Posted by: cmegge00 | September 3, 2014

Theme

Definition and thoughts.
The dictionary definition applicable to writers is, “a type of discourse.” Usually it’s discourse about generally agreed upon universal truths—moral truths. Some people question whether novels must have any position on morals. According to Megan Kerans on the Wild Rose Greenhouse blog, some people accuse romance novels of being “silly, frivolous, or even meaningless.” Of course it’s not true. If a novel has conflict it has moral positions about that conflict, whether the writer explicitly states them, or the reader imagines them in his mind following the action and dialogue.
It’s almost a duty to make your themes clear to the reader. British writer Richard Hughes said, “Do your bit to save humanity from lapsing back into barbarity by reading all the novels you can.” I take that to mean that as writers, we must provide the thinking material that saves humanity. If you are a good writer it doesn’t have to be dull or heavy or preachy at all. It can be dramatic, serious, fun, comedic, slow or fast, but it must be emotional.
Megan Kerans also says, “How a character feels about theme, which relates to their goal, taps into their emotions and influences their actions.” It’s the emotion aroused in the reader that makes a story good, well written, memorable. Walt Disney said, “If I can’t find a theme, I can’t make a film anyone else will feel.”
Consider this. How many times have you heard that, just as all characters in our dreams express a part of our unique unconscious nature including morals, all characters in our novels express a part of our nature, albeit more consciously chosen. This means that any meaning, any influence on a reader, results directly from the words the author chose, either consciously or unconsciously. Any author’s work is judged solely for itself, solely from the reader’s moral viewpoint. It’s up to the reader to decide what disgusts them, makes them uneasy, or what they admire, what satisfies them. Throw the book out if you don’t like it. (Once I took a book back to Barnes and Noble because I found it a blatant assumption that all people of a particular religion were evil. I even wrote the publisher and told him so.)
On the other hand, if you like how the protagonist changed, or how the villain was destroyed or changed for the better, or how the world of the characters was changed, go for it, read the whole thing and pass it on to others. You can like a book for other than moral reasons too, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Easy way.
By the end of your novel, the reader will know what your moral attitudes are. At least, the attitudes of your characters, and how that affects their decisions, their dialogue and their actions. The reader will know how the results of their decisions changes things. The reader will know the implications of the conclusion, HEA or not. If you as the writer are not sure what you have conveyed, you can go back and add a sentence here or there to make a character’s attitudes clear during revision. You don’t have to come right out and say it, as, “Joe is a mean guy.” You could illustrate it by having a character say, “Joe spanks his kid so hard he gets bruises.” You could have Joe do something mean, and then justify it to another character. You could have your hero/heroine stop Joe in the midst of spanking his child. And so on. Layering in sentences here and there as you revise is the easy way to make your themes clear.

Hard way.
Starting from scratch is harder. Martha Alderson in The Plot Whisperer says, “A story is about a character transforming her weaknesses into strengths.” If you start with a character you have to choose his/her internal weaknesses (conflict); weaknesses provide themes of self-love or self-hate, fear, bravery, cowardice, selfishness, desire, etc. Relationships between characters provide possible themes of love, hate, revenge, duty, loyalty, ambition, etc. Then put your characters in a setting which will provide external conflict. The setting can be the whole world with all of its possibilities of war, power, nature, climate change, freedom etc. The setting can also be very small and narrow, provided you give enough details. For example, a small town, a hospital emergency room or a mobile home park can hold a wealth of moral conflicts among a variety of characters. Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York says that for a setting to feel broadly representative, it must be highly specific.
Donald Maass also says that if you want your novel to be outstanding, a break-out novel in his terms, you must have a theme of the worthiness of life. He says that when you raise the stakes for your characters, put more and bigger obstacles between them and their goal, they must change to meet their goals. The two kinds of stakes are personal (internal) and public (external). Breakout novels combine high personal stakes with high public stakes. That is, the internal conflicts, morals, of the characters influence and are influenced by the internal conflicts of the other characters, and the conflicts provided by the setting.
Take for example, Jake, the hero. He must save the ranch for the sake of his two daughters. To raise the personal stakes for Jake, ask “How can this matter more?” His wife is dead and the woman he is beginning to love doesn’t want children. One of the children is handicapped and he doesn’t know how to handle it. The other is a newborn and needs milk, but the cows have a disease and are not producing. You see? Oh man, we feel for this rancher. Can you feel his desperation? Deep personal stakes dig down so far that they show us who we are.
Making the public stakes real starts with a grain of truth. Maybe the local vet doesn’t know how to stop the spread of the virus. Maybe the taxman or the mortgage holder is at his doorstep. The worse it gets, the more it matters, the more emotion and empathy we experience as readers. The scenes you write detail how the rancher Jake handles his problems, how he and the other characters change in response to his actions and decisions. Maass says to keep the danger immediate. Make your characters suffer.
High moral stakes yield high success. The high stakes you put in your story come from your own stakes.

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