Friday, June 3, 2016

Thematic Threads: How to Build Them in Your Fiction or Memoir

When we finish a good book, something lingers with us.  A friend notices how we're still wrapped up in the story we just read.  She asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer.  "It's about a woman who travels to India," we say, "but it's much more than that.  You have to read to understand."

That's theme.

Thematic threads hold a story together.  Beyond the events or characters, theme transmits meaning. 

 Theme is different than subject.  You may want to write a book about _______ (fill in the blank), but that's your topic, your exploration.  From it, if you're lucky and paying attention, theme will emerge organically.  Creating that tug at the reader's mind and heart that doesn't go away when the book is over.

Trying to write about a certain concept--esoteric sadness, for instance--won't necessarily result in the reader taking that theme away from your book.  Poorly done, it will feel like you are telling us your opinion, or sharing great thinkers' opinions. 

Theme works best when there's a surprising undercurrent of meaning that threads through important moments in the story. 
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.
Some writing teachers say theme can't be taught.  It has to be caught.  I agree--and I don't agree.

Next week, I'm teaching a new eight-week online class on theme and voice.  I'm combing through my own studies on theme.  I've collected some great exercises and what I call "lures" for theme, that help you catch your writing's theme (as if you're fishing and waiting for the bite).  Although the class goes into a lot more depth than I can give in this post, here are three "lures" that are fun to work with--and very helpful for catching your theme.   
1.  Image is the language of theme in most fiction and memoir.  You can start by combing your writing for repeating images and begin an image dictionary.  Very much like a dream symbol dictionary that serious dream students use, these images will be clues to where theme is already present.  Then you can begin to place them more deliberately.

2.  Subtext is dialogue's attempt at "theme."  It reveals the meaning behind what's being said and usually delivers a punch of emotion that can't be spelled out in words.  In the online class, we'll spend a week on subtext because it's challenging, but it is also essential to theme.  To practice this in your own writing, you can locate a section of dialogue and see if what's not being said communicates theme.  See if gestures or what's noticed in the surrounding setting that might also show theme to the reader.
3.  Theme also comes through 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?   

Still room in my online class on voice and theme.

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