[Many apologies for the lateness of this post. This was the week of Fall Break at Ball State, and so things got a little confused. My bad! –Cathy]
By: Heather Hood
The theme for last week within the fishbowl was…you guessed it theme! Before I go into what theme is and how you can apply it to your own writing style, I want to discuss something we did differently in class last week. No, no it’s nothing bad. Actually it was relatively fun. So what is this not bad, relatively fun thing we did in class? Well, we flipped our class.
What do you mean you flipped your class? Flipping means instead of having the usual lecture in class, our teacher, Cathy Day, recorded a screencast about the week’s unit on theme and had us watch it on our own time. So what did we do in class then? We worked on homework for the class and if we had any questions, we could just ask Cathy, who was right there working with us.
So, my fellow bowlmates, how well did this work for you? I know I personally felt more concentrated on the Reverse Storyboard Project we had due this week. I’m not afraid to admit I am a procrastinator, especially on bigger projects, so it was nice to be in that small, studious atmosphere. And I know I personally loved the screencast for this week unit of theme because I found it easier for me to take notes and listen to what was being said. Did any of you feel that we missed out on anything by flipping? If you are not inside the fishbowl, would this have been something/is something you wish your class or school did or would do?
I should stop talking about flipped classrooms and get down to business and discuss want you really want to know about… theme!
What is Theme?
The main idea you should remember about theme is that a theme is about an author trying to say something that is important to them. It’s an author’s thought on a subject. So if you want to know the theme of something you are reading, ask yourself what or tell yourself that an author is saying? What is the piece about? Every piece is saying something.
Searching for a Theme
Cathy gave the fishbowl a great example of creating a piece of art out of a block of marble, like Michelangelo did with his sculpture David. Every piece starts off as a square, bland piece of marble. It’s there, waiting, but nothing screams of great things to come out of it by itself. A sculptor has to be willing enough to step in front of the marble block, see what is lying in wait, and make it. Here, Michelangelo states it better:
“Every block of stone has a statue inside of it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
As the artist, all you have to do is find the right block of marble, and the right piece and the theme will be waiting for you.
How can you supply a Theme in your work?
The best way to do that is to use what you have available to you: your narrative tools. You can show a theme through these elements, but try to do so in an organic way that is doesn’t seem deliberate but is:
- choice of characters
- a character’s actions
- a character’s dialogue
- reoccurring patterns
If you want the readers to know something is important, Carol Bly suggests telling the readers three times. She calls it the Rule of Three because, each time something important is introduced, the reader will have a different reaction.
- The first mention would go unnoticed because the importance, or theme, probably blends in with what’s around it.
- The second mention would resonate with the reader like a memory and they would start to ask questions about the piece.
- By the third mention, things start to click into place and readers see a pattern being established in the piece within the beginning, middle and end.
Developing a Theme
Donald Maass suggests five ways you could go about developing a theme in his book Writing the Breakout Novel.
- Consider alternate endings and outcomes. Explore through questions or scenarios how the ending of your novel could be or how different a scene could have come out.
- Give your characters parallel problems. Explore another character and how they would handle the same (or opposite) problem as your protagonist. Is their resolve better?
- Use foils. Use a contrasting character to highlight your protagonist’s qualities or use more characters to represent more choices (think of character delineation).
- Can your character’s problem speak to louder problems? Create their problem so that you can expand off of it to create an even larger problem until maybe there is no larger problem. Theme can come from doing this.
- Create a backwards antagonist. Explore the world of the antagonist and its minions. See how they are right and if the way they do things could work just as well as the protagonist’s ways. Just have fun with it.
- Write what you feel and what you want and a theme will develop.
- Have fun and enjoy what you write. Passion can make a theme stronger.
- The theme is already there, you just have to mold it and display it so others can see it.
- The Rule of Three is helpful when writing!
What I learned/ Figured Out This Week
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that a theme doesn’t always jump out of nowhere and knock you on the head and say, “Hey! I’m right here!” For some people that may happen and that is great, I wish I was more like them. For me and some others, theme doesn’t show itself so easily. And that’s fine too, because eventually it will be easier to identify. But there is always a theme to take from and to put into a piece, even if you think there is none. I’ll leave you with this…interesting image to try to remember theme:
Week 8 Blog Post Due: Lindsay Gregg
Weekly Words #8: due by Sunday, 10/20 at 5 PM. Focus: Using the tips from lecture regarding how to develop the theme of your novel, think about three scenes in which the theme is present. The first bell chime. The second. And then the third.
The students inside the fishbowl have now read and discussed all four novels that I used as models:
- Mrs. Bridge
This week, they are working on their Weekly Words (3 weeks to go!) and on their projects. They have to do a Reverse Storyboard Project on a novel of their choice or an Extraction Project on Mrs. Bridge.
They are also beginning to think about shoring up a good “partial” (the first 20 pages or so) to share with their Beta Groups in a few weeks.
This is the last week of my lectures or units. It’s not that there’s nothing left to say about writing novels. Oh no, there’s so much more. But for now, I think I’ve introduced everyone to the key concepts of beginning a novel.
The subject for this week is Theme.
- Theme is premise.
- Theme is meaning.
- Theme is idea/s.
- Theme is what makes a novel worth reading, in my opinion.
Much of my lecture comes from Donald Maass chapters on theme in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (Part III, chapter 31). I know I’ve recommended you go buy this book in the past. So let me say it again: go buy this book. His exercises will help you discover and/or develop a theme.
I saved theme for last because it’s complicated and not exactly something you should have all figured out at the outset.
If you’re a plotter, then you might have started your novel with a theme you’re trying to impart. That might not be the best idea, although it works for some people.
If you’re a pantser, then you might not know what your theme is until you finish a draft of the whole book. That might not be the best idea, either, although it works for some people.
The point is this: all novels have something to say. Even schlocky, pulpy novels. If you’re writing a novel, that means you have something in you that you want to say. Own that.
- Write three scenes in which the theme of your book is somehow present. And remember: it’s not about symbols! Theme is much more organic than that.
- Other than that, write write write. You’ve got three more weeks to generate as many words as you can before the Generation Phase of the class is over.