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.
My UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course, Novel Writing II, is in full swing and I haven’t yet found a book that goes well with fourteen student novels-in-progress.
I am continuing to write about 1200-1500 words a day on my current novel, as part of my Clarion West Write-A-Thon commitment. The naming contest is still on the go for sponsors. Right now, a donation of any size will get you into the draw for a chance to name a landmark, person or animal species. It’ll take at least $35 to be the biggest donor and thereby get the right to name an island nation. Here’s a snippet about another island, Tiladene:
“Perhaps, too, since you’re an outlander . . . ”
What else had she done? “Yes?”
“Lais Dariach . . . he’s from Tiladene.”
Tiladene. That word was on one of Gale’s coins. “You said that. So?”
“They’re somewhat . . . promiscuous.”
The significant look on Dracy’s face made her want to giggle. “You mean sexually promiscuous?”
“They don’t believe in marriage–in faithfulness.”
“Okay, got it. Your other passenger–”
Lais is from Friends with Benefits Island.”
Planet of the Polyamorous Sluts, she thought, lightheaded. Didn’t the Star Trek guys used to go somewhere like that for shore leave?
And then: A little shore leave wouldn’t be the worst idea I ever had. And he is cute.
This week’s writing essay is just a “What is,” and a “How to” on an important technical aspect of story structure–the workings of a thing we call Point of View.
Understanding point of view–POV, as we usually say–is as necessary to the process of writing as knowing the rules of the road is basic to learning to drive. If you don’t know which side of the road your car belongs on, or that you’re required to signal before turning, you are doomed to have a short career as a driver. (Or to use a medical analogy–if you can’t tell a human from a horse, your chances of becoming a doctor may be rather slim.)
Does that mean POV is dull? A dry and necessary fundamental, something to be gotten out of the way before moving on to fun and cool topics like voice and scenebuilding? Definitely not. The beauty and power of this element of writing is subtle, though, and once you have a good grip on it, it tends to work invisibly, behind the scenes. When you get into your car every morning, you don’t have to remind yourself to stop at traffic lights; it becomes so basic–so completely obvious–that the sight of an orange light will trigger the proper reaction in a driver without conscious thought.
An experienced driver rarely considers the intricacies of basic traffic law, but focus your attention on a few key details of this apparently dull phenomenon for a second:
1) Millions of people understand and agree on the basic rules and follow them.
2) Those “basics” allow these same people and their passengers to hurtle through space at hundreds of kilometers per hour and to travel significant vast distances in minutes.
3) Visualize the complex simplicity of a highway system, with its multi-lane traffic and the system of entrances and exits which allows travellers to move together and then separate as needed.
4) Last, consider the tragic crashes that sometimes result when people flout these agreed-upon rules.
Point of view is crucial in just the same way, and often just as invisible.
If you’ve been following these essays of mine on craft, there are some basic things about book-writing that you probably know by now:
Novels are about people. This is true even if all your characters are talking bunnies or lovelorn vampires.
99.99% of novels are going to have more than one character.
These individuals will have relationships, which will grow and change over the course of the book.
One of these individuals will stand out. They are the protagonist, or main character (henceforth, MC)
The action of your novel and the behavior of the other people in your story will all move, to some extent, in relation to the journey of your MC.
So far, so good, yes? I hope the above points are blindingly obvious to you all. Here’s a few more:
The long-running trend in fiction in Western fiction is to give MC a significant goal, need or desire: whether it is solving the mystery, battling with cancer, understanding themselves, connecting with an estranged loved one, finding true love, becoming a star, or finishing law school.
Whatever it is, it’s identifiable to readers and deeply important to them.
Whatever that need is, whether they will succeed in fulfilling ought to be in question. “I was looking for a job and then, no problem, I found a job,” isn’t a novel. (“I was looking for a job and then, holy @#$@! you wouldn’t believe what happened…” on the other hand…)
The MC has some good qualities and some bad ones. Not every MC is a saint, or even necessarily nice. However, they have some quality that makes the reader interested enough to stick with them for 500+ pages: they are, to reference a previous essay, funny, smart or nice.
The MC makes an appearance early in the book, in a way that makes it clear that they are the one.
Finally, there’s that dreaded character change thing: traditional Western novel structure tends to go thusly: the MC’s flaws get in the way of achieving their goal, and then when they overcome those flaws (if they do), they either get what they wanted or find they have grown beyond it.
How does a reader know when they’ve met the main character? If you aren’t sure, rewatch a few minutes of a favorite movie this week, one you know well. Keep the media remote in your hand and pause whenever an important character appears for the first time. Ask yourself: if I hadn’t already seen this, would I think they’re the protagonist? How do you know? Notice how they look, what they say, what they do. How are they lit? What’s the camera angle like? The music? At the end of each such scene, take a moment to think about what you learned about this character. What stuck, in other words?
(This is worth doing with all the major characters, even after you’ve met the protagonist.)
Then watch just a little more, briefly considering those characters who were too minor to rate this treatment. In general, they probably weren’t named, and didn’t draw much attention to themselves. If someone isn’t important to the flow of the story, a writer will probably ‘dial down’ their entries and exits from the narrative, to ensure that the reader’s consciousness doesn’t snag on them. We don’t want our audiences focused on Hill the maid when we’re reading about whether Miss Elizabeth Bennett will accept Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal.
Beginning writers sometimes throw their MC into a first scene with nothing but a first name, and perhaps a wisp of physical description. These poor ciphers then move into the plot without ever giving us much sense of themselves as individuals. Establishing who a character is-taking a second to give us some telling detail that makes them unique, memorable and worth knowing-doesn’t have to take thousands of words. It is, however, an entirely worthwhile effort.
How do you do it? Start by noticing what is distinctive about everyone in your lives. Is it a physical trait, an incident in their past, a situation they’re in? (A person with a South Carolina accent isn’t unique in South Carolina . . . but move them to Vancouver, B.C., and they suddenly become exotic.) Are they addicts? Achievers? Disabled? Sociopathic? Colorblind?
What ‘s the first thing you’d say about these individuals if you were talking to a third party? And hey–what would you say it if they weren’t present to defend themselves? What would you say at their eulogy?
Those are the details we desperately want whenever you’re introducing us to an important character, especially if they’re your MC. You aren’t making a film: you can’t cue the audience with music or other non-linguistic cues, but the idea is the same. Take some time. Shine some light on them. Show how they’re special.
But wait! What if the MC of your hyper-realistic novel is totally, completely, utterly, boringly normal?
First, I’d ask: Are they really? I believe everyone is unique, that they have some trait that makes them stand out from the crowd. See how many times you can complete the following sentence, drawing on the real-life people you’ve met:
S/he is completely ordinary, except for _______________________________.
If you’ve got a book on the go, have a look at your MC, paying particular attention to their first entrance into your novel. Have you taken a moment or two to give us a sense of who they are? Do they get the spotlight, or are they passing through the story, all but invisibly? Are they talking heads, devoid of anything but voice?
If so, dress them up. Give them a little love. Get them dirty. Remember, if you are passionate about your characters, readers will be, too.
(Dessert – Katya’s non-profit marketing blog on telling details.)
Unless you have been living in seclusion up until now, actively avoiding all forms of writing advice and instruction, you should have encountered the phrase Show, don’t Tell. The question of writing in scenes, (rather than simply summarizing some character action) falls under this Show, don’t Tell umbrella.
(If you want the larger picture on this idea of Show, here are links to a couple excellent entry points:
http://fictionmatters.blogspot.com/2009/10/writing-workshop-show-vs-tell.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell )
For the moment, though, I’m going to home in on the idea of scene writing for two reasons:
- In my reading of hundreds of student manuscripts, I have found that the most frequent beginner problem I encounter is writers who summarize the key moments of a story, rather than dramatizing them.
- It is my passionate belief that summaries are almost never stories: they do not succeed artistically or commercially. It may not feel entirely comfortable at first, but if you are serious about learning to write fiction, you must learn to write in scenes rather than just implying that they’re happening.
Let me start, first, by addressing a question that will inevitably arise in some of your minds: do I mean that you should never summarize–that every single word of your manuscript should be devoted to real-time action? Of course not. Quick mentions of certain types of story information can be revealed to readers if they meet a few criteria.
- They must be important enough to merit inclusion at all–in other words, they are not so trivial that they ought to be cut.
- They’re simple details, things that can be conveyed fast and elegantly.
Here are some examples of perfectly legitimate “tell” sentences:
- She wrestled with the question of clothing and settled for her most conservative suit. (This shows “she” has a meeting, but isn’t quite sure to expect.)
- Dithering about which route to take made him late. (The dithering doesn’t matter; the tardiness is what is important).
- Ma’s attitude when she saw him off was frosty; there would be a scene at dinner. (This is a promise to the reader that there will be some conflict, onstage, at suppertime.)
- They had spent six years competing for a promotion… (Obviously you aren’t gong to play out all six years of cut and thrust. Equally obvious, I hope, is that whatever is happening now is the key moment in that conflict.)
- He had bluffed his way through the last bounced chck, and sweet-talked that collections guy yesterday. (Here what’s established is past character action, setting up what is probably going to be a failed attempt to get away with it the third time.)
See how each of the above examples is setting up some action to come? The meeting, an event that some poor fellow is late arriving to, a parent-child fight in the evening, work conflict, and so on? Summaries of this sort can be used to get readers to the meat of the story–the important thing. And that important thing–to belabor the obvious–is the scene.
Contrast the above sentences with ones where the quickly-referenced action is obviously important:
- She wore her most conservative suit to the meeting. . . and everyone showed up naked, causing her considerable embarrassment.
- They had a relationship-shattering argument about which fork in the road to take.
- Everything he had fought for for six years came crashing down in flames when Ms. Jones brought the stolen Powerpoint presentation to the meeting. Nobody believed it was his work. She got the promotion and he got fired.
The above examples describe pivotal events within your conflict–events that should unfold as we read. We want to hear every word of that relationship-breaking fight, and be there in the room when ‘she’ is the only person there in clothes.
What are the characteristics of implied scenes?
- Generally, they are short.
- They reference character interaction but have little or no dialogue.
- They address important choices, character actions, or conflict in a few sentences.
- They may tell us what characters are doing or feeling, using s/he felt, s/he thought, or I verbed-type sentence structures.
- They have little in the way of sensory detail or setting description.
- In tone, they may sound a bit like a somewhat dull book written for younger readers.
Here’s a somewhat longer example based on a classic horror situation:
Halfway there, they argued about which fork in the road to take. Bob favored the shortcut; Jane wanted to stay on the road clearly marked on the map. Bob teased her for being scared of the short-cut, which was creepy looking. Feeling embarrassed and hurt, Jane let him have his way.
The first thing to notice about this fork in the road tiff is that it is a plot point. Obviously, this choice is going to have consequences further into the story. (If it doesn’t, then the whole thing is a waste of a paragraph.)
Second, there’s character conflict going on in it, which is potentially interesting.
The third is how little we learn from the above passage. The fork is described as creepy. Jane is sensible but a bit wimpy, and Bob is, perhaps, a bit mean.
Perhaps you’re thinking that’s not bad. Anyone who’s seen a few crime dramas or suspense/horror films can easily fill in the blanks, right? This scene always plays out the same way.
But you aren’t writing, I hope, simply to encourage our audiences to cobble together a story out of remembered bits of their late night TV viewing. You want to put them in the car with the quarrelling couple. You want to raise the hairs on the backs of their neck when Jane peers down the shortcut. Maybe you even want to play against their expectations.
So how do you do that. . . especially if you are still trying to get comfortable with scene writing?
Step One: Talk it Out. This may seem awkward the first few times you try it, but the simplest, most mechanical approach for getting into scenewriting is to start with dialogue–write it like a script for a radio play.
Bob: Hey, there’s the shortcut I mentioned.
Jane: It’s not on the GPS.
Bob: Come on, I know where I’m going.
Jane: My experience with shortcuts is they take longer and the roads are worse.
Bob: Who was going 90 a minute ago? You said being late would be a disaster. Why are we late now? Because you hit the speed trap.
Jane: Exactly. Haste makes waste. Going off road now, down some. . . there aren’t any lights or signs.
Bob: Honey, it’s daytime.
Jane: For now. And look, up there . . .
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
Jane: Gopher? That carcass is huge! Whatever it is, it probably would show up on satellite.
Bob. And it stinks, granted, but if you’d just put it in the rear view…
Jane: Fine, have it your way!
My point with the above example isn’t that it has the depth and subtlety of Shakespeare. What the above does have going for it is conflict and immediacy–it is playing out as we read it, in other words. Even without description, dialogue tags or action, it is already more specific than the summary.
Left with the summary and informed by the tropes of television and cinema, a typical reader will put the man in the driver’s seat and set the stage at twilight or night. Instead, we have a brightly sunlit strip of road with a mangled corpse of some unknown, largish animal on it. What’s more, the woman arguing against the short cut is literally in the driver’s seat. If they take the ‘bad’ fork, the responsibility rests with Jane, not just Bob. For good or ill, just putting words in our characters’ mouths has moved at least a few paces away from standard Hollywood fare.
Step Two: Flesh it out. Writing just the dialogue for a scene puts the characters onstage and gives you the bones of the conflict; now fill in the rest. This isn’t a radio play, after all, it’s prose fiction. So start with those details that aren’t delivered elegantly in conversation.
Let’s tweak a couple lines.
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
“Gopher?” Jane said. “That carcass is huge! ”
She was right–in fact, whatever it was was probably big enough to pick up on satellite. A deer? Moose? Bear? Hair and hamburger, warming in the sun, and all of it obscured by a shifting murder of crows. . . Bob cleared his throat. “Let’s make up our minds one way or the other, okay? Whatever it is, the smell’s getting in the car.”
What have I done here?
I’ve added dialog tags, correct punctuation, a little description and some sensory details: namely fur, birds and stench. If I was to go through the entire scripted conversation, making the same changes, I’d have transformed this exchange from a summarized bit of action into the fully realized scene it obviously wants to be.
Make sense? Want to add your own two bits? You know what to do.