Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What it's all about? ~ The importance of theme in your writing and how to find it

The more I read and write, the more I find myself fascinated with themes. Not the “moral of the story”, but what exactly is it I’m trying to say about the world through my medium – the story. Exploring powerful themes like love, war, slavery, kindness, religion – themes we all have some connection to in our own lives – have brought me all my best stories. Let me give you some examples of what I'm talking about.

In Vessel, my newest dystopian/scifi novel, many themes surface throughout the pages. I never plan it consciously, but I find that the things on my mind while I’m writing influence my story a lot. We all have deeply held beliefs about the world around us. Those beliefs often surface in our fiction.
One of the themes that first emerged while I wrote Vessel was slavery. The main character, Alana, begins the story as a slave. Her belief that no one values her is analogous to how many of us are mentally shackled by our own negative self-image. Through the events of the story, Alana learns to break free of that image, mentally and physically. Beauty is also a prominent theme in Vessel – what it is and what it isn’t. True beauty is inside us, not on our face, as Alana learns.

Vessel also explores the themes of power and control, like any good dystopian novel. When politics and armed conflicts are on the news every night, it’s hard to get away from. Even the news outlets these days make one wonder about the nature of knowledge, who has it and who doesn’t. Who uses fear to control people? What is really the truth?

Probably my favorite theme in Vessel is kindness. Alana’s kindness to Recks, even though he’s a prisoner and a thief, is the action that sets the story events into motion. Their kindness to each other is the shining beacon that lights their way through the dark times and holds them together.
While Vessel is science fiction, many of the themes are perfectly relevant to today. My goal in writing with themes is not to lecture readers on what they should believe. My goal is to make my story relevant to everyday life, even if the story itself is perfectly fantastical, and to make readers think. For readers, seeing ourselves inside a story, feeling what the character feels, that’s what’s important. As a writer, that’s the best way to entertain, which is always my ultimate goal. If you want to check out my new dystopian novel, Vessel, now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and Kobo. *shamless book plug, sorry*
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So now that you know what I mean by theme and why I think it makes a story richer, how do you get it? It's very easy for a beginning writer to be too heavy handed with their themes. Many writers for children start off wanting to "teach a lesson" with their story and the result is often a preachy mess nobody enjoys. Nobody enjoys a lecture, and I mean nobody. So Step One is to get off your high horse and get past the "teach a lesson" stage. If you start with the lesson and give no thought to the characters and the plot, except to illustrate your lesson, readers will sense it. They'll know the story lacks any depth beyond the lesson. Kids can smell a rat and you won't be fooling them into "learning something" if that's what you think, so give that up right now.
Step Two is get back to basics. Ask yourself three things: Who is my character? What do they want? What's standing in their way?
If you craft a compelling character with a compelling problem, BOOM, you just got a theme! Easy peasy! Let me illustrate with my book Hush Puppy. The main character is Corrine, a poor black girl with a fierce determination to get out of her backwater town, go to college, and see the world. What's standing in her way? Lack of money and lack of support. See the theme and the conflict? Where you come from and your economic background have a huge effect on the educational opportunities available to you. The character becomes a real person dealing with a real problem and it's something most anyone can relate to. It's Corrine's choices that illustrate how she deals with her own set of problems. As an author, I'm not trying to lecture anyone on poverty. I'm illuminating it. I'm showing it, not telling it. See the difference? 
Give it a try. Make a character, give them a goal and then make a really big obstacle to overcome. Then come back and let me know what your theme is!  Happy writing~

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