Showing posts with label story theme. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story theme. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Theme: The Heart of Your Story

"If theme is a story's soul, and plot is its mind,
then character is its heart . . . the life force of story."
                                                    K.M. Weiland

The last big snow storm we had in Albuquerque in mid-February brought bitter Arctic winds. I sat hunkered down in my kitchen watching the birds out my window pecking through the drifts of snow that blanketed their feeder. One tiny bird zoomed down from a twig in the old pine tree next door. It had come from a row of more tiny birds, pygmy nuthatches, who huddled together appearing to use each other’s body heat to stay warm. The branch jiggled up and down. I wondered if that was the ferocious wind—abnormally brutal for our normally temperate New Mexico weather—or the tiny birds shivering. 

My friends had trouble making out the image in the photo. The birds were so well camouflaged, and my zoom lens was a bit fuzzy. But the birds were there, and when you could make them out, made a rather stunning photo.

Theme in story is much like the tiny nuthatches. Theme is unobtrusive, even invisible, and when it is crafted right, it becomes the glue that binds the entire story together.

How to Find the Right Theme: Look Within

In an article on the blog writers write, Amanda Patterson gives examples of the themes in well-known children’s books, such as love and friendship between Fern and Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, and courage as the prominent theme in the Harry Potter series. She names ten recurring themes in children’s stories:

1. Courage.

2. Friendship.

3. Belonging/Identity.

4. Family.

5. Loss/Grief.

6. Growing Up.

7. Anger.

8. Suffering.

9. Jealousy.

10. Love.

Where to begin, though? Look to your own life. What conflicts have you faced? What themes run through your life? Make a list of them. Choose the conflict and theme that stands out the most and pair it with a captivating setting. Think up viable plot ideas and characters, and you’re good, right? That’s a good start. But there is one thing you need to have: a thorough understanding of what story theme is, why you’ve chosen a particular theme, and what that theme means to you.

Strive for a Good Balance

K.M. Weiland, in her book, Writing Your Story’s Theme: The Writer’s Guide to Plotting Stories that Matter, writes, “powerful themes . . . emerge from the conjunction of strong plots and resonant character arcs.” Theme doesn’t just happen in the story, the author intentionally crafts theme as an equal partner to plot and character. She advises, “Craft powerful messages that are shown via plot and character, rather than told to readers.” When done seamlessly, the results are stories with deep meaning and purpose that resonate with the reader long after the book is finished. 

The “thematic principle,” according to Weiland, is your story’s “unifying idea.” Take a commonly-held belief, such as wars are evil, or try to disprove wars are a necessary evil. Tackle questions about life, such as why are we here? The concrete idea you’ve chosen for theme is shown in the closing scenes and emulated throughout the story.

Weiland’s book explains how creating story theme is accomplished in detail. This book and her other books, such as Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel are terrific tools for writers’ tool kits. She also has a blog: helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com.

A Not-So Invisible Theme

The book that brought the meaning of story theme home to me is The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville. Not only is Coville’s story entertaining, fun, and magical, but it also contains a serious part about a boy, Gilbert, who has had to shave his head due to cancer. Charlie shows solidarity to Gilbert by shaving his head, too. Coville covered a lot of ground in this story, which I think you can tell, is one of my favorites.

But for a theme, Coville couldn’t have been more blatant. The theme is even in the title: Truth. Because Charlie Eggleston has a problem. You wouldn't want to come right out and call him a liar. But he did have a habit of stretching the truth to fit his purposes. We first find this out on page two during a visit to Tucker's Swamp. He's held a frog, loved the smell of the swamp, loved everything about it; well, maybe not the mosquitoes. So, he told a little white fib about Mark Evans's dad and how he planned to drain the swamp. Charlie told the fib to protect the swamp from being destroyed by development. A little later after Charlie forgot Gramma Ethel would be visiting for dinner (he'd already missed dinner and had to eat cold stew), Charlie very proudly told his uncle that he'd like to learn to tell stories. Gramma Ethel scolded, "You don't do anything but tell stories." Two pages earlier Charlie even wondered if his little sister, Mimi, who was in kindergarten, was fibbing when she said Andy Simmons ate a bug today. "He still hadn't figured out how to tell when Mimi was fibbing." Four chapters have the word "truth" in them. Charlie even meets Truth at the end and follows Truth "home;" and at the end, the reader finds out if Charlie was really a liar or not. Perhaps not so subtle, but by the time you are finished with the book, Coville's message is loud and clear: it's always better to tell the truth. Please note how much and how far-fetched, I might add, Coville played around with, or in educational jargon, explored, truth, which can't help but start the young reader's wheels turning about the meaning of Coville's story long after the book is finished.

Coville made good use of symbols for the theme of truth in his story, such as the skull itself—the skull of truth. Author Jane McBride Choate makes the suggestion to use symbols, and having the word for your symbol appear in the title is an extra-added bonus. In Choate's article, "Theme," she writes, "In one of my books, I used a necklace with a rainbow pendant as a symbol for the heroine's independence and integrity. The publisher liked the idea so much that a drawing of the pendant was included on the spine of the book and a . . . rainbow [appeared] on the cover.”

Just as you think through and plan the other elements of your story, such as the setting, plot, and characters, you can also intentionally plan what your main theme will be, and also plan your other less prominent themes. Then during your editing and revising stage, you can do an analysis by highlighting the places where the theme(s) are shown throughout your story.

Source: https://www.writerswrite.co.za/10-powerful-recurring-themes-in-childrens-stories/ 

Introductory Photo: By Linda Wilson

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher, has published over 150 articles for children and adults, several short stories for children, and her first book, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, available on Amazon. Publishing credits include biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Pockets; Hopscotch; and an article for Highlights for Children. Secret in the Mist, the second in the Abi Wunder series, is coming soon. A Packrat Holiday: Thistletoe’s Gift, and Tall Boots, Linda’s picture books, will be published later this year. Follow Linda on https://www.lindawilsonauthor.com.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Strengthen Your Theme, Revision, Part 3

Copyright © 2009 Michelle Henninger
You don't come right out and say it, but it's the most important part of your story: the theme. Lee Wyndham, in Writing for Children and Teenagers, defines theme as "your melody, the motive, the dominant idea you develop through your story. This is what your story is about." Jessica Flory in her article, "Theme" defines theme as the overall message of your writing.

Why is Theme Important?
Your theme is what gives your story meaning. Your entire story revolves around your theme. It is the message your reader will carry away and remember long after the events of your story are forgotten. Theme is the glue that binds your story together. However, theme is never stated. The meaning is hidden yet at its best, theme is subtly crafted into every event in your character's experience.

How is Theme Incorporated into a Story?
Begin with deciding what is important to you. Honesty. Making friends. Thinking of others. Being sincere. Having courage. Being goal oriented. Decide what you want to say. That becomes your message. Craft your story around one theme for young children, multiple themes for older "kids" (that means you) and run with it.

The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville
Charlie Eggleston has a problem.You wouldn't want to come right out and call him a liar. But he did have a habit of stretching the truth to fit his purposes. We first find this out on page two during a visit to Tucker's Swamp. He's held a frog, loved the smell of the swamp, loved everything about it; well, maybe not the mosquitoes. So he told a little white fib about Mark Evans's dad and how he planned to drain the swamp. Charlie told the fib to protect the swamp from development. A little later (p. 21) after Charlie forgot Gramma Ethel would be visiting for dinner (he'd already missed dinner and had to eat cold stew), Charlie very proudly told his uncle that he'd like to learn to tell stories. Gramma Ethel scolded, "You don't do anything but tell stories." Two pages earlier Charlie even wondered if his little sister, Mimi, who was in kindergarten, was fibbing when she said Andy Simmons ate a bug today. "He still hadn't figured out how to tell when Mimi was fibbing." Four chapters have the word "truth" in them. Charlie even meets Truth at the end and follows Truth "home;" and at the end, the reader finds out if Charlie was really a liar or not. Perhaps not so subtle, but by the time you are finished with the book Coville's message is loud and clear: it's always better to tell the truth. (Note: the word truth even appears in the title. More about that later. Please also note how much (and how far-fetched, I might add) Coville played around with (or in educational jargon, explored), truth, which can't help but start the reader's wheels turning about the meaning of his story.)

"Tall Boots"
In the case of my short story, " Tall Boots," which appeared in the September 2009 issue of Stories for Children magazine for ages 7-9, my theme was: the importance of having a goal. I wanted to show that goals can get you places.

On the day of the 4-H horse show, Ashley aimed to win in her category, but she hated her old rubber riding boots. They were ankle high, bright red and downright embarrassing. Ashley wanted real riding boots. When it came time for the show, Ashley's trainer lined up her horse, Lacy, with the wrong group at the wrong start time. This class would be showing their skills at jumping; Ashley hadn't yet reached that part of her training. She shouted, "This isn't my class! There's been a mistake!" but her voice blew away in the wind. Lacy knew what to do. Up, up, over the poles Lacy soared in a perfect arc. At the end, Ashley won the highest honor any 4-H rider can earn. And when she rode toward the gate, her mother was holding up a fine pair of black leather riding boots. Ahsley knew what she had known all along--that Lacy was the best, and that she had grown out of baby boots for good.

Revise to Strengthen your Story's Theme
It would be difficult to make your theme come out clearly in early drafts. That's where a revision that focuses on your story's theme comes in. Make a list of events that take place in your story and adjust the action and dialogue to fit your theme. In the case of one of my WIPs, my list contained twelve events that needed strengthening. The events were in place but the focus needed to be cleared up through my character's actions and conversations with other characters.

Tips to Keep in Mind
  • Theme is subtle. It is never stated. Yet theme is the reason for your character's motivation and actions.
  • Theme is not plot. Theme is not a lesson or moral. Theme is the key to growth and change both for your character and your reader.
  • In her article, "Theme," Jessica Flory described a great way to make theme the center of your story: work with your character's flaws. Give them a flaw they must overcome before the conclusion can be reached.
  • Make theme your main message and have it come out at the climax.
  • Chris Eboch, author of many children's books, including The Eyes of Pharoah and her latest book, Bandit's Peak, says that theme ties into character and conflict. The conflict needs to be strong and the character real and complex.
  • Use symbols. Remember how the word "truth" appears in the title of Bruce Coville's book, The Skull of Truth? Jane McBride Choate makes the suggestion to use symbols, and having the word for your symbol appear in the title is an extra-added bonus. In Choate's article, "Theme," she writes, "In one of my books, I used a necklace with a rainbow pendant as a symbol for the heroine's independence and integrity. The publisher liked the idea so much that a drawing of the pendant was included on the spine of the book and a . . . rainbow [appeared] on the cover.
  • Wyndham suggests your theme can be the synopsis of your story. In one of her stories she used the theme: understanding and helpfulness overcome suspicion and distrust and lead to friendship. Here's how she broke the theme down to capsulize her story: understanding and helpfulness suggests the characters; suspicion and distrust suggests the problem; overcome, the conflict and outcome; and lead to friendship, the resolution and happy ending.
Remember: Revise to strengthen your theme and your story will send the thought-provoking message you intended.

For the first parts of this series, please visit: Revision, Part 1: An Early Fiction Checklist and  Revision, Part 2: Editing after a Long Break.

Sources: Illustration by Michelle Henninger for "Tall Boots," used with permission. Included in Michelle's credits are Bradford Street Buddies series by Jerdine Nolen coming out in the fall, and Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, by Nancy K. Wallace. Treat yourself to a look at Michelle's website, it's terrific; http://www.michellehenninger.com/books.html; and notes from classes and conferences;  http://writeforlifejessicaflory.blogspot.com/; check out Jane McBride Choate's many books at http://www.amazon.com/Jane-McBride-Choate/e/B001JS19WU/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1429825077&sr=1-2-ent.
                                         
Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate recently completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction and picture book courses. Linda has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children and is currently working on several works for children. Follow her on Facebook.




 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Writing and Theme

What is Your Story’s Theme?


Theme is the take-away value your story provides; it can be a moral, a teaching, insight (in regard to your perspective) into the world or human nature. Along with the plot, it is what motivates your main character, subtly, to struggle to get from point A to point B.

Interestingly, at times, we’re not aware of what our theme actually is, or whether it will have more than one suggested take-away. This can be problematic. I reviewed a wonderfully illustrated children’s picture book, not too long ago. The main character was cute and it was well written, but the authors didn’t realize there was an alternative message that young children could take-away from the story, one that might have children feeling they have to conform in one way or another to be accepted.

In the Children’s Writer June 2010 Newsletter, an article by Chris Eboch explained, “Try to envision the different messages someone could get from your story. [. . .] Having readers miss your intended theme can be a problem, if they are seeing messages that go against your beliefs.”
Eboch suggested that authors let children read the story and see what message they take-away from it. This is a great idea; what better way to determine if children can find alternative messages in your story. Another useful tool is to be part of a critique group; the members’ perspective can prove to be invaluable.

Another good point Eboch related was not to overly structure your story around a theme, “It’s [theme] a fragile concept, and we need to allow it to come out of the subconscious mind, which is where the best writing takes place.”  The article goes on to explain that if we try to force a particular theme, it will create forced characters, and a forced plot.

Sometimes this is hard to accomplish, especially when you are adapting an old tale or myth into your own creation. The moral or teaching is already in place. This happened to me with my story, Walking Through Walls; it is loosely based on an ancient Chinese tale. I did change it drastically by using children instead of adults, and creating a full story with additional characters and plot around a sketchy outline of the tale, but it was the outline that motivated me to write the story. While the moral, or take-away value, is somewhat different than the original tale, there is a vague resemblance.

Working from a tale, and having an established theme in the back of my mind, didn’t seem to be a hindrance for me; I focused much more one the main character’s journey to fulfill his goal, and his enlightenment and growth in the process. The theme, I think, gently nudged the protagonist along and gave me the security of knowing the general vicinity of where he’d end up.

~~~~~
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