Writing Tips & Tools

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lesson 32: Theme

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

Today's lesson is in Section THREE: Theme.

This chapter is too big to be one post, so I'll divide it up over a couple days!

There are many different ways to discover and develop the themes in your novel. Themes can be motifs, recurring patterns, outlooks, messages, morals...any number of deliberate elements that make your manuscript more than just a story...indeed, that makes it a novel with something to say.

What are the themes of your current novel, and how are you developing them? Whether you are making your point by creating a backward antagonist, or by giving other characters parallel problems, or by introducing problems that are bigger than your protagonist, or by showing us what your character is aiming for (or at least will settle for).

Be sure that you have a means to bring out what you want to say. A novel that has nothing to say will have a tough time breaking out!

Step:1 With respect to the story as a whole, what does your protagonist want?

Step:2 If your protagonist cannot get that, what would she/he take second?

Step:3 If he/she can get nothing else, what would he settle for?

Step:4 Work out alternative endings for the novel based on each of the above answers. How would each ending go?

Note: the point of this exercise is not necessarily to change the ending of your novel( although it might). It is to use alternate outcomes to understand what it is that your protagonist is really after, and why.

Is second-best or the minimum good enough? Then perhaps you need to raise the personal stakes so that those lesser outcomes are in no way acceptable. Buried in the results of this exercise also are clues to what you novel, really is about: it's theme!

Follow-up: Again thinking of the story as a whole, what outcome would be more than your protagonist possible could hope for?

Conclusion: Ah! The answer to that last question may open up even more possible outcomes for the story. Could it be that your protagonist (or you) has her sights set too low? Even if that dream outcome is not practical, how can that vision of greater good be incorporated into the story?


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