Tag Archives: identifying theme

Theme and the Short Story #amwriting

Even if you are a confirmed Indie author, as I am, you may feel the desire to write short pieces and submit them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. Writing a short story is an excellent way to explore in detail an idea that is inspired by your longer work, but that you don’t have room to include there.

If you are writing a series of speculative fiction novels set in a world of your creation, writing short stories is a good way to develop that world. You also have the opportunity to develop characters you can use later.

Once you submit your story, it will be up against many entries, so you must make yours as unique as is possible.

Anthologies are usually themed. According to Wikipedia:

A theme is not the same as the subject of a work. For example, the subject of Star Wars is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.”

The themes explored in the films might be “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.”

If you intend to submit your work to an editor with an open call for themed work, you must demonstrate your understanding of theme as well as your ability to craft brilliant prose.

Analyze the theme and try to think creatively—think a little wide of the obvious tropes. Look for an original angle that will play well to that theme and then go for it. As an author, most of my novels have been epic or medieval fantasy, based around the hero’s journey, detailing how their experiences shape the characters’ reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey is a theme that allows me to employ the sub-themes of brother/sisterhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

To support the theme, you must layer

  • character studies,
  • allegory, and
  • imagery

These three layers must all be driven by the central theme and advance the story arc.

The theme is introduced, either subtly or overtly, at the first plot point. In a really short story, this must happen on the first page. Many times, we are given a specific word count we cannot exceed, so lengthy lead-ins are not possible.

When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the important events in place at the right time. If you try to “pants” it, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

When you assemble your outline, ask yourself

  • What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
  • What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?
  • How does the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

In my own writing life, too much background info has been my greatest challenge. Writing short stories has helped me find ways to write more concisely. What is important for the reader to know? What is just info for me? Knowing what is important in my own work is difficult because it all seems so important.

Short stories follow a single thread in a character’s life. Each word must advance that one story thread. Work that wanders all over the place will be summarily rejected, and the editor will most likely not give more than a stock rejection.

Having your work beta read by your critique group will help you identify those places that need to be trimmed down. I have close friends who see my work first and who help me see what the real story is before I bother my editor with it. My beta readers are published authors in my writing group.

Because I am a wordy writer, I always have to keep in mind that info dumps about character history and side trails to nowhere have no place in short stories because every word is precious. By shaving away the unneeded info in the short story, the author has more room to expand on the theme of the story and how it drives the plot.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (arts),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(arts)&oldid=848540721(accessed July 29, 2018).

 

 

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Theme, Allegory, and The Matrix #amwriting

One question I hear often when I am giving seminars is “How do I identify the theme of my story?”

Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes. Theme is an idea-thread that winds through the story and supports the plot.

A question was asked in an online group for writers “How do I emphasize my theme without bludgeoning my reader with it?”

Making good use of allegory can subtly underscore your themes to drive home your point without resorting to an info dump.

Using symbolism and allegory allows an author to pack the most information into the least amount of words, but it requires intention when you first begin creating the story arc. Words, phrases, and setting must be chosen, and the narrative’s prose must be purposefully crafted.

Whenever I talk about allegory, I like to use the movie, The Matrix, as my example: In this movie, you see lean dialogue, conversations that are spare and to the point. The symbolism continues in the way the setting is so sparsely portrayed, and even the characters’ names are symbolic. Allegory is built into their androgynous costumes, and in the screenwriters/authors’ choice of words used in every conversation. All these layers offer us an incredible amount of subliminal information about that world and what is really going on.

The themes are represented with heavy symbolism in the lighting used on the movie set:

>Inside The Matrix the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens.

>In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.

In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.

>Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.

In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer. Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.

In my stories, I try to picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie. This is where I consider how I could use allegory to support and underscore my theme. I’m not as adept at this as I hope to become, but I try to consider the books that really moved me as a reader. All were allegorical in some way.

When we are immersed in reading a story laden with allegory, many times we don’t notice the symbolism on a conscious level. But on closer examination it is all there, making what is imaginary into something real, solid, and concrete.

This is what I hope to achieve in my current work.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from the Matrix, screenplay written by Larry and Andy Wachowski © 1999 Warner Bros. Pictures

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Writing to a Theme #NaNoWriMo2017 #amwriting

November 1st begins the merry month of madness known as NaNoWriMo. Once again, as I have for the last seven years, I will spend the thirty days of November on an intensive writing binge.

Every day I will sit and write at least 1,667 NEW words on my current work in progress. If I do only that, I will have 50,000 words by Nov. 30th, which will bring the rough draft of that book nearly to completion.

But I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day, and I work on several different projects. This year, while I WILL work on the rough draft of my current work-in-progress, my official project is another collection of short stories, poems, and flash fictions, all of which will be written to a variety of different themes.

The reason I need to build the backlog with a wide variety of themes is that most anthologies and many publications will call for submissions based around a central idea–such as  redemption, bridges, asylum–a large concept that  unifies the disparate stories.

So, my plan is to write to as many different themes as I can think of. Hopefully, if an opportunity presents itself later, I will have the perfect story ready, one that will only need some revising and editing.

One question I hear often is “how do I identify the theme of my story?” I have discussed this before, but it bears mentioning again. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.

Sometimes it’s difficult to write a short story unless you start out with a theme in mind. The same can be said for novels, although the theme can emerge more slowly than in short stories. For me, writing to a theme makes the process easier because half the work is done—I know what I’m writing about.

Several of the stories I will be working on are for themed anthologies with open calls for submission, but whose closing dates are rapidly approaching. When I made my list of proposed stories, I searched Submittable for open calls, so I know the desirable themes in advance. Some publications have submission dates that are quite a ways out, some have short deadlines.

Knowing the trending themes publishers are asking for is crucial to building your backlog with salable stories, so if you don’t have a Submittable account, you should get one.

What I hope to do in each story is to layer character studies, allegory, and imagery to emphasize the central theme and support the story arc. Sometimes I am successful, other times, not so much, but I still keep trying.

Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape their reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle. These are the themes that were most powerfully depicted in the books that rocked my early reading world and are the sort I still seek out.

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#amwriting: theme

ofmiceandmenTheme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end, binding the elements of characters, conversations, actions, and reactions. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, describes theme as:

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text’s or author’s implied worldview.

Often we can visualize a complex theme but we can’t explain it. If we can’t can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common emotion that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level.

Perhaps you have a story about a woman who has just lost her husband to a preventable accident. Her grief is the main theme. When you learn the accident that killed him was preventable, you know the subtheme: anger. The protagonist’s goal in this story is to prevent such accidents from happening again–perhaps she must battle a corporation or take on a government agency. Rage is the motivator that forces her to wake up each day and take on the Goliaths, but at the root of the story it is her grief that is the driving force behind her subsequent actions.

But the main theme of grief is an extremely complex experience, as anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one will tell you. It is a fundamental emotion, chaotic and weighing heavy in the heart of one who grieves. It is experienced in many identifiable stages with elements of loneliness, anger, guilt, and deep suffering. It is sometimes accompanied by thoughts of suicide.

Everything your character sees and experiences in the opening pages underscores and represents her sense of loss and inspires the accompanying emotions of anger, futility, and depression. As her story progresses and she begins live despite her loss, she will still be affected on many levels and to a certain extent, driven by those complex emotions. While she is interacting with others who are happy and who believe she has gotten past her pain, you can employ allegories and symbolism to paint the deeper picture of her mental state to show how she is deeply depressed and possibly suicidal.

Once your protagonist has beaten the enemy, what is her reaction? Without the battle to sustain her rage, does she learn to accept her loss begin to find happiness? Or does she allow herself to spiral into ever worsening depression?

Perhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people faces terrible challenges in a war. On the surface, this looks like it is all about the action, but in reality, it is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is brotherhood: the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together, creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

allegoryScience Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.


Credits:

Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed February 22, 2017).

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Elements of the story: identifying and crafting a strong theme

The Plaza After Rain, Paul Cornoyer PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

The Plaza After Rain, Paul Cornoyer PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

“Theme” is an idea or message that flows through a story from beginning to end. Theme is what readers think the work is about but it is also what the work itself says about the subject.

It is ephemeral in that theme is only an idea, but it is like the moon–it is there and the world is greatly affected by it through the pull of gravity: witness the tides.

In a given work the theme might never be mentioned outright, but the characters’ actions are motivated by it and the plot revolves around it. Here is a link to a list of 101 common themes in books.

How do you make something as hard to get a grip on as a theme central to your story? The theme was an idea about the plot, a notion you had about your story when you first began to write it, no matter what the setting you placed it in was, or whether the genre was fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, or contemporary fiction.

Brothers in Arms, Bujold, coverPerhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people face heroic challenges in a war. On the surface this looks like it it is all about the action, but in reality it is is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together: creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

The way I look at it, the theme is as important as the main character. You spend as certain amount of time creating strong characters. Perhaps you are like me and make personnel files for each new character so you know who they are, how they think, and how they will react in a given situation. Or not, but you know your characters the minute the enter the story.

I try to identify my theme early on, and write a short paragraph to myself to remind me of what that central idea was so I stay on track. During the initial writing process I regularly refer back to that little note, to ensure I have not lost my way. I want to write in such a way that I emphasize and exploit that idea throughout the book or short-story.

Initially, when I first started writing full time, I was not always good at sticking to my original idea. At times the core themes became mushy, which, when you read these stories, takes away from the cohesiveness of what otherwise could have been good work. Theme is glue that binds your plot and characters.

The best way to get a grip on both identifying and solidifying the theme is to practice writing with a specific core theme in mind. Write a short story, just a piece of flash fiction. Make every paragraph represent some aspect of that central concept.

I tend to think of themes and then write stories set in fantasy worlds, but not always. Take this piece of Flash Fiction I wrote in 2013:

the watcher flash fiction

It is set in a contemporary environment with no fantasy elements. The idea came from the painting at the top of this post by Paul Cornoyer, and the action is minimal–an elderly woman staring out a window. But the theme is grief, and everything in these short paragraphs points to and represents her sense of loss.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult, unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. Alongside the theme of good vs evil are the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing. Ask yourself what is important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest?I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

  • Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.
  • Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.
  • Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective, in-depth character studies of interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the point here, although they must also be carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective.
  • Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme, but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.
  • Fantasy: Often set in alternate, medieval, or ancient worlds, common themes are good vs evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

the hobbit movie poster 2On the surface these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book. Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.

In my mind, the genre and the setting in which these characters react to the wider concepts are just a backdrop. The world they are set in is the picture-frame, a backdrop against which the themes of the story play out, and characters are shaped by a force beyond their control–the author.

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