Sunday, October 17, 2010

Finding Theme in Your Book: An Exercise in Searching for Repeating Patterns

After months of revising my novel-in-progress, I was still stumped as to its theme. My chapters hung together pretty well but the manuscript lacked that wonderful sense of wholeness that a theme-rich book delivers.

One evening I was reading a scene to my writers’ group. When I finished we talked about the characters, especially the main character, a search-and-rescue pilot. One of the writers, bless her, asked me that pivotal question that opens huge doors inside.


“They’re all circling the wilderness of their lives, aren’t they?” she said quietly. “Everyone in your book is on a search-and-rescue mission for themselves.”

She’d just given me my theme.

You may be aware of the separate parts of your outer story, how the acts work together, where the tension builds. You may even know a bit about your inner story, what meaning you’re trying for. But until the theme is identified, there is no sense that your book is greater than the sum of its parts.

Most of my characters were indeed “circling the wilderness” of their lives. My writer’s group friend had given me words for my book’s elusive theme—and now all my “islands” made sense.

Theme can’t be rushed. It doesn’t surface until it’s good and ready, until we have understood enough to see beyond the narrative, the basic story. When we start to look for the undercurrent that connects all the parts of our book, we begin to notice this river running through it.

Because it’s delivered without our knowing, placed in small ways that only feedback reveals, it’s often only midway through revision that we begin to sense our book’s theme.

In the early stages of the book journey, you are way too busy keeping your boat afloat to even notice the steady movement of this river. By now, in revision, you are getting the distance required to feel it.

Theme can surprise us with its scope—often much larger than we set out to present. Professional artists sometimes speak about years of making their art, watching it evolve into something greater than anticipated, their gratitude when a viewer or reader says, “Your piece spoke to me in such-and-such a way,” even when the artist had no intent toward that result.

This is the beauty of theme—its potential to transform an audience. Writers are astonished witnesses to this glory in our work; the good news is that during revision, we can also help it happen.

Finding Theme through Repeating Patterns
How do you start finding the theme in your book? Thematic hints often come into our writing as we explore the book idea. They emerge from the dreamy right brain and find their way into early “islands,” if we’re lucky.

Writer Flannery O’Connor called these hints “happy accidents.” We’re rarely conscious of putting these into the manuscript, but later, finding them during revision, we feel very grateful that they’ve escaped the editing pen of the Inner Critic, who would’ve dissuaded us of their usefulness in the story—one reason the “island” method of writing is so helpful. As you let yourself wander aimlessly through your story during its early drafts, the Inner Critic is lulled into believing you’re not really working.

At revision, we start to search for these thematic hints. There can be more than one major theme, but usually there is one that’s larger and sends out more hints than any other. These often show up as repeating patterns: images that recur again and again, an object a character obsesses over, something lost that’s remembered frequently, houses or lakes or countries that are visited often, lines of dialogue that repeat.

Each can hint at theme.

Think of the repeating image of yellow roses that threads through each of the three separate stories in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. First it’s piped on a birthday cake, then gathered from Virginia Woolf’s garden, then bought at the florist for Clarissa’s party.

One repeating image can become thematic as it links the three very separate stories. Maybe the theme is the fragile beauty of life, which echoes the brief passages of Cunningham’s main characters.

This week's writing exercise lets you practice finding theme in published works. It's easiest to see there--and what you learn may translate to new viewpoints on your own writing. You may be able to more easily see and enhance theme in your book-in-progress after trying this exercise.

This Week's Writing Exercise

1. Writer’s notebook in hand, look over a favorite book in your genre that you have recently read. Record any repeating images you notice—place, objects, images, conversation.

2. Look for places where the author develops both a good sequence of outer events and demonstrates the meaning behind those events (often indicators of theme).

3. Ask yourself, What lingered with me after I finished this book? Theme is often present wherever we can’t get a story out of our minds.