Friday, October 19, 2018

Exploring Theme in Your Story: How Wounding Event and False Beliefs Intersect with Theme

Theme answers the question:  So what?  That's pretty harsh, but it's what readers need to know soon after they pick up your book.  Theme is the meaning and the message, the purpose of your story.  Not just entertainment, although that is usually part of good writing.  But we look for meaning now, in our literature and in our lives, more than ever.  Publishers know this, agents know this, readers crave this.

Nonfiction writers can tell us the theme, or meaning, of their books.  They can stand on a platform and present the message quite frankly.  If you do that in fiction or most memoir, you alienate readers.  Characters and narrator can rarely be on platform and still keep readers involved in the story.  So theme is trickier for those genres.

First, you have to figure out what the story is about.  What are you trying to say?  Is it as simple as "love hurts, but you survive?"  A friend told me she wants her novel to be about powerful women changing a place.  As I work on my new novel, I'm discovering its meaning goes beyond what I expected when I first wrote up my synopsis.  It evolves as I get to know the characters.  Particularly, their wounding events and the false beliefs that stem from those.  

More and more, as I research these two aspects of story-telling, I'm convinced that theme emerges most organically from them.  Once you discover what grows organically, you can shape it and enhance it.  

I'm researching new material for my upcoming online class on theme and voice, which begins next week, and playing with exercises to explore these two aspects of theme.  For instance, how might a trauma or loss or big change in a character or narrator's childhood create a certain belief about life?  It's not a true belief, because it comes from the effect of something that happened to them before they could clearly understand the meaning.  Say the character's father left when he was young.  A certain belief about families, about fathers, about himself, might emerge from that.  It's the perspective of a child, not the more holistic view he might gain as an adult, looking back.  Say the nugget of that perspective manifests in his life as certain attitudes, avoidances, decisions.  Those bring more events, more effects from their causation, and you have a cycle that creates story.

So we have a good story driver in these two elements of wounding event and false belief.  But how does that lead to meaning, or theme?

It's pretty simple, as I've been discovering.  In most well-structured stories, there will be chances for the character to face his false beliefs and rework them.  Maybe he starts to understand why his dad left, and that it had nothing to do with him.  Perhaps this changes, ever so slightly, his own tendency to jump ship.  I'm being very basic here, psychology 101, but you get the idea.  The theme or meaning comes when we look at the character's trajectory and ask:  What did he learn?  How has he changed?  Maybe the theme of this imaginary book might be how compassion develops.  I'm just guessing here, but that's the process I've been working with, for my own writing, and the ideas I'm setting in place for my upcoming class.

I've worked on this concept of false beliefs for several years with writers at my weeklong writing retreats and watched them be able to organize and make sense of their book structure for the first time.  Add in the concept of wounding events, which birth these false beliefs, and you have seriously important backstory to weave in, that makes sense of the false beliefs as they affect the story in present time.  Combine them all together, and you begin to see the purpose of the book.  The answer to So what?

Join me, if this intrigues you, for my newly remodeled online class that starts next Wednesday.  Here's the link for more details.  It's a great place to show up with your book-in-progress and ask these kinds of deep questions.  And answer the So what? question for yourself, before your reader/agent/publisher has to.