episodic (sometimes even a mixture).

1. Classic

The classic plot is the most widely used. It follows Freytag’s Pyramid closely, and the plot advances in a chronological fashion. This is the simplest of the plot formulas.

2. Flash-back

The Flash-back formula involves frequent flash-backs to a period before the plot. Here’s the danger with this method: most readers prefer the story events to occur chronologically (hence, the classic plot is the most common). Constantly throwing your audience out of the action will confuse and frustrate them. If you use flash-backs, use caution. There are a few things to remember when you’re writing a flash-back scene: 1) it shouldn’t be there just to feed your reader information, 2) it shouldn’t take away from the suspense of the chronological story, and 3) it should be clearly identifiable as a flash-back–if your readers have to put the book down to think about what the scene is, there’s a problem.

3. Flash-forward

Flash-forward scenes are quite similar to flash-backs, except they reverse the jump through time. They are just as tricky, and almost as cliched. When writing a flash-forward, you must keep in mind the same necessities for a flash-black (purpose, suspense, and clarity). Perhaps the most important thing to remember when writing a flash-forward is purpose. I’ve read too many novels that open with a flash-forward to the climax. It’s a cliched and overrated method of hooking readers.

4. Parallel

A parallel plot revolves around two separate characters, each moving through their own story. Their stories may collide at some point in the plot, but they don’t have to come together. Parallel plots, when executed correctly, contain an element all of their own. They tell not one story, but two, giving authors a chance to cement the theme.

5. Episodic

This is the plot method you want to avoid. The episodic plot is just a series of unconnected events. It generally lacks a defining story goal, climax and resolution. Unless you’re writing a collection of short stories about one character, stay away from episodic formulas.

Each of these methods center around an idea ingrained into storytelling: Freytag’s Pyramid. In Part Two, I’ll analyze Freytag’s Pyramid and share my own plotting formulas.