Theme—Day 30

While Mark Bertrand is waxing eloquent over at Master’s Artist about “Why We Don’t Know What We’re Doing,” I want to see if we can figure it out (what we ought to be doing, that is).

At one point Mr. Bertrand says:

The process [of writing fiction] is bigger than our efforts to explain. Our work outstrips our ability to analyze.

I don’t doubt there is truth here, but neither do I discount the idea that we can listen to others and learn the basics from which to expand what it is we are doing.

Consequently, I think there is validity in Sally’s questions concerning the Theme—Day 29 post. And I think searching for answers, while not necessarily producing them, might lead to some.

Here’s what Sally asked in her comment:

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.

I’m going to tackle those questions in reverse order. As I wrote in Theme—Day 25, according to Donald Maass, the starting point is for the author to hold to a passionate belief.

It is this step that I think trips many Christians up—that tripped me up in my early efforts—simply because what we care about most is also the most overdone theme in Christian fiction.

I’m not saying that overdone themes can’t be done again—but if they are, they need extra work to make them seem fresh and interesting.

So, my thought is, just like working on word choice, an author should look at the things he feels passionately about and not stop with the obvious or the easiest. Instead, he should do some brain-work (also called brainstorming) and consider different aspects, different slants, different tangents. From that thinking, a fresh approach to an old subject might emerge, or a new subject might develop.

Here’s where Mark’s comments come into play. Although I can lay out the principles in a nice step-by-step process, I cannot deliver the answers for another author.

In my way of thinking, the easiest approach is to think of themes without any limits. Just answer the question, What do I care about MOST? And don’t stop at one or two items. What comes after world peace? or telling others about Christ? my children? spouse? health? In other words, what comes after the obvious?

Recently, however, I worked on themes for a story with a main character I’d already developed. So my theme now had to match my character. This, for me, was much harder, more restrictive (unless I was going to change my character) because I had to fit the answers to “What do I care about most” into, “Who is this person I’ve created?”

To do that, I listed internal conflicts or potential internal conflicts as well as what the character wanted (his motivations).

Again, Maass says that focusing on the character’s deeper values enhances theme. (See Day 29)

Which brings us to Sally’s second question: let’s say the character is here because it’s his last hope of salvation. How does theme emerge from that?

My next question would be, What does the character believe “salvation” looks like? How does he think he can achieve it? Is he right in his thinking? in what he believes? I mean, he might hold to the hope of salvation passionately, but think salvation is getting the job he’s been dreaming about. But why does he want it? So he can get married, raise a family, take care of them, give them the things he wishes he’d had … And suddenly we’re into another realm. Does he think he missed out on something by being raised in a poor family? What? Fun? Social standing? Power? Chances are, what he thinks he missed is what really matters to him most because he’s determined not to put his kids through what he had to go without.

So now you have a character who might look like he has right motives and passions, but you’ve identified something in his thinking that needs to change if he is to be a godly character. That’s where the theme lies, I believe.

Of course, there’s always the choice of having him NOT become godly and showing theme from wrong passion gone awry.

As to deepening the theme, I think that comes from not settling. Not settling for the obvious theme. Or the easiest answer to a character’s spiritual ills.

In that scenario with the character wanting a job, the obvious theme might be, Trust God. A good theme, but obvious. An easy answer might be, Pray. Also a great need, but an easy place for the author to have the character arrive at.

Actually these same things might be places that a character arrives at who ends up facing his dissatisfaction and fears of old, but the theme won’t seem temporary or inadequate if he has to struggle to uncover his real needs. And the arrival at his new belief won’t happen in a moment but through the process the author takes the character to dig into those hidden places. (In Dave Long‘s terminology, the theme has to be earned).

Should theme be identified first? I think that is the best way to insure it is present and it is the guiding factor in the story, but clearly an author committed to crafting theme can incorporate it even with a fully developed character in mind.

With a fully developed plot? Hmmm. I’m not so sure about that one.

Published in: on May 5, 2006 at 11:49 am  Comments (2)  
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