Theme—Day 29

So how do I go about crafting the theme?

No, this is not a quote from one of my earlier posts, though I think I said something similar. Rather, it is from sci fi/fantasy writer Stuart Stockton’s blog, The Jerkrenak’s Den. I have no idea where Stuart’s discussion will lead, but I like to see Christian writers wrestling with this subject. In my opinion, it is long overdue.

My own contemplations continue to center on Donald Maass’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel (Writer’s Digest Books), specifically about character motivation.

Maass challenges writers to an interesting exercise. Take one of your scenes, he says, and list the motivations of your focal character. The way to get to that list is by asking, “Why is this character here?” Not, Why does the plot require this character to be here? More like, What motivates this character to be here? You’re looking for the character’s “inner reasons.”

This list might include things like

  • he’s cold
  • he’s lonely
  • he’s looking for a friend
  • he wants someone to help him
  • he’s afraid
  • he needs to discover the truth
  • he’s insecure
  • he believes this is his last chance for acceptance and love
  • he thinks love is his salvation
  • Maass says that typically this motivation list puts the higher values at the bottom. So the exercise is to reverse the order and rewrite the scene with the higher value as the conscious motivating factor.

    Motivating your characters according to higher values … adds passion to action.

    Enhancing motivation is what you will need to do if you want to give your protagonist the inner fire that, developed step-by-step through your manuscript, rsults in a powerful theme.

    He adds an important caution—overplaying high motives or making them too obvious will be counterproductive. Then this conclusion to the section:

    Understatement and restraint are the watchwords. However, when high motives are made believable and integral to a given character, it is like sending a ten thousand volt electric current through your novel. It will light it up like a beacon in the dark.

    I doubt if Maass realizes that last image is so nearly like the one Jesus used in regard to a Christian showing his faith to the culture in which he lives. But here is exactly why I think theme is so important. I want my novel to light up like a beacon because I believe God wants me to be a beacon. Character motivation seems to be a big part of accomplishing that.

    Published in: on May 3, 2006 at 11:06 am  Comments (8)  

    8 Comments

    1. Gotta watch out for that Stuart fellow. I hear he bites!

      What I’m trying to do over at my blog is walk through my thought process about finding my theme for my recently finished first novel. Don’t know how useful it will be since it IS my first novel and thus prone to all sorts of n00bie mistakes. But it should at least be somewhat interesting to walk back over the process. (or at least I hope so).

      I absolutely agree that character motivations tie in with communicating the theme. I think this is a part of where people who say the Theme emerges from the story see that happen. As they watch their character go through the events and react to them and face consequences of their motivations, themes can begin to emerge, waiting to be cultured and smoothed out.

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    2. Great stuff, Becky.

      I had a theme for my last novel but I think it was not anything earth shattering.

      So to make the theme deep . . . what?

      I mean, let’s say the character is here because it’s his last hope of salvation. How does theme emerge from that?

      How do we decide on the theme in the first place? Because that seems to me to come before actually crafting the thing.

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    3. “That Stuart fellow” directed me here, and I’ve enjoyed the thoughts shared on the topic of theme. Since I tend to fall into the camp of a writer whose theme develops as the story progresses, I can’t agree with the idea that it’s important to establish the theme before sitting down to write. For me, my characters and their motivations, actions and reactions are what bring the theme to light. They are the key to my stories and they tell the story. As a result, the theme of their journey in any particular novel is revealed through them.

      Sure, I have ultimate control over what is included and what isn’t, but I tend to allow the characters to dictate the story. Makes for a more exciting and often adventurous writing time! When I don’t know where the story is headed, I’m as excited to find out the end as I hope the reader will be.

      But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some have to know before typing that first word. Whatever works for you is the method you should employ. However, always keep in mind that a focus *is* necessary or your story will stray all over the place.

      Oh, and as for that Stuart fellow’s bites? The sting only hurts for a few moments. 🙂

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    4. Thanks for the warnings about that biting and stinging Stuart fellow! 🙂

      Speaking of which, a brief response to this:
      I absolutely agree that character motivations tie in with communicating the theme. I think this is a part of where people who say the Theme emerges from the story see that happen. As they watch their character go through the events and react to them and face consequences of their motivations, themes can begin to emerge, waiting to be cultured and smoothed out.

      Aaaaaggghh!!

      OK, that was just for dramatic effect. But seriously, Stuart, I think the concept is backwards. Here’s what I understand you to say: The author infuses the character with motivation, the character acts, the author identifies resulting themes that consequently emerge and enhances them.

      What I think we SHOULD do as writers is to identify what we care about passionately, infuse our characters with those same passions that will motivate them, and cause the character to act accordingly which will bring the theme to light for the reader.

      This discussion of the two different methods may seem like a tempest in a teapot to most people. I see it, however, as a novelist taking theme seriously enough to actually craft it. The first way, theme seems no more than a by-product of good character crafting.

      I want my message to be more than that, especially because I see too many stories in which the theme is neglected altogether.

      Oooohh, Stuart, thank you for pulling that soapbox over and letting me climb atop for a while. 🙂

      Becky

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    5. Sally, you asked great questions:
      So to make the theme deep . . . what?

      I mean, let’s say the character is here because it’s his last hope of salvation. How does theme emerge from that?

      How do we decide on the theme in the first place? Because that seems to me to come before actually crafting the thing.

      Let me cogitate (Karen Hancock called it Noodling on her last blog post) for a while. I think that’s probably the key to making a work … better.

      Becky

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    6. Tiff/Amber, I’m glad Stuart invited you to the fray. (BTW, just an observation: most bloggers have people commenting, telling them how wonderful their posts are and how much they agree. Why is it all my commenters tell me how off base I am??? 😉 But as I told Stuart in an earlier response, I really do love these kinds of though-provoking discussions)

      For me, my characters and their motivations, actions and reactions are what bring the theme to light. They are the key to my stories and they tell the story. As a result, the theme of their journey in any particular novel is revealed through them…. I tend to allow the characters to dictate the story. Makes for a more exciting and often adventurous writing time! When I don’t know where the story is headed, I’m as excited to find out the end as I hope the reader will be.

      Amber, I think you have made my point. Christian novelists have bought into the idea that our fiction should be “character driven.” For so long it seemed to be “message driven,” and it didn’t stack up against secular writing.

      I believe the problem was not in the starting place per se. Rather, I believe the same message was delivered over and over with very little variation so it became simplistic, redundant, and predictable.

      As a result, Christian novelists had a revolt: Do away with message-driven stories. At the same time, secular novelists have seemed to ramp up their messages and are having a powerful influence on the culture through their stories.

      One reason I want to write fiction is because I believe stories do something non-fiction can only touch upon: involve the heart as well as the mind.

      But if Christian writers leave the message to chance, we are, in essence, challenging the reader through emotion alone. That is temporary at best.

      I mentioned a couple secular reviews in an earlier post and they termed the books “thought-provoking.” Would that this label could be used for most Christian fiction. But is it? And if not, why not?

      Some people say this is because readers just want to escape into a good story.

      I say, then let’s make sure we give readers good stories. But do we really have to leave good ideas behind to do that?

      Sorry, Amber, I had no intention of turning this comment into a full-blown apology statement for theme. Such serious stuff. Guess you can tell one of the things I’m passionate about. 😉

      Becky

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    7. What I think we SHOULD do as writers is to identify what we care about passionately, infuse our characters with those same passions that will motivate them, and cause the character to act accordingly which will bring the theme to light for the reader.

      Well keep an eye on my site and I think you’ll see what I’m getting at as I continue going through my process. 🙂

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    8. Indeed, Stuart, I am keeping my eye on your blog! 🙂

      Becky

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