Tag Archives: theme

Pinning Down the Themes when your Characters Have Agency #amwriting

My writing mind has temporarily lost momentum in my current work. At this point, I’m unsure how to proceed with a pivotal chapter. This has me momentarily stalled on that book.

how the universe works themeFortunately, Irene is editing the final draft of a book I finished during lockdown. She sends me one or two chapters with notes for final revisions each evening. That makes me happy—it’s been a while since I published a book.

When I am stalled on a first draft, it helps to stop and consider the central themes. Theme is one of the elements that drive a plot. This novel’s central theme is redemption, which hasn’t changed.

But this novel is in the first draft stage, and things have already shifted from what was initially plotted. And now I find that some of my characters aren’t as well-planned as I thought they were.

This happens at some point in every first draft. I don’t know the themes of three important characters.

My male protagonist’s void is the death of his brother, and his theme is living through grief. I have that theme pretty well established, but the three side characters are still unclear. Their themes are mysteries at this point. I don’t know their voids as well as I thought, so it’s back to the drawing board.

This happens because the characters have agency and have taken the plot in a different direction than was planned. They are still headed toward the intended destination but are taking the plot through unfamiliar territory.

plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedAgency is an integral aspect of the craft of writing. It means allowing your characters to make decisions that don’t necessarily follow the original plot outline. This gives them a chance to become real, the way Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy and not a puppet.

A fourth personality has emerged. She’s a side character, and I like the chemistry she has with the others. But her introduction means I must revise my plot outline. Fortunately, clues are emerging.

This constant adjusting of plot and theme is why it takes me more than a year to finish a novel’s first draft. My work is character-driven, and sometimes these people are driving in a demolition derby.

Now I need to refer back to my stylesheet and look at the calendar. I will adjust events to match the timeline when a significant change happens. Adjusting my outlines is a simple process because I create them in Excel. I can delete or move events along the timeline as needed.

My story has a specific ending, but the detours have confused me. Going back to the outline and seeing where the plot took a different turn helps me find my way when I am stuck. It sometimes jars things loose, giving me a flash of inspiration about these characters.

Themes are fundamental underpinnings of the story and can be difficult to get a grip on. They’re subtle, an aspect of our work that is rarely stated in a bald fashion. And despite not being blatantly obvious, themes unify the events of a story. They are idea threads that bind the beginning to the middle and end.

theme_meme_lirf06302020Sometimes we can visualize a complex theme but can’t explain it. If we can’t explain it, how do we show it? For me, that is the real struggle. Grief is a common theme that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality-based, where humans interact emotionally. But it is a complex theme, and people all react differently to it.

Sometimes themes emerge out of a character’s void, which is how the main theme for this story came about.

  • VOID: Each person lacks something, a void in their life. What need drives them?

Their verbs can also suggest themes.

  • VERBS: What is their action word? How does each character act and react on a gut level?

Mood words for meditationHighlighting a strong theme is challenging, even when I begin with a plan. But once I have identified these personal themes, I’ll be able to write their stories. I’ll use actions, symbolic settings/places, allegorical objects in the setting, and conversations to reinforce their personal themes. Their subthemes will support the foundational thread of redemption.

Writing requires a lot of mind-wandering on my part. I spend a lot of time playing solitaire on my computer and thinking about the plot.

When I’m stuck, it always comes back to the themes and subthemes. I have to look again at their individual voids and verbs, the aspects that define them as people. I may have to assign different verbs to them, as they aren’t reacting to each other the way I initially thought they would.

Once I know how their gut-reactions affect them, I will know their personal themes. They will become real, three-dimensional people, the way the protagonist is.

So, that is what I am working on in my current first-draft project this week. NaNoWriMo got it off to a good start, but now the real work begins.




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Exploring theme part 3: learning from poetry #amwriting

Poems are stories told in a highly structured fashion. They are stories about the feelings one has for a place or a person, the emotions one feels when faced with shattering circumstances. Poems can be heroic and epic or tightly constrained to one moment, one person’s thoughts.

2WritingCraft_themePoets understand how central a theme is to the story. A poet takes the theme and builds the words around it. Emily Dickinson’s poems featured the themes of spirituality, love of nature, and death, which is why she appealed so strongly to me during my angsty young-adult life.

Via Wikipedia:

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Little-known during her life, she has since been regarded as one of the most influential figures in American poetry.

Evidence suggests that Dickinson lived much of her life in isolation. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a penchant for white clothing and was known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.

While Dickinson was a prolific writer, her only publications during her lifetime were 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems, and one letter. The poems published then were usually edited significantly to fit conventional poetic rules. Her poems were unique for her era. They contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends, and also explore aesthetics, society, nature and spirituality.

If one only knew that she had been agoraphobic and never left her room in an era where the internet didn’t exist, one would think she knew nothing of the world and had nothing to say that would be worth reading.

dickinsons poemsBut that would be wrong. Poets write words that range far more widely than their physical surroundings. Some poets are constrained by unrewarding jobs, others may be “on the spectrum,” as they now say, and still others are constrained by physical limitations.

Poetry is a craft that uses words to explore the interior life of a moment, a place, or an idea. Fleshing out and exploring every nuance of a theme is a core function of poetry.

A theme that Emily Dickinson often wrote about is “the undiscovered continent.” Literary scholars consider that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places she inhabited for much of her life.

As solitary as her life was, this interpretation of the undiscovered continent makes sense. It is the “landscape of the spirit,” embellished with nature imagery. It is imagery meant to convey a dwelling place of “oneself” where one resides with one’s other selves. It is an expansive, liberating force.

For example, in “They shut me up in Prose –,” she sets out the idea that society enforces limits upon the speaker, confining her to the acceptable female roles, concealing her to prevent her from expressing herself. But her prose is a product of her mind and refuses to be constrained.

Those constraints inspire her, fuel her drive to write. Society cannot limit her mind, no matter how they try. In the poem “I dwell in Possibility –”she shows us that limits are an illusion to one who dwells in possibilities.

Quote from GradeSaver:

“I dwell in Possibility –”is deeply interested in the power gained by a poet through their poetry. In the first stanza, the poem seems to just be about poetry as a vocation as opposed to prose and is explicit in comparing the two. The metaphors and similes used make it so that poetry is possibility, poetry is more beautiful, poetry has more doors and windows open for access, for different perspectives and interpretations, while prose by default, then, is more closed and limited and homely. [1]

Dickinson showed us how important employing themes can be when finding words to express our intent. Her work demonstrates that themes can be as common and ordinary as the juxtaposition of chaos and stability (or order), the fear of death, love of nature, or the expression of faith in God.

The 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster employed the theme of rural poverty, using the term hard times to turn his simple songs into anthems that people embraced and are still singing. Tommy Fleming’s version can be heard here. The crowd embraces that song today as much as they did when it was written. Its popularity is due to the way Foster employed his theme, the way he presented it with words and melody.

‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more. [2]

But what of writers who don’t write poetry? How do we who write novels and short stories use themes in our work?

The possibilities are limitless.

An aspect of a setting can become a theme. These can be as solid and physical as a particular rock or tree that acquires an emotional meaning to the characters in the narrative. These physical objects gain a sense of presence that recurs throughout the story.

Or they can be as complex and intangible as a mental landscape that allows a prisoner to roam freely.

Poets have a lot to teach those of us who write narrative prose.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss 2nd coverFantasy author Patrick Rothfuss knows how to make use of a strong theme. He uses the theme of silence to create a powerful opening to his novel, The Name of the Wind. The opening paragraphs of that novel hooked me.

To wind up this dip into poetry, themes are the unifying threads woven through our work, connecting the dots and holding the plot together. The words we choose and other elements of the story, such as the setting, are how we present our themes. Themes, in turn, color our words and setting and steer the plot.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Cullina, Alice. Chainani, Soman ed. “Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems “I dwell in Possibility –” Summary and Analysis.” GradeSaver, 26 July 2009 Web. 20 March 2022.

[2] “Hard Times Come Again No More” (sometimes, “Hard Times“) PD|100. Written by Stephen Foster. Published in New York by Firth, Pond & Co. in 1854.


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Exploring Theme part 2: Jane Austen #amwriting

Born in 1775, Jane Austen is remembered today for her six novels, the most famous of which is Pride and Prejudice. Austen touched on familiar themes throughout her work, including romance, youth, wealth, and poverty.

plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedEven today, her humor shines with sharp-edged wit delivered without condescension. Her most memorable protagonists rise above the trivialities of life that absorb the sillier characters.

Via Wikipedia:

With the publication of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816), in her lifetime she achieved modest success and, as the books were published anonymously, little fame. She wrote two other novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began another, eventually titled Sanditon, but died before its completion. She also left behind three volumes of juvenile writings in manuscript, the short epistolary novel Lady Susan, and another unfinished novel, The Watsons. [1]

Austen’s work delved deep into the issues women faced, which were not discussed in polite company, and she did it while navigating the shark-infested waters of her society. Her central themes were:

Financial insecurity: The need for a gentlewoman to marry well for financial security rather than love.

Patriarchy: The sure assumption that men know best and the societal value of a man’s opinion as opposed to a woman’s opinion.

Women as property: The value of youth; a young woman is more desirable than an older woman, no matter how intelligent and thoughtful.

Hubris: Pride – and the humbling of pride.

The six published novels deal with social class, gender and society’s expectations, and morality.

What is right, moral, and proper? This theme of honorable morality winds through all her work.

And the other major theme, one opposing honorable morality, is pride. Pride loves power. It is listed as one of the world’s seven deadly sins because pride can become so powerful that it creates its own morality, crushing humility.

hubrisPride is a powerful theme because it is the downfall of many characters in all literature, not just Jane Austen’s work.

These two themes, pride and morality, power Austen’s satire, give weight to her humor and support the triumphs and tragedies of her characters. Austen saw pride as a form of hubris.

Jane Austen’s novels have inspired many debates. Some claim they are politically conservative, and others argue they are progressive. Those who see conservatism in her novels claim her heroines support the existing social structure by doing their duty and sacrificing their personal desires.

Those who see progressive tendencies in her work argue that she is skeptical of the patriarchal right to rule, evidenced by her ironic tone.


Illustration by Hugh Thomson representing Mr. Collins, protesting that he never reads novels

Austen understood the political issues surrounding the gentry. As a member of that society, she was able to pose questions relating to money and property, framing them in such a way they were entertaining while being thought-provoking. Her satire exposed the patriarchy, the arbitrary inequality of inheritance laws, and the perilous economic position of women. In an era when few career choices were available for women, the social system enforced a lifetime of servitude, either as a wife, possibly a teacher/governess, or as a servant.

Throughout Austen’s work, there is a tension between the prerogatives of society and the desires of the individual. Austen is often considered one of the originators of the modern, interiorized novel character.

How did she achieve this?

Again, Wikipedia tells us:

Austen is most renowned for her development of free indirect speech, a technique pioneered by 18th-century novelists Henry Fielding and Frances Burney. In free indirect speech, the thoughts and speech of the characters mix with the voice of the narrator. Austen uses it to provide summaries of conversations or to compress, dramatically or ironically, a character’s speech and thoughts. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen experiments extensively for the first time with this technique. For example,

Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum?

[…] However, Page writes that “for Jane Austen … the supreme virtue of free indirect speech … [is] that it offers the possibility of achieving something of the vividness of speech without the appearance for a moment of a total silencing of the authorial voice.” [2]

Pickering_-_Greatbatch_-_Jane_Austen_-_Pride_and_Prejudice_-_This_is_not_to_be_borne,_Miss_BennetClearly, Mrs. Dashwood feels that ensuring her sisters-in-law are not impoverished would make her only son less rich. Less appealing to other affluent families.

So, Jane Austen used her characters’ thoughts and their spoken conversations to subtly weave her themes of pride, the human tendency for greed, and social inequity throughout the narratives of her novels.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: when your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes.

I find it helps to remind myself that theme is one of the elements that drives a plot.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Jane Austen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jane_Austen&oldid=1073632619 (accessed March 15, 2022).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Styles and themes of Jane Austen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Styles_and_themes_of_Jane_Austen&oldid=1063968945 (accessed March 15, 2022).

Media: Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Houghton Typ 805.94.8320 – Pride and Prejudice, 1894, Hugh Thomson – Protested.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Houghton_Typ_805.94.8320_-_Pride_and_Prejudice,_1894,_Hugh_Thomson_-_Protested.jpg&oldid=351956491 (accessed March 15, 2022).

Media: Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Pickering – Greatbatch – Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice – This is not to be borne, Miss Bennet.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Pickering_-_Greatbatch_-_Jane_Austen_-_Pride_and_Prejudice_-_This_is_not_to_be_borne,_Miss_Bennet.jpg&oldid=351959807 (accessed March 15, 2022).


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Exploring Theme part 1: Henry James #amwriting

A late 19th– early 20th-century writer whom many have heard of but never read, Henry James, has a great deal to tell us about using a story’s themes to create memorable characters. You may be familiar with some of his works, such as The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl. His novels are still being made into movies and adapted as plays.

2WritingCraft_themeMany of James’s books feature one common theme—lust.

Lust for sex. Lust for money. Lust for control.

Lust for power.

The Golden Bowl is the story of deception, manipulation, lust for money, and lust for control. Many of James’s novels feature people in his contemporary world going through their lives. But he takes his characters down to their fundamental emotional components, peels back the veneer of civilization, and exposes their motives for you, the reader.

James understood the potential of a strong theme. He threaded his themes through every conversation and scene as if the theme was background music, an orchestra playing a musical score. Like a Roger Williams film score, James’s themes subtly, insidiously, propel the plot, reinforce emotions, and support the dramas as they are played out. This is why his novels are still considered among the most powerful works of modern fiction.

512px-The-Turn-of-the-Screw-Collier's-1AHenry James is famous for his novels and short stories laying bare the deepest motives and manipulations of the society he knew. However, he wrote one of the most famous novellas ever published, The Turn of the Screw.

On the surface, The Turn of the Screw is different from his other forays into Victorian society, a Gothic horror story. The four main themes are the corruption of the innocent, the destructiveness of heroism, the struggle between good and evil, the difference between reality and fantasy. A fifth theme is the perception of ghosts. Are the ghosts real or the projection of the governess’s madness?

However, there are several subthemes interwoven into the fabric of the narrative.



The lust for control.


Via Wikipedia:

The Turn of the Screw is an 1898 horror novella by Henry James which first appeared in serial format in Collier’s Weekly (January 27 – April 16, 1898). In October 1898, it was collected in The Two Magics, published by Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London. The novella follows a governess who, caring for two children at a remote estate, becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted. The Turn of the Screw is considered a work of both Gothic and horror fiction.

On Christmas Eve, an unnamed narrator and some of their friends are gathered around a fire. One of them, Douglas, reads a manuscript written by his sister’s late governess. The manuscript tells the story of her hiring by a man who has become responsible for his young niece and nephew following the deaths of their parents. He lives mainly in London but also has a country house in Bly, Essex. The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school, while his younger sister, Flora, is living in Bly, where she is cared for by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Flora’s uncle, the governess’s new employer, is uninterested in raising the children and gives her full charge, explicitly stating that she is not to bother him with communications of any sort. The governess travels to Bly and begins her duties.

Miles returns from school for the summer just after a letter arrives from the headmaster, stating that he has been expelled. Miles never speaks of the matter, and the governess is hesitant to raise the issue. She fears there is some horrible secret behind the boy’s expulsion, but is too charmed by him to want to press the issue. Soon after, around the grounds of the estate, the governess begins to see the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize. The figures come and go at will without being seen or challenged by other members of the household, and they seem to the governess to be supernatural. She learns from Mrs. Grose that the governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, had had a close relationship. Before their deaths, Jessel and Quint spent much of their time with Flora and Miles, and the governess becomes convinced that the two children are aware of the ghosts’ presence. [1]

Lust for control—whether real or imagined, the ghosts refuse to move on, refuse to relinquish control of the children.

All these themes are woven around the delicate subject of the governess’s unhealthy romantic attachment to the boy.

Many theories abound regarding the governess and the ghosts:

Inquiries Journal says:

projection definitionProjection may explain what role the ghosts play in “Turn of the Screw,” but it does not explain why the governess feels she needs to use projection as a defense. The governess appears to be experiencing an inner battle that is affecting her perception of reality. She has fallen in love with a boy much younger than herself. Society sees this pedophilic behavior as corrupting the child. The governess’s conscience tells her that she must reform her ways. Her id tells her that she is right in pursuing what she desires. In “The Turn of the Screw,” the governess is using an unconscious means of defense, projection, to protect herself from her superego, while continuing to hold onto her sexual desires. [2]

James leaves several loose ends still hanging when we reach the final page of the novella. This asks the reader to reach their own conclusions about how these themes affect the characters as they go forward in their lives. Regardless of whether the ghosts are real or imagined, the story takes us on a dark journey.

What I take home from Henry James’s intense focus on his themes and the inner workings of his characters is this: find a strong theme and use it to underscore and support our characters’ motives.

Our characters are people. People are a mix of good and bad at the same time. Some lean more to good, others to bad. Either way, they act with good, logical intentions, believe themselves unselfish, and desperately want what they think they deserve.

Most importantly, they lie to themselves about their own motives and obscure the truth behind other, more palatable truths.

I always think that inserting a whiff of human frailty into a character makes them more interesting, more relatable.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “The Turn of the Screw,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Turn_of_the_Screw&oldid=1073476225  (accessed March 13, 2022).

[2] Literary Analysis: Turn of the Screw – Inquiries Journal www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/65/literary-analysis-turn-of-the-screw  © 2022 Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse LLC. All rights reserved. ISSN: 2153-5760. (Accessed March 13, 2022).


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Writing Drabbles and Exploring Theme #amwriting

I think of writing as a muscle of sorts, working the way all other muscles do. Our bodies are healthiest when we exercise regularly, and with respect to our creativity, writing works the same way.

WritingCraft_short-story-drabbleDaily writing becomes easier once you make it a behavioral habit. The more frequently you write, the more confident you become. Spend a small amount of time writing every day and you will develop discipline.

If you hope to finish writing a book, personal discipline is essential.

Every morning, I take the time to write a random short scene or vignette. Some become drabbles, others short stories, but most are just for exercise. Writing 100-word stories is a good way to create characters you can use in other works.

Some of the best work I’ve ever read was in the form of extremely short stories. Authors grow in their craft and gain different perspectives with each short story and essay they write. Each short piece increases your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition.

This is especially true if you write the occasional drabble—a whole story in 100 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes, but most importantly, they grow your habit of writing new words every day.

Writing such short fiction forces the author to develop an economy of words. You have a finite number of words to tell what happened, so only the most crucial information will fit within that space.

Writing drabbles means your narrative will be limited to one or two characters. There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot or affect the story’s outcome.

The internet is rife with contests for drabbles, some offering cash prizes. A side-effect of building a backlog of short stories is the supply of ready-made characters and premade settings you have to draw on when you need a longer story to submit to a contest.

Below is a graphic for breaking down the story arc of a 2,000-word story. Writing a 100-word story takes less time than writing a 2,000-word story, but all writing is a time commitment.


When writing a drabble, you can expect to spend an hour or more getting it to fit within the 100-word constraint.

To write a drabble, we need the same fundamental components as we do for a longer story:

  1. A setting
  2. One or more characters
  3. A conflict
  4. A resolution.

First, we need a prompt, a jumping-off point. We have 100 words to write a scene that tells the entire story of a moment in a character’s life.

Some contests give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and others may offer no prompt at all.

Orange_Door_with_Hydrangeas_©_Connie_Jasperson_2019A prompt is a word or visual image that kick starts the story in your head. If you need an idea, go to 700+ Weekly Writing Prompts.

If a contest has a rigid word count requirement, it’s best to divide the count into manageable sections. I use a loose outline to break short stories into acts with a certain number of words for each increment, as illustrated in the previous graphic, the short-story story arc.

A drabble works the same way.

We break down the word count to make the story arc work for us instead of against us. We have about 25 words to open the story and set the scene, about 50 – 60 for the heart of the story, and 10 – 25 words to conclude it.

If you are too focused on your novel to think about other works, spend fifteen minutes writing info dumps about character history and side trails to nowhere. That is an excellent way to build background files for your world-building and character development and keeps the info dumps separate and out of the narrative.

Also, you have the chance to identify the themes and subthemes you can expand on to add depth to your narrative.

Theme is vastly different from the subject of a work. Theme is an underlying idea, a thread that is woven through the story from the beginning to the end.

An example I’ve mentioned before is the movie franchise Star Wars. The subject of those movies is the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Two of the themes explored in those films are the bonds of friendship and the gray area between good and evil—moral ambiguity.

The best way to begin building your brand as an author is to submit your work to magazines and anthologies. But writing for magazines and anthologies is different than writing novels. Some aspects of short story construction are critical and must be planned for in advance, important elements of craft that show professionalism.

When you choose to submit to an open call for themed work, your work must demonstrate your understanding of what is meant by the word “theme” as well as your ability to write clean and compelling prose.

For practice, try picking a theme and thinking creatively. Think a little wide of the obvious tropes (genre-specific, commonly used plot devices and archetypes). Look for an original angle that will play well to that theme, and then go for it.

Most of my own novels fit in epic or medieval fantasy genres. They are based on the hero’s journey, detailing how events and 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 heavily featured in the books that inspired me, and so they find their way into my writing.

To support the theme, you must add these layers:

  • character studies
  • allegory
  • imagery

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

Drabble_LIRF_1_jan_2018_cjjapWhen you write to a strict word count limit, every word is precious and must be used to the greatest effect. By shaving away the unneeded info in the short story, the author has more room to expand on the story’s theme and how it supports the plot.

Save your drabbles and short scenes in a clearly labeled file for later use. Each one has the potential to be a springboard for writing a longer work or for submission to a drabble contest in its proto form.

Good drabbles are the distilled souls of novels. They contain everything the reader needs to know about that moment and makes them wonder what happened next.

Write at least 100 new words every day. Write even if you have nothing to say. Write a wish list, a grocery list, or a sonnet—but no matter what form the words take, write. The act of writing new words on a completely different project can break you out of writer’s block—it nudges your creative mind.


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Theme part 2 #amwriting

Not every anthology is themed, but many are. Most will also be restricted to one genre (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime) or a particular location, like a city or a place such as a coffee shop, etc. This is because theme alone isn’t enough to unify a book encompassing ten or more stories that are widely divergent in genre.

The concept of how to create a cohesive anthology was explained to me this way:

Consider a community art project where you ask five local artists to paint murals of cats to be displayed in the local community center. You will get five wildly divergent styles, and clashing colors, and cats that don’t go together well. But, if you ask them to paint black cats (or orange or red), your community wall art will have a consistency that celebrates the variety of the artists’ different styles rather than an eye-bleeding jumble of cats.

Therefore, when planning a story for a particular anthology, you must take the theme and any other setting or genre restrictions and run with it.

The first thing I do is research all the synonyms for that word. I recently wrote for an anthology with the theme of Escape, and it had to be set in the Pacific Northwest. I set my story in Olympia, Washington, in the area I grew up in. With my setting established, I went online and looked up every synonym for the word “escape.”

The above list is an image and not text, but feel free to copy it for your files.

Then after I had all the synonyms, I looked for the antonyms, the opposites.

Capture. Imprisonment. Confront.

Once I had a full understanding of all the many nuances of the theme, I asked myself how I could write a fantasy set in my real-world environment. My solution was to set it in a historical time, the late 1950s. I was a very small child then so anything I know about that era is a fantasy that I learned from television.

Then, I began plotting. I asked what my character needed most in her effort to escape. My gut answer was courage.

Sometimes, it helps if I use polarities (opposites, contrasts) to flesh out a character. These polarities helped me in fleshing out a protagonist and also the antagonist:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

As an editor, when I begin reading a short story, I want the first paragraphs to hook me. Those opening sentences establish three vital things:

  1. They introduce the problem.
  2. They introduce the characters and show us how they see themselves.
  3. They introduce the theme.

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. I’m a retired bookkeeper, so I have a mathematical approach to this. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the essential events in place and occurring at the right time.

Assume you have a 4,000 word limit for your short story.

The Setup: The first 250 words are the setup and hook. You must have a compelling hook. In some cases, the first line is the clincher, but especially in a short story, by the end of the first page, you must have your reader hooked and ready to be enthralled.

The next 750 words take your characters out of their comfortable existence and launch them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not? What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?

The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution. What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme? How did the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, subplots should not be introduced into the short story.

Word Count: Many times, publications and anthologies will have strict limits on the word count, such as no more than 4,000 or less than 2,000. For this reason, when writing short stories, we keep the cast of characters to a minimum.

When you’re only allowed 4,000 words, you must make each one count. You want that story to be the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.

We also keep the setting narrow: one place, one environment, be it a cruise ship, a restaurant, or a gas station—the location shouldn’t be epic in scale.

In a novel, side-quests and subthemes help keep the story interesting. This should go without saying, but you would be surprised at how often it doesn’t: you have no room to introduce side-quests in a short story.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Allegory is an essential tool for the author who wants to underline a theme and express crucial ideas with the least number of words. Using allegory and symbolism in the objects in the environment is a way to subtly underscore your theme. It allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and look up “danger”:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger, we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

All of the above polarities would play well to the theme and would give your characters depth.

In any work, novel or short story, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

One final suggestion: Don’t think you can pull out some old story you have in a drawer, dust it off and tack on the theme word in a few places. No editor will be fooled.

Editors will look for many things when they are reading submissions. But no matter how brilliant the story is, if it doesn’t explore the theme well enough, they won’t accept it.


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Theme part 1 #amwriting

As an editor, one aspect of a story that I look at is theme. It is the invisible backbone of your story, a thread connecting disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can emerge, creating opportunities for adding depth.

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 detail how large events shape, and sometimes skew, the protagonists’ morals and ethics.

A common theme in fantasy is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability (or order). Good versus evil is a trope of the speculative fiction genre. Evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.

Riffing on 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 personally, 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; instead, 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? That commonality is probably the theme.

A crucial consideration in planning a short story is plot structure or how the story is arranged. The underlying theme is introduced with the first paragraph and supports the plot through to the end.

Theme is rarely stated baldly. Even if it isn’t overtly stated, it’s a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

When an author is new to writing short stories, limiting the background information, and sticking to the theme can be the most challenging part. In my own early drafts, I often have a lot of information that doesn’t advance the story.

Still, I have found that writing backstory is a form of mind-wandering, an exercise that helps to cement the story in my mind. For this reason, I write the backstory in a separate document.

In the final draft, that 2000 words of background information I so lavishly laid down is not needed. Nor is any background on the setting required unless the location is a core plot point.

You must focus on one idea in a short story and riff on it until you reach the end. If you are writing for a themed anthology or magazine, you are fortunate! The editors have given you a framework on which to hang your plot.

So, what is theme actually? It’s different from the subject of a work. An example that most people know of, is the Star Wars series and franchise. The subject is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.” The themes are “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.”

At some point, serious writers become brave enough to submit their work to a magazine or anthology. Most anthologies and many magazines are themed.

When you choose to submit to an open call for themed work, your manuscript must demonstrate your understanding of what is meant by the word ‘theme’ as well as your ability to craft compelling prose and produce a clean, well-edited manuscript.

I write and submit many short stories. It’s always intriguing how some find good homes in anthologies and other publications, and others don’t. When the story is good enough but “lacking something” indefinable, even our writing group members may not see why a particular story doesn’t work.

Possibly, there is no unifying theme to give events and conversations meaning.

The next installment in this series will go further into building a plot around a theme, or conversely, identifying and expanding on the theme in your already-written story.


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Plot and Theme #amwriting

The basic premise of any story I want to write can be explained by answering eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines, guideposts for when I draft the outline.

A plot idea I’ve used before as an example is an idea I’ve had rolling around for a while. I hope to write it as a novella (about 12,000 words) in November. This little tale features a pair of thieves-for-hire, set in an alternate renaissance reality.

  1. Who are the players? Pip and Scuttle. Two orphaned brothers who grew up on the streets of Venetta, a medieval city, but who have a strong moral code. When the story opens, they are adults. The pair has become what is known as “Discreet Thieves,” professional retrievers-for-hire who reunite their clients with their lost or stolen valuables.
  2. Who is the POV character? Scuttle, the older brother.
  3. Where does the story open? In a pawn shop.
  4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story? Scuttle swears they aren’t thieves. They are believers in God and the laws of the Church. They only retrieve items belonging to noble clients with impeccable reputations and do it with no fuss or drama.
  5. What is the inciting incident? A highly placed Cardinal has hired them to retrieve an item, neglecting to tell them:
  • It is equipped with a curse that affects all who would steal it from the rightful owner. (Haven’t figured out what the curse is yet.)
  • It didn’t belong to the Cardinal in the first place.
  • He intends to use it to depose the true Pope and become the ruler of both the Church and Venetta.
  1. At the midpoint, what do the protagonists want and what are they willing to do to get it? They will do anything to get the curse removed from themselves and prevent the evil Cardinal from using the object against the Good Pope.
  2. What hinders them? The Cardinal has kidnapped Mari, Scuttle’s wife, and holds her in his dungeon, forcing Scuttle to do his bidding.
  3. How does the story end? Not sure. Is there more than one way this could go? Yes. I list each possible ending as they occur to me.

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it, and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately.

Question number six is an important question to consider. What ethical dilemma will the protagonist be faced with in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?

In this story, one hard moral choice I could write would be to have Scuttle pressured to become a spy for the Cardinal.

Or, he could be pressured to sell out Pip.

How would he respond to either of these situations? I could write both and choose the one that works best. If I do that, I’ll make a note of the divergent path on my outline.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they, and why are they the villain of the piece?

“There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.” The Buddha said it, but it’s a fundamental truth we writers of genre fantasy must consider when devising plots. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this need for a hero quite clearly.

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to have a complete novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

Endings are hard and complicated to write because I can see so many different outcomes. I write as many endings as I need to and save them in separate files.

Sometimes, even if we have plotted in advance, we can’t identify the central theme of the 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 sometimes it is an unstated moral for the reader to infer.

Many final objectives don’t concern issues of morality. However, if you are writing genre fiction, achieving all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

Regardless of the theme, the struggle must be personal. Why would Frodo and Sam go to the depths of Mordor and suffer the hardships they endured in their effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron?

Frodo and Sam saved the world because it was the only way to save The Shire and the people they loved from Sauron, who was the embodiment of evil.

No matter how careful I am when building my outline, there is always a point where I am writing by the seat of my pants. I am usually a linear plotter, but things come along that change the direction a tale goes in.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. In the NaNoWriMo manuscript, I simply head that section (in bolded font) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

No matter if you are writing a NaNoWriMo novel or not, your finished novel will look vastly different from the block of stone you carved it from. Yet, it will be the core of the stone, the hidden story that was waiting for you to bring it to light.

Many times, I find myself re-evaluating a nearly complete manuscript because the story isn’t working. I go back and ask myself the same eight questions. If the story has gone in a new direction by midpoint, a different roadmap to the final scene can help you keep things logical.

However, a plot is just the frame upon which the themes of a story are supported. Knowing the main theme at the outset makes writing the first draft much easier.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Subthemes help keep the story interesting. The image at the bottom of this post is a visual tool, a circular list of themes and subthemes that I made a few years ago.

It’s a picture that you can save (right click>save as>png or jpeg) print out and tape to your desk. Whenever you have lost your way, rather than resort to a sudden influx of something far-fetched, feel free to refer back to this picture and see if a better idea presents itself.

Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to killing anyone you might need later.


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Theme and Depth Through Polarity #amwriting

In writing, theme is the backbone of your story. It is an idea thread that connects disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can appear, creating opportunities for adding depth.

Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of the word-pond.

For example, a large theme that drives the action can be be something as common and subtle as family dynamics across generations. Those subtle tensions and interactions may not look like they are the story, but beneath the surface, families are fraught with emotions that create conflict.

In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life – a theme that explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death.

Consider the first three installments in the epic film series, “Star Wars.” It’s an ambitious action adventure set in a science fiction universe, and Luke Skywalker must save the world. But fundamentally, it’s the story of a family.

George Lucas conceived the tale by exploring the circle of life in the fractured relationship of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, and how each man affected those people whom they came into contact with. Luke was a catalyst—his presence made things happen. Anakin embodied self-deception.

The same is true of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones book. It begins with a family and follows the circle of life and death.

If we learn anything from comparing these two epic series, it is that inside that overarching theme of the circle of life lies many common polarities.

Nowhere do we find more opportunities for conflict than within a family. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Sub-themes in the family saga will be:

Good vs. evil

Illusions vs. reality

Jealous vs. trusting

Justice vs. injustice

Love vs. hate

Order vs. chaos

Truth vs. falsehoods

Wealth vs. poverty

Young vs. old

These same themes that we employ in the small story of one family can easily be applied to a larger, more epic saga, such as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the “family” is an entire nation.

Looking beyond the obvious, we find the subtle polarities to instill into our work. Small subliminal conflicts highlight and support the theme. When you add texture to the narrative, you add depth.

Take pain—in my personal experience, the absence of pain was only appreciated once I had experienced true physical pain.

It’s like everything else we take for granted: we don’t think about pain if we have never felt it.

I find inspiration in the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. When I am looking for a way to add a particular emotion to a scene, I look up the word I want to convey and see what the opposites are. This is an affordable resource for the cash-strapped author because it can be purchased in paperback for between $9.00 and $12.00 USD.

Here are some polarities we can apply when fleshing out a character:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Synonyms and Antonyms and look up danger:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

Those are three “D” words that have great opposites. In one dark scene, we can convey peril, and the feeling of hopelessness a character might feel. The light and hope we offer at the end of the story shine brighter when they are contrasted against darkness and despair.

Think of Frodo and Sam on Mt. Doom after Gollum and the ring are destroyed. Darkness and sure peril are followed by light and salvation.

Polarity is an essential tool of world building. Small polarities in the interactions your characters have with each other add to the atmosphere and serve to show their world in subtle ways.

If you can’t afford to buy the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms, the internet is your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. This is a free resource.

I try to find ways to add depth by employing polarity. Each small polarity creates conflict, pushes my characters a bit further.

If I’m smart with the way I write it, small polarities will support and define my larger theme without beating the reader over the head.

As I say, this requires me to be skillful in the writing process, which is sometimes easier said than done.


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The Interpretive Layer of the Word-Pond: Theme

Deep within the narrative, mingling with other heavier aspects of Story and sinking to the bottom of the Word-Pond is theme. A fundamental underpinning of the story, theme can be a tricky fish to get a grip on. Theme is a subtle aspect of any written work. It is rarely stated in a bald fashion, but even if it isn’t obvious, theme is a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

According to Wikipedia:

A theme is different from 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.” [1]

In other words, 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 sometimes it is an unstated moral for the reader to infer.

I’ve said this elsewhere, but theme is an idea-thread that winds through the story, supports and gives meaning to the plot. On the surface, each of the different commercial literary genres looks different. Each genre is deliberately tailored to fit a wide variety of niche readers. Yet, from shelf to shelf, we will find commonalities, themes that all stories tell in one way or another.

Genre is the bookstore label guiding a reader to the shelf containing books they are most likely to enjoy.

But some aspects of Story are universal and independent—they roam through all the genres from children’s books to literary fiction and connect them.

Theme is a universal feature of Story.

We all recognize Romance as a theme. It can be the major theme or a supporting theme. Romantic love is a defining feature of the genre of Romance. But what are some different aspects of love that can be found in every genre from fantasy to sci-fi, to horror, to crime fiction?

  • Love gained (the fairytale romance)
  • Love lost
  • Tragic love
  • Selfish love
  • Passion
  • Brother/Sisterly love
  • Dangerous Attraction
  • Friendship
  • Parental love

Love is only one theme despite the fact an entire genre has been built around it. Others abound, large central concepts that build tension within the Story.

Here is a brief list, just a small jumping off point for your creative mind. Some are large themes that entire genres have been built around, and others are good supporting themes:

  • Separation and reunion
  • Grief
  • Nostalgia for the good old days
  • Ambition
  • Fall from Grace
  • Rebellion and revolution
  • Redemption
  • Coming of age
  • Crime and Justice
  • Midlife crisis
  • Alienation/loneliness
  • The hero’s journey
  • Humanity in jeopardy
  • War
  • General dehumanization of society
  • Conspiracy
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Plagues
  • Religious intolerance
  • Abuse

Again, Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, offers us wisdom:

(Theme) 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 (hypothesis; idea)—the text’s or author’s implied worldview. [2]

Sometimes we can visualize a complex theme but can’t explain it. If we can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common theme that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi, or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level. When you see a dog grieving the loss of her mistress, or a husband grieving for his wife—what do you see? You can’t read their mind, so you must look for clues. What behaviors inspire empathy for their sorrow in you, the observer?

Highlighting a strong theme can be a challenge if you begin without a plan. A plan is not always required because, in some stories, the flash of inspiration we begin with is a strong theme. The theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is. In my case, I need a plan fifty percent of the time.

Whatever the case, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

Other times, it is difficult to decide what the underlying theme is, and the story is weak. It has no legs and won’t ring true until you find out what the underlying theme is. This requires a little mind-wandering on your part. You must ruminate on the character’s quest or dilemma. Ask yourself what the root cause of the issue is—if it is a crime, why is crime rampant. Is it a societal problem? If the core dilemma is unrequited love, what are the roadblocks to a resolution?

Themes exist in every story. However, when we are first laying down the story, themes are like your drunk uncle—they hang out in the bar until closing time when they have to weave their way home through dark alleys and the neighbor’s shrubs. When you have finished your first draft (closing time), if you still haven’t found the defining theme, look in the local bar in the first chapters for clues your subconscious mind has sprinkled throughout the story. If you still haven’t got a theme, pick one and develop it.

At the surface level of the Word-Pond, each genre looks widely different. But when you go deeper, you find that all literary genres have one thing in common: they have protagonists and side-characters who all must deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (arts),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(arts)&oldid=848540721 (accessed July 27, 2019).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed July 27, 2019).


Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.
Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).


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