Friday, November 15, 2013

Writing to a Theme

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

A few years ago, I got an email from a middle school student.  What was the theme of my book?
At first I was just a little startled that students just wrote authors about this kind of thing.  It would never have occurred to me to do that…but then, I guess the internet wasn’t around at that point, either (at least, not to the general public).
And then I was startled when I realized that…hey, the book in question didn’t really have much of a theme.  Maybe that’s why the kid was having such a hard time. :)  I mean, you could go with a ‘good will triumph over evil’ type of thing.  It was basically general crime fiction. 
Now my Myrtle Clover series does have a regular theme throughout all the books and aside from any other thematic elements in each separate book.  Don’t discount the elderly.   If you do, Myrtle might be walloping you with her cane.  Or revealing you as the book’s murderer.
After that moment and that email, I started paying a bit more attention to theme in my books.  For one thing…heaven forbid I have another student asking me about it. :)  For another…it was fun incorporating it in a subtle way.
I do think that subtle is key with themes.  Hitting a reader over the head with a theme is almost like author intrusion.
I’ve made interesting discoveries along the way in my efforts to add this literary element to my books.  Let’s take my current project…the one that I’ve felt I was behind on since it started a couple of months ago.  The one where the teaser was due before the outline.  (Ugh.)  Now the book has, believe it or not, a cover and back cover copy.   And I’m not done with the book yet, although I plan to be basically done in the next 3 weeks…it’s due January 1.
My editor, after reviewing my outline, included some special requests in her feedback.  In particular, she wanted me to incorporate some subplots involving some recurring supporting characters that she felt readers were especially fond of.
So I brainstormed updates, conflicts in their lives, growth, some ways that their issues might also intersect with the main plot and the protagonist’s own arc. 
And I’m wondering if, with theme, it’s just that the author tends to have something on the brain and it starts coming out in various ways in a book.
For me, it was the question of whether people can change…really change.  What chance do we have to really change our personality, our habits, and our tendencies for the better?  This is a fun theme to explore because change is such an important element in every story.  Every time the protagonist or secondary characters can grow or change in some way, it’s going to add to the story.
So I approached change in a lot of different ways in the book.  I have characters question whether the victim in the book had really changed his stripes before he was murdered (as he swore he had). I have a character who fears change and struggles as she tries to adapt to a new relationship.  I’ve got a character who feels as if she should change, although she’s comfortable with herself the way she is. What are the reactions of characters to other characters’ changes…do they recognize them for what they are?  Are they threatened by them?  Are they disbelieving that change can be genuine and successful?
Obviously, writing to a theme is more effective if the theme is integrated into the main plot and impacts the protagonist, too.
Have you ever used exploration of theme as story development or character development?  How did it go?