Friday, July 24, 2015

Three "Lures" to Attract Stronger Theme in Your Fiction and Memoir

Tomorrow I will be at one of my favorite writing havens--the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis--teaching a room full of writers about theme.  How it emerges from your work, almost without you knowing.  How it connects to authentic voice. 

Especially:  How theme revealed by certain elements in your story.

I thought it would be fun to give a tiny taste of those elements, in case you live far from the Twin Cities (or even the U.S.) and won't be joining us.

Most writers know something about theme.  It's that silvery thread that holds a story together, that transmits meaning by the end.  Some newer writers say they want to write a book on a certain theme:  "I want to write about _______ (fill in the blank)," not realizing that that type of intention circumvents theme.   Intended theme is not the same as the magic that emerges organically. 

Trying to write about esoteric sadness, for instance, most likely will come to readers not as theme.  To readers, it may feel like you are telling your opinion, or sharing great thinkers' opinions.  There's no surprising undercurrent of meaning. 

Theme works best when the writer is surprised--as well as the reader.  Theme sneaks up on both writer and reader, in its best appearances.  It's like an underground river, like the subconscious movement beneath your story's subject.  And it's delivered to our subconscious as readers, not as the opinion or thoughts of the writer, necessarily.  But how we "grok" it.

I also consider theme that lingering sensation we have when we finish a good book.  Maybe a friend asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer:  "It's about a woman who travels to India, but . . . it's much more than that.  You have to read to understand."

That's theme.

Some writing teachers say theme can't be taught.  It has to be caught.  But there are some good lures for theme, if you're fishing.  I'll share a few of the ways we'll explore in the workshop tomorrow at the Loft.  Your weekly writing exercise is to pick one and see what you catch.

1.  Mirroring image.   Make a list of images that occur repeatedly in your writing.  Where are they, in the chapters of your book?  Where can they be placed more?  Ask yourself what meaning they communicate to you.  Does this evoke any themes?

2.  Subtext.  Subtext is dialogue's "theme," the meaning behind what's being said.  Most emotion and meaning comes via subtext.  It's rare we communicate truth on the page, when our characters speak, but that truth comes through in what they don't say.
Find a section of your dialogue and see if there's any subtext.  Can you add it, via gestures, what's noticed in the surrounding setting that might mirror meaning?

3.  Senses.  Theme comes through very strongly when a writer uses sensory detail.  Most of us only lean on one sense, usually sight, when we write.  We can describe a setting via visual senses.  But what about the more primal ones, like sound and smell?  Read through one of your rough draft chapters and see if you can add three sounds and three smells.  Do they start to evoke a surprising meaning, once they're in place?    

If you'd like to join me tomorrow at the Loft and learn more--and get some feedback on your use of theme--you can find out more here.

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