Storytelling is an act of communication–as writers, we are driven to create narratives because we have something to say.
That doesn’t mean every story has to come out swinging, like the fables you may have studied in grade school. Most good works of fiction don’t beat their readers over the head with some heavy-handed moral, or a preachy political message.
The theme of a story can be a subtle observation about human nature, a ‘here’s what it feels like to discover your own mortality,’ or ‘here’s something I’ve noticed about losing a loved one, falling in or out of love’, etc. It can be romantic or deadly serious, a low-key observation or a big insight into life’s greater mysteries. It can address a specific historical event, as does Richard Bowes’s 9/11 ghost story, “There’s a Hole in the City,” or a more generalized experience: war, car accidents, divorce.
Often when we are writing draft, we don’t know what our themes are. It’s entirely common for a writers to not necessarily know what they’re saying within a given story until that draft is written. . . and that’s absolutely fine. Our initial spark for a given book is quite often something very concrete: a character, a setting, or a situation. While that initial inspiration may be tied to whatever deeper things a writer wishes to say, it is normal to find those ideas don’t really surface until the text is actually on the page.
Why worry about theme at all if your subconscious mind is on the job? Because after you’ve got that draft in your hands, it’s worthwhile to figure out what you’re saying, how you’ve said it and whether you’ve made your argument successfully. The reason is this: fiction can be more sophisticated and pleasing when it has a unity that comes from the author’s having paid attention to all of its elements.
When I ask students to identify the theme of a given piece, I like to see a simple sentence. Rather than “Justice” for example, I like to at least see “This story is about Justice” or, preferably, “At times, our justice system is unjust.”
With this in mind, take a moment to see if you can express the themes of a few of your favorite motion pictures, television shows, and books. Don’t be concerned if they seem simple. It is entirely possible to do a complex and nuanced exploration of what seems like a simple proposition, even a cliche. Readers have their own experiences to bring to bear on universal propositions, such as: “Having a sick parent is hard;” “Raising a child is rewarding;” or “Cheaters sometimes do prosper.”
Making the reader ‘get it’
When writing students are asked to consider theme, a risk arises that they will become focused on this element to the exclusion of all else, overcomplicating their ‘message’ and then feeling frustration if their instructor and classmates don’t understand or agree with what they are saying. At times like this, writers may ask: how can I make readers get my theme?
The answer, frustratingly enough, is that they don’t have to. However, your peers, instructors and workshop partners should be at least able to see what you are saying, though–if they can’t, it probably means this element of your story is murky.
Other questions to ask when considering your story’s thematic content:
Do you know what your story is about?
How important is that theme to you?
Does it address that topic?
Are you satisfied with what the story says?
Imagery as it relates to theme:
Moving on, what is imagery and how does it relate to this idea of theme?
You probably remember the basics from English classes you have taken throughout your educational career. Imagery, in literary terms, is language which evokes sensory experience. It includes similes, metaphors, and allusions.
Imagery is what makes your prose poetic; it is what elevates your novel from being a transcript of plot and character action and into another realm of artistic achievement. But to what end? Perhaps, you think, it’s hard enough to tell an interesting story clearly without gumming up the works with a lot of arty language. And it may be that you are a spare prose stylist, with a light hand with such flourishes. Everyone approaches imagery differently: some of us flavor sparse powerful images and plainer prose; other writers layer on the metaphors heavily, even to excess (see purple prose).
All that said, the power of your fiction can increase exponentially if the images you choose resonate somehow with your theme.
Think of your novel as a musical instrument, specifically a piano. Imagine that each of its 88 strings is an element of your novel; a character, a plot development, a pivotal revelation, a theme. As you strike the various notes, music plays–a concert unfolds, carrying the reader along with it.
Now, imagine that the piano is out of tune.
A well-tuned work of fiction is merely one whose elements are in harmony with each other. If your story is about greed, which image is more appropriate to it: apple blossoms floating on a river, or crows fighting over scraps of garbage? If it about reawakening to joy after a long period of sadness, is it better to conclude it with a sunrise or a sunset?
With that in mind, look at the following lists. One is a series of themes, and the second is a random list of images.
First, see which list items feel like they might match.
Next, think about what kinds of stories you expect to see paired with the images, and what kind of images you expect to see in stories with the stated themes.
Finally, consider whether there are images not on the list that you prefer as possible partners for a given theme, or whether there are themes outside this very small roster that might go nicely with the images below.
Make a few notes, do a little thinking… and then have a look at this week’s novel submissions, and see if it sparks any insights.
List one – Themes… a few things a novel might be about
The cost of war
The extent of human obsession
Learning to forgive
The difference between right and fair
The cruelty of kids to one another
Faithfulness in marriage
The difficulty in being in competition with friends.
What is the nature of heroism?
Death of dreams
Failure versus the price of success
Learning to face tragedy
Miracle of new life
The joys of parenthood
List Two – Randomly Chosen Images
Fields of anonymous dead soldiers
Brown leaves and patches of snow
Breaking new eggs
Blowing dirt and tumbleweeds
Indecisive unhappy-looking shoppers
Empty swimming pools
Houses with broken windows
Well-oiled guns in a pristine cabinet.
No matter what genre you are writing in, your novel has to take place somewhere. In some cases that world is the here and now, a place you and your readers ought to find quite recognizable. In others, you may need to research a less familiar setting. No matter where or when you set a book, though, it is important to remember that every place and time is unique, and that no matter how ordinary an environment seems to you, there are readers who will find it vivid and intriguing–if only you take the time to make it so.
It is all too easy to take the present day for granted, but compare these two fragments:
“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
In the Woods, Tana French
The rain’s wet Denny’s shirt flat to his skinny back to so the bones of his shoulders and the trail of his spine show through, even whiter than the unbleached cotton material. The mud’s up around the tops of his wooden clogs and spilling in. Even with my hat on, my coat’s getting soaked, and the damp makes my dog and dice all wadded up in the crotch of my wool breeches start to itch. Even the crippled chickens have clucked off to find somewhere dry.
Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
Both of these novels take place in the present day, and both evoke the past as a means of anchoring writers in the present. But they couldn’t be more different. French evokes the romance of an Irish summer; Palahniuk the grim reality of a U.S. historical theme park on an especially dismal day. Despite the fact that they theoretically take place within the same world and timeframe, it is hard to imagine Denny and Victor running loose in the bright backyards of French’s Ireland.
Rather than letting your setting work as a simple, perhaps even generic background for your characters, think of it as the stage on which your novel takes place–and remember how much work goes into designing stages in theater and film. A good set is designed in detail, built from the ground up and carefully ‘dressed’ with objects and spaces that allow the characters and the audience to fully explore the world they move through. In a similar fashion, a well-rendered setting can amplify your theme, enhance mood, add new dimensions to a character’s plight, provide ‘props’ for the action, and even take on character traits of its own. More importantly, setting is where your readers ‘go’ when they enter your fiction. Writing transports readers out of their daily lives and into new realms. . . and, indeed, you will hear from many people that this experience is exactly what they are looking for when they pick up a novel.
Needless to say, some settings are more easily established than others. Speculative fiction authors may build entire worlds from scratch; writers of historical fiction must bring the past to life.
When looking at setting, whether during the draft or revision process, ask yourself what is remarkable about the environment in which your characters move. Might any element of your ‘stage’–from the weather to the architecture to the religious climate–be considered noteworthy, even extreme? What is the first thing an ordinary person would notice, were they to walk through this world? What would excite them, or scare them? What would arouse their curiosity? Where and when are they, in other words? Does the environment require anything special of them–access passes, survival gear, money, social status, a minimum level of physical fitness, a health concern, or simple travel?
Once you have given your setting some thought, your task becomes making it real to readers. How do you do that? You can describe your setting, of course–but all too often new writes fall into the trap of offering a few bland visuals before moving on. Pause for a moment, and think about all your senses. How does this place smell, taste? What are its textures? If there is a dominant visual element, is it particularly compelling?
When teachers or workshop members tell a writer their work could use more sensory detail, this is what they are talking about: specific images that allow readers to experience what being in a particular place is like.
Compare the two text fragments above once more. How many colors does Tana French mention? How many sounds and tastes has she evoked within the short passage quoted above? How many of these images are things you remember or can clearly imagine? What about the Palahniuk? Do you have a good idea of what that damp and rainy cold must be like?
Now, consider the novel you are working on. Where does it take place? What is that place actually like? What are its ambient smells, sounds, and colors? What is the quality of the light like? Are the surfaces hard, soft, or a mixture? What does a footstep sound like? Do voices echo? Is it hot or cold? Ask yourself: how does this place affect its people? Who are the wealthy and poor of this world, the weak and powerful? What is an ordinary person’s life like in this milieu?
If you’re working on something now that could use a dialed-up setting, take the time to make a short list of these details, breaking the list down into several examples of each sense being evoked: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Next, decide which of these details is most vivid, or see if you can sharpen them from the generic (a blue summer sky) to something more specific (French’s “hot pure silkscreen blue”).
When placing your reader within a particular setting, the old adage “show, don’t tell” comes in. Having made your list of vivid sensory details, place them within your narrative–and let your characters experience the reality you have created. Instead of saying “It was hot,” show your characters sweating miserably and fainting from heatstroke. If it stinks, have them gag, complain, run in the other direction, or, eyes watering, reach for a gas mask.
If you can learn to evoke the heart of your setting with intensely sensory phrases, preferably filtering the sensations through a point of view character you’re developing at the same time, you’re already on your way to writing an unforgettable book.
Once you have critiques in hand from a workshop, how do you take your first-draft story and turn it into a marketable commodity? Which criticisms do you take to heart, and how do you decide which to set aside?
At every stage of the writing process, your instincts must work hand-in-hand with hard-won skills. The good news is that as you write, workshop, and revise stories, these instincts and skills will naturally improve. Practice really does make perfect! The more you read and critique the work of others while simultaneously exposing your own fiction to critique, the better you will become at polishing your work.
A reasonable plan for starting on post-workshop revision might go like this:
- Reread all of the critiques. Start by noting any story flaws mentioned by more than one reader–if a specific complaint arises several times, it is most likely a serious problem. Put these critiques at the top of a list of revision priorities, and spend some time thinking–without actually altering your manuscript–about how you might want to change your story to address them.
- Look for comments made by one or at most two readers. Figure out which you agree with and add them to your checklist. Again, take a little time once this second list is made to simply think about what you might do to answer these critiques.
- Third, look for areas where your readers disagreed. If half of a workshop really likes a story element while the rest hate it passionately, you are stuck making a judgment call. By this stage, however, you’ve already given some thought to the key changes you’re planning to make to your story. Those plans should help you figure out what to do about more controversial story elements.
- Look at line edits and minor quibbles. You can add these to the revision list or just keep them in mind.
At the end of this process, you should end up with a list of things you are going to do to the story… one that doesn’t include the criticisms you have decided to set aside.
Set that list out of sight and start revising the story. Don’t look at it again until you feel as though your draft is coming together. Then compare the work you’ve done with the list you’ve made. See which problems you haven’t addressed yet, decide whether they are still valid, and keep at it until you have–in one way or another–dealt with every item.
At this stage you should have a nearly marketable manuscript, and it is very worthwhile to do one or two more passes through the story at this stage specifically to polish your prose. (More on prose here!)
- Look at all the dialogue and see if it flows well. Make sure characters aren’t borrowing each others’ accents or verbal idiosyncracies, that it is obvious who is speaking in every line, and that the scene’s mini-conflicts are obvious within the dialogue.
- It’s tedious, but go through and look at all your verbs. Are they pulling their weight, or would a more vivid word choice be better?
- See how many adverbs you can trim.
- If the story feels wordy or long in any way, one excellent exercise is to try and cut one word or phrase from every paragraph. Doing this twice in a row can give you a nice lean prose style.
- Use the Seem, Some, Sigh page in your Writer’s Roadmap to search for any words you may have overused.
- Go through making note of scene breaks and important transitions. Read through those breaks and see if they can be smoothed.
- Most importantly, print off and read the whole story aloud, marking any awkward-sounding passages with a pencil. A story should be clear and comprehensible, but if its prose can also sound beautiful to the ear, you have a winner on your hands.
With almost all of my classes, the final assignment is to create a marketing plan for your piece–to identify a number markets that might be interested in publishing your fiction… and figuring out which of those markets to try first, second, third, etc.
Before sending out your manuscript, have a look at Vonda McIntyre’s manuscript preparation notes. Follow them scrupulously unless the specific market guidelines are different… in which case, do everything the editors ask.
Questions to ask when seeking markets for your story:
What is your chief goal in marketing the story? Are you chasing your first sale? Do you want a market that will qualify you for membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America? Is the pay rate a higher consideration than the relative prestige of the market? Are you willing to wait on a good market with a slow response time, or is a fast acceptance or rejection important to you?
If you have read this magazine or this editor’s anthologies before: Is your work like the fiction that appears in this market? Does the editor publish writers whose work is similar to yours?
Is the market appropriate? Does the market accept the genre of story you have written? Does it have a minimum or maximum word length? Is it on any “dead market” lists?
Novelists have a luxury that short story writers do not enjoy: they have fifty to a hundred thousand (or more) words in which to achieve their desired effect on readers. Those working with the short form of fiction labour under many of the same obligations: we have to create a universe, populate it, and paint a workable story on its canvas… but we have to do it at about one-tenth of the length. On the plus side, short story writers don’t usually have to explore the extended history of the world they are writing in, let alone generate maps! In short fiction, we rarely have to generate subplots for our stories, script extensive biographies for our principal characters, or create and educate readers in alien languages.
Many novels open slowly–they still have hooks, but a chief concern in beginning a novel-length work of SF often lies in establishing atmosphere as well as providing extensive setting and character details, giving a reader a sense of the novel’s milieu, establishing the author’s prose style, and setting out the principal symbolic and thematic elements of the piece. Stories do some of these things, but swiftly–we must introduce our story elements in a few paragraphs and then get on with the business of moving our conflict forward.
The trickiest issue in pacing short fiction, of course, is that your prose cannot seem breathless or rushed: unless you are writing an action sequence or another type of quick and choppy scene, your story has to feel unhurried; the reader must have time to breathe. Nobody wants to be quickly ushered through a plot and dropped off at its ending without so much as a wave goodbye. Somehow you have to provide a leisurely tour of your setting and a strong sense of your characters while carrying us swiftly to the story’s conclusion.
The key to the unhurried brevity demanded of short fiction is the power of suggestion. Letting small details suggest volumes about your world and its people is tricky, but it is also a technique well worth learning. Examine how various SF writers accomplish this in the assigned readings and other stories; then look at your own work and see where your strengths lie.
If you can evoke your setting with a well-placed phrase here and there, if you can help a reader understand your character’s motives with the right snatch of dialogue or telling action, you will have more words left free for critical story issues: character transitions, exposition on the trickier elements of your SF concept, and polishing your prose to make the story a seamless and suspenseful whole.
Questions to ask about pacing:
- What is each scene accomplishing? Multitasking is the heart of fast-paced prose: if you can deepen character, advance plot, and provide setting details all at the same time, you are going to have a tightly written and entertaining piece.
- What elements of the piece are most important? If something matters, spend the time and the necessary words to make it clear, compelling and interesting. Look for moments where the characters’ situation changes. These are the points where the narrative should slow. Imagine a spotlight shining on these key transitions in your story… now highlight what’s going on in those sections.
- Where can you deepen your worldbuilding using suggestion, i.e. without adding huge amounts of verbiage? Are your proper nouns carrying their weight? (Connie Willis tells readers something about the universe in which her story “Spice Pogrom” takes place simply by naming the locale where it takes place the Space Station Sony.) Can you create a few interesting colloquial phrases to give readers a sense of the setting?
- Are you reinventing the wheel? Can you make use of some of the well-understood conventions of SF and folkore to establish the underpinnings of your world and save on words? In other words, could the bloodsucking fiends of your horror story be vampires? Could the odd, long-lived folk of your fantasy story be Elves? Sometimes drawing on the existing foundations of the genre leaves space for you to spotlight the areas where your unique vision of the universe comes into play.
Plot doesn’t pick up where characterization ends: the two are inextricable. It’s all very well to create a vibrant protagonist whom readers can relate to, but then you have to get that character into some kind of trouble. The engine that drives a short story’s plot is its protagonist’s wants and needs. Knowing your characters’ deepest desires–and why these desires motivate them–is critical.
Sparks begin to fly in fiction when characters come together–when we see them conflict, fall in love, betray each other, form alliances, and just plainly perform on the stage you’ve created for them. This can be accomplished in as little as a single scene between two characters. Most stories, though, move their conflict through a series of scenes whose tension increases incrementally until the conflict reaches its crisis and boils over.
Though an SF story’s element of the impossible certainly gives an author unique options for plot complications–few mainstream stories see a character blown out of a spaceship airlock, or trampled by a centaur–the mechanics of plotting are less affected by genre considerations than other story components like setting and character. At the heart of every story, fantastic or not, is a character with a problem: one that, for whatever reason, isn’t easily solved.
There are as many approaches to plotting a story as there are writers, but for those struggling to tighten a piece, a look at standard plot formulas can sometimes be helpful. Author Wendy Webb, for example, suggests that stories be structured using seven steps:
Hook (open with a high-impact phrase that engages reader interest)
Problem (clue readers in as to what the protagonist wants… and why s/he cannot have it)
Backfill (now that the audience is engaged, provide whatever context is required)
Complications (the protagonist encounters obstacles in his first attempts to achieve the goal.)
Action (more attempts, more failures)
Dark Moment (the goal seems out of reach… but is it?)
Resolution (The protagonist succeeds or fails, and we see the final result of his struggle.)
An alternative structure used by other writers is even simpler:
Intro (similar to hook, above)
Resolution: Things Get Worse
Resolution: Things Get Still Worse
Resolution: Where Character Either Triumphs or Dies
Some writers find these plot bones useful in initially planning their stories. Others prefer to veer off-road, blazing their own trail through the plot jungle. Where these structures often come in useful is after you have a first draft. At that point, compare your piece with the structures provided above. Analyzing an existing draft with an eye to clarifying and strengthening the conflict will always make it stronger, and plot formulas like the ones above are useful tools in forming this analysis.
Remember, though, that the true key to plotting lies not in following a formula, but in establishing a conflict that readers can clearly identify (and identify with), bringing it to a crisis, and then resolving that crisis in an emotionally satisfying fashion. If you can pull this off, your story will be a successful work of fiction.
Questions to ask when plotting a story:
Think through your unwritten story on a scene by scene basis:
- Does each scene advance the plot?
- Does the conflict come into play within each scene?
- Is it possible to increase the tension of some or all of your scenes?
Are all the elements of plot present in your draft?
- When can the reader say, positively, that they know what forces are in conflict in your story?
- Can they identify the moment of crisis and its resolution?
- Are the protagonist’s actions in pursuit of her goal logical?
What emotions do your characters experience as the story progresses?
- Is your protagonist happy, sad, anxious, or in some other emotional state when the story begins?
- How far from this starting point is the story going to move them? (Remember that a character who is already in crisis on page one of a piece has nowhere to go but up, whereas one who is happy–or only moderately distressed–can be set up more easily for a big plunge.)
How suspenseful is your story?
- What is it that your reader wants to know or experience?
- Do you have a plan for balancing the need to surprise readers against the need to make your characters’ actions believable?
- Do your characters’ actions make sense?
- Is what is happening clear at every stage of the story?