Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Is Your Take-Away - Thinking about theme in writing

I don't know how many times I read a submission that shows me great writing skill, great character development and great dialogue, but, in the end, I end up rejecting it because I ask one big question - WHY?

I am someone who is a firm believer that theme in your story really is the glue that holds everything together. As I described it in the title, this is the big "TAKE AWAY" for you reader. What do you want your readers to leave with and understand by the time they reach the end of the story.

According to Stenhouse Publishers, a provider of Professional Development for teachers, they note several key points for understanding theme that I believe really make it clear. "themes are the underlying ideas, morals, and lessons that give the story its texture, depth, and meaning." They also go on to say that many times, these themes are not directly stated in a text, but the readers can infer the meaning of the text from the things the author does in the story.

Before going any further, it is important to note that it is the author who is in control of the theme. As a writer, you dictate what you want the reader to leave with. It is your decision to focus on certain scenes, have your characters say certain things and have certain behaviors to get your message across. These can be subtle or pretty straightforward.

Writers also need to understand that there is a clear difference between the plot of your story and the theme of your story. Again Stenhouse notes, "the plot is simply what happens in the narrative. The themes represent the bigger ideas of the story. The plot carries those ideas along." They go on to use the example of Goldilocks to clearly understand the difference:

"A girl named Goldilocks was wandering through the forest and entered an unfamiliar, empty house. She tasted porridge that didn’t belong to her, broke a chair, and slept in a bed that wasn’t hers. She was caught when the bears returned, and she ran out of the house scared to death." This is simply the plot of the story. It is what happened to the characters between the "Once upon a time" and the "The end."

As we look at this though in terms of theme, we have to ask ourselves what this story is really trying to get across to the readers, in this case the kids. In this case, the "take away" is what we now learn about "taking things that don’t belong to you, selfishness, thoughtlessness, and so on."

An additional error many writers confuse with theme is using a description of a story to identify the theme. "This is a story about finding lost love." or "This is a coming of age story." Again, these are not themes, but descriptions of the type of story you are telling.

Now here comes the hard part and something that often comes out when I listen to pitches at conferences and have a chance to talk to the writers. In far too many cases, the author simply doesn't have a theme to their story. They just sat down, wrote a story, created great characters but never asked why they wrote the story in the first place. And here is the bigger issue. Once the story has been written, you cannot simply "add a theme" to the story. Some writers say they "discover" the theme and yes, this can happen, but in reality, a story with no theme, will always be that.

Knowing your theme is crucial for pitching that story to editors and agents. We want to know what makes your story special and what makes your story stand out among all of the other stories. In the end, it will not simply be the plot or the characters, it is that message.

I have one author that really maximized on this idea. When I first met her at a conference about a year and a half ago, she pitched an amazing multicultural women's fiction. Yes, the story sounded interesting, what stood out for me was the theme she was pushing. She was showing how racism and discrimination infiltrates everything we do and can truly damage a society, and in her case, especially youth.

So, your homework over the weekend? Do you have a theme? Chew on that for a while!


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