Tag Archives: 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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#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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#amwriting: using allegory to underscore theme

the Matrix PosterGreat novels, like great movies, are built of many layers. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.

Allegory is an essential tool of the author who wants to convey important ideas with the least amount of words. One of my works-in-progress is a contemporary novel. I need to convey a Gothic atmosphere in this piece and yet maintain the setting and time-frame of a novel set squarely in the  21st century. The way I am doing this is through the use of allegory. With symbolism in mind, I try to approach writing a scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. Each conversation is an event and must advance the story.

Consider this scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, The Matrix. The films of The Matrix trilogy pit man against machine in a clearly drawn battle, but they also reveal that the humans are more machine-like than they think, and that the machines possess human qualities as well. These are the obvious themes, but there are several underlying concepts going at the same time.

The movies in this series are famous for the action, and rightfully so.  But great choreographed martial arts sequences can’t convey the concepts the authors needed to express. The advancement of the plot hinges on dialogue. Dialogue drives the action and connects the fundamental ideas of the story through the intentional use of allegory. The authors never lost the way, because every aspect of that script is steeped in symbolism that directly points to the overall theme(s).

Quotes from the matrix

 

The conversation concerns a drug deal, but the overarching idea of the blurred line between humans and machines is never lost.

The key words are in the first line, written on Neo’s computer:

  1. The Matrix has you,
  2. the third line,follow the white rabbit,
  3. and in that very last line, telling Neo to unplug.

The obvious plot of The Matrix series of films details a questioning of what reality is and portrays Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. Dig slightly deeper, and you see that it is about escaping that program, at which point the audience sees that a larger theme is in play: fate vs. free will.

Even before that larger concept is made clear, the conversations that happen in the course of the film all advance that theme, even the minor interactions, from the first conversation to the last.

The storytelling in The Matrix movies is a brilliant example of employing heavy allegory in both the setting and conversations to drive home the motifs of man, machine, fate, and free will.

The themes are represented with heavy symbolism in the names of the characters, the words used in conversations, and even the androgynous clothes they wear. Everything on the set or mentioned in conversation underscores those themes, including the lighting. 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.

The creators of the movie even used the lighting as an allegory showing that Neo’s world is filtered through something else: The Matrix.

The arc of the story is driven by

  1. who has the information,
  2. when they learned it, (and when the audience learns it)
  3. what they did on learning that information.

In our own work, if we don’t keep the arc of the story moving toward the final conclusion with each scene, we will lose our reader. To that end, we disseminate information in small increments, with the reader learning what she must know at the same time our protagonist does. Using symbolism and allegory is a way to get the most information out there in the least amount of words, but it requires intention on the part of the author. Words, phrases, and setting must be chosen and the narrative’s prose must be crafted.

Crafted prose does not mean flowery prose. If you reexamine the above excerpt from The Matrix, you see lean dialogue, spare and to the point. It is in the symbolism of the setting, their names, their attire, and the authors’ choice of words that we get the most information. 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.

We build the overall arc of the story from scenes, each of which is a small arc, in the same way a gothic cathedral is constructed of many arches that all build toward the top.  The underlying arches strengthen the overall construction. Without arches, the cathedral wouldn’t remain standing for very long.

Theme is a thread that winds through the story and supports the plot. Using allegory and symbolism in the environment to subtly underscore your themes allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.

Picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie, and consider how you can use allegory to support your story arc. When we are immersed in reading it, we don’t notice the heavy symbolism on a conscious level, but on closer examination it is all there, making the imaginary real, solid and concrete.

By using allegory and conversations to create many layers, we can build memorable stories that will stand out in the reader’s mind.

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#amwriting: Theme: chaos or stability

Fall of Angels L E Modesitt JrA common theme in fantasy is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability, or order. Good versus evil is a trope of the genre, and  evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.

Author L.E. Modesitt Jr. has taken the theme of chaos and order and built his Magic of Recluce series around the comparison and contrasts of the two, with each side being given the protagonists’ POV in different books as the series progresses. He has been able to really explore the way each side’s magic is expressed, and the moral and ethical values that each side holds dear.

Both sides consider themselves morally superior, and both sides are wary of those who walk that gray path in the middle, which allows Modesitt real opportunities to put his protagonists through the wringer.

Trumps_of_doomThe late Roger Zelazney’s brilliant Chronicles of Amber series also details the distinctions between Chaos and Order, and moral and ethical challenges of those who travel from reality to reality through the shadows, with each shadow growing more radical depending on the distance from Castle Amber (which represents Order).

In several of his works, elements of each are combined freely and interchangeably. Jack of Shadows and Changeling, for example, revolve around the tensions between the two worlds of magic and technology, or order and chaos.

But what is chaos, and what is order ?

Google defines Chaos as

Chaos definition

Google also defines Order as:

order definition

Either side of the coin, when taken to an extreme, can be truly evil.

Consider chaos, or AnarchyWhen a culture descends into anarchy, you have an absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual. While this frequently begins as an attempt to allow for individual freedoms without state interference, history shows that what follows is the emergence of a violent culture that is beyond the reach of law.  There is no law and no one capable of enforcing it. The strongest, most violent thugs rise to the top and frequently war with each other, while the common person is caught in the middle. Followers of each warlord are rewarded with the spoils of conquest, which are often goods taken from the common citizen who must somehow survive under that tyranny.

war and peaceNow let’s look at order: totalitarianism, or total order can also be a form of tyranny: everything is static and nothing changes. There is centralized control by an autocratic authority, combined with the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority. No divergence from the norm can be tolerated, and good, obedient citizens are rewarded, while deviants who are seen to be free-thinkers, intellectuals, and artists are persecuted and imprisoned, or killed.

Anarchy=instability and a breakdown of society. Totalitarianism=lack of growth and stagnation of society. For most people’s comfort, a good society allows for both law and creativity.

In extreme types of societies, power is everything, and drawing negative attention to yourself is dangerous. Thus chaos-based societies are usually represented in literature as having an underlying order that holds them together, and order-based societies are often represented as requiring the ability to grow and change, but within certain parameters.

The theme of order and chaos can really power a story-line, and the way you perceive them will not be the way another author sees them. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and Roger Zelazney couldn’t be more different in the way they portrayed these concepts.

If you haven’t read Zelazney’s works, I highly recommend them.

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What are you #writing: Identifying your theme

herowithathousandfacescd2000When I read a book, I connect to the sense of wonder that each event or plot twist in a story evokes for the protagonists.  I am extremely partial to those books in in which the protagonist faces his/her own demons and finds a hero within themselves, a person who faces the unknown and finds the courage to do what he/she believes is morally right.

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s  LOTR series. He clearly knew that personal growth and the many forms that heroism can take are central themes of his stories, and while there are many side-quests taking the different characters away from the physical journey of the One Ring, Tolkien never strayed from the concept of the hero’s journey.

What is the “hero’s journey”?  The concept of the heroic journey was first introduced by the American mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949). In this ground-breaking work, he discusses the monomyth, or the hero’s journey. He describes how this motif is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve

  1. a hero going on an adventure,
  2. and who, in a decisive crisis, wins a victory,
  3. and who then returns to his home changed or transformed.

Take Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit: When Bilbo Baggins faces the giant spiders he also faces his own cowardice, and he is filled with amazement that he could do such a thing. This is the first step in his realization that he has courage apart from the invisibility conferred on him by the ring he found earlier. He has courage, and yes, he is afraid, but he is not afraid to be courageous. This is a core concept of this book, and of the entire Lord of the Rings series, set in Middle Earth.

398px-Heroes journey by Christopher Vogler

The diagram is loosely based on Campbell (1949) and (more directly?) on Christopher Vogler, “A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (seven-page-memo 1985). Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In my own work, personal growth and the hero’s journey are often the central themes. This is because those are the stories that intrigued me most as a young reader, and they intrigue me now as an adult.

What is the central theme of your work? Here are a few themes commonly found in popular genre fiction, besides the Hero’s Journey:

Dial-a-Plot

Every one of these themes will force the protagonist to grow and change in some way. Every one of them will challenge his ideas of morality and push him to act in ways that force him to evolve. That kind of growth is what makes characters intriguing and memorable.

When we are constantly prodded to make our work focus on action instead of introspection, it becomes easy to wander way off track. Ask yourself if the action has been inserted for the sake of the shock value, or if this scene is necessary to force change and growth on the protagonist. How will her fundamental ethics and ideals be challenged by this event? If there is no personal cost, there is no need for that scene.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time.

You never know when you will need those ideas, so never just throw them away–always keep the things you cut in a separate file. Remember, just because that idea doesn’t work for this book, doesn’t mean it won’t work in another book.

I label that file “outtakes,” and believe me, it has come in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.

Keeping in mind the underlying theme of your story while you are laying down the first draft is important. If your inspiration seems to faint somewhere along the middle, it may be that you have lost track of what you originally imagined your story was about and your characters no longer know what they are fighting for. Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it the death of hope?

Sometimes we are so busy setting traps and roadblocks for our protagonist and his nemesis that the action takes over and becomes the theme. The action is there to force the character to grow, not simply for the sake of action. When we are deep in the creative process, it’s easy to forget that characters must evolve.

Remember, there was a fundamental theme in your mind when you first imagined you had a story to write, and once you identify that core concept, you may find you are no longer stuck.

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