Friday, June 4, 2021

Theme: The Undercurrent of Meaning in Your Book and Why It's Vital to Publishing Today

When we finish a good book, something lingers with us. We have coffee with a friend and she notices we're distracted. It's not life--for once. Only the story we just read.

"I can't stop thinking about this book," we might say. "I almost miss it."

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.

Theme is like an undercurrent, the "river running through" a story that holds the meaning and develops it as the story progresses. Theme is shown more than told, felt more than theorized.

Fellow instructors tell me I'm nuts to try to teach a class on theme. They say it's impossible to teach; the writer just catches it or doesn't. I disagree. I believe the skill of writing theme into story is very learnable. Finding the theme that best fits your book is harder.

You may think you have it nailed. "I'm writing a book about _________ "(fill in the blank). But theme is not subject. What you're writing about is your topic, your exploration. From it, if you're lucky and paying attention, theme emerges almost without you knowing. It's very organic.

I find there are several helpful steps to fostering theme, welcoming it, and once discovered, writing it into the narrative. This is what I teach in my theme class (coming June 12) . The goal is to create that tug at the reader's mind and heart that doesn't go away when the book is over.

One student equated it to trying to quiet the mind in meditation. If you focus on the effort to become still, it's often harder. Same with theme: 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. Interesting, but not theme.

In my experience, 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. You create a story in the usual way: good plot, characters, setting. The meaning is something you discover along the way. It's the subconscious movement of discovery beneath your story's subject, especially delightful if the writer is finding it along with the reader.

For my class next week, 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?

One of the best ways to start out exploring theme is to read or reread those books you love, the ones that stay with you. You read them as a reader, now read them as a writer. Think about how the author planted meaning. Where did it appear? Did you catch the theme on page 1 or much later? How did the end bring the theme to realization for you?

Maybe you've convinced yourself your book is a light read, pure entertainment. You certainly don't need theme, or meaning, for a galaxy war or romance on an island vacation--but make sure your readers agree! Consider taking your story a notch up by thinking about theme. It's become an important aspect of publishing now--readers are craving entertainment, yes, but they also want meaningful stories.

That's what will linger.

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