Week 9 Report: Theme

[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
  • setting
  • 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:


Redefining Writing

James Gartner

        I had finished two drafts of novels before I took my first creative writing class.  People still argue about teaching writing, and some believe that writing is something that can’t be taught.  They should try and read those ancient drafts and see what they think then.  Of course, I’m sure that more things than merely education have contributed to my writing.  I did write far more regularly back in those days, but then, everything was more regular then.

This book is very helpful whether you’re
a pantser or a plotter.

     Needless to say, I had never heard of “pantsers” and “plotters” when first I started writing.  I just did what I felt like doing, usually starting off just writing and making stuff up as I went, and maybe outlining a few things later on.  I used to picture my story as a kind of movie then, and I still do sometimes.  I’m a very visual person and I’m studying film as well as writing.  As I write more, I tend to see things a little differently.  Pantsing seemed to work out all right, but then I’d go back and look at my work and find all kinds of problems.  But what trouble is that?  It was just a draft, after all.  Yet every time I plugged one hole, something else opened up.
       So, ninety pages into a new draft of a new novel, one I’m considering working on for this class, I decided to start fresh and try and build a solid foundation before I begin to write.  I’m trying to be more organized.  But I’m young, and I’ve always found trial and error to be effective if time consuming, so I’m trying something and seeing how it goes.
       I think that’s also some of where I get blocked up when I’m trying to write.  As I’m looking ahead, I’m thinking I’ll probably do lots of different outlines.  Just let things go and see where they end up, then shuffle some things around and start again.  Eventually my outlines will look like one of those choose your own story books probably, but it’s an experiment.
       In my last blog post I talked about being a binge writer.  That typically goes with being a pantser.  And honestly even if I have outlined something, the details of the scenes come as I write, at least so far.  Sometimes that takes me in different directions from where I had plotted, but I’m pretty flexible.  The problem with writing a novel is that sometimes it takes a long time to figure out that you’re wrong.

Redefined implies that there is nothing more to do.
Perhaps a better slogan would be “Redefining Education,”
but maybe that was already taken.

       So I’m still searching to improve the way I go about writing long projects.  Who knows if I’ll ever be satisfied.  I don’t always stick to a certain path, even if it works.  Most of the excitement is in the experiment, in the search.  There always might be something better (which, by the way, is particularly frustrating when writing because I’m never really satisfied).  I don’t think anyone is too old to keep learning.  Then again, I’m young, so that’s easy for me to say.
       Perhaps I should have put this disclaimer toward the top, but if you came here looking for advice, you’ll find that I’m still figuring things out myself.  Check out the other posts on #amnoveling and you may find what you’re looking for.  In addition to Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell also has a blog.

The show must go on

Todd A. Bastin

I love asking people to make lists of their favorites; favorite foods, favorite movies, favorite books, whatever. Normally it’s such an arbitrary way to get to know someone, but I like to take a person’s list, find a flaw, and then attack it, forcing the person to expose herself in defense over her tastes. Then you get to know her. One’s truest colors show when in defense of oneself. So that’s probably why when I’m asked to make a list, I’m immediately wary. It’s an invitation to attack. However, it’s also an opportunity to zwischenzug. That said, my lists are never simple. Consider the following: 
These are my five favorite novels. But what the devil do Dandelion Wine and The Hand of Chaos have in common? How do Garth Nix and Cormac McCarthy work together to shed light on Todd A. Bastin?
I’m no scholar on Todd A. Bastin, but I can certainly point out a strong consistency between these five books. It’s the theme of moving on, no matter the crisis. Be it the apocalypse, magical entropy, or growing up, the characters in all of these novels are adamant in one way or another about the acceptance of what’s happened, and are determined, in their own ways, to carry on for better or worse. 
In The Road, the unnamed protagonists, by all practical indications, have absolutely nothing to live for. And yet the end of the world is behind them, and they’ll be damned before they cease to carry the fire across their lost planet.
The Hand of Chaos, the fifth installment of The Death Gate Cycle, is the series climax, and the cast does not give up, does not change plans on account of everything that’s gone wrong. No character or group stays down, and all struggle to move on from a ruined past.
Shade’s Children is about a post-apocalyptic dystopia where children are harvested as mutant bio-weapons for the entertainment of an elite few. Only a small band, rescued and led by a sentient computer named Shade, hold out against this cruel new world. Though Shade’s children have known nothing else, known nothing better, they push, against all odds, for something else, for something better.
Mother Night’s Howard Campbell, a ‘retired’ American spy who served in World War II nazi Germany, struggles to move on with his life and to abandon his past. He has little left to live for, but by sheer force of his own humanity, he makes that push anyway.
Finally, Dandelion Wine, my all-time favorite novel, is about the same: the times are changing, and the world is inevitably moving forward, a force that Douglas cannot neither hide from nor begin to fight. However, instead of losing himself in the past, instead of taking solace in what once was, he learns to accept that the past should be remembered so as to make the future stronger.
It’s not just this insistence on not giving up that holds these novels together for me, though. None of these stories’ authors are afraid to crush hope for the characters, and indeed most of the characters of these novels fail to find or achieve what they hope for in the end, or are otherwise denied closure at book’s end. By the end of The Death Gate Cycle, nobody even knows what to want anymore, yet they keep on keeping on. Even Dandelion Wine’s Douglas, arguably the most positive of the protagonists from these five novels, is forced into a sequel to continue resisting the forces of change.
At the end of the day, it seems that it’s the representation of people always finding a way that appeals to my sensibilities; whether it’s shutting down one’s mutant overlords or just learning to appreciate the little things in order to cope with the big ones, the show must go on. This reflects well the three-faceted cornerstone of my personality: that I am easygoing, patient, and stubborn. Come at me.

What It Means to be a Writer

by Morgan Smith
There’s a great chance that many of you reading this write and aspire to be writers, but don’t call yourself a writer. That was the case for me, a senior in the creative writing department, before taking this course. While in this class, I’ve been introduced to a new way of thinking about writing and a new definition of a writer, and as it turns out, I am one. I only have one publication to my name and no one knows who I am, but I am a writer.
The awful truth.
An important thing I’ve learned is that if you have any romantic notions of what being a writer is, get rid of them. I don’t want to be a dream killer, just a realism pusher. The odds are that you will be rejected more than accepted and you’ll never make a good living solely on publishing books, if that is the medium you choose, but that’s okay. Chances are, the same writers you love to read had their own fair share of rejections. If you know that next to no one, if not no one, is going to read what you are writing, but you have to write it anyway, you’re a writer. Keep doing it, but keep in mind:
You’re not the next J.K. Rowling.
You aren’t going to make a million dollars off your book.
You won’t get a movie option.
 In 100 years, people won’t be studying your work.
You won’t be the greatest writer that ever lived.
You might never have an idea that hasn’t already been written.
So why try? Why take a noveling class when the future is so bleak? That is simple. You can get better. It is true that you can write and submit without a degree, I considered it myself, but no one ever became great at something without studying and practicing their craft. That is why I took this class and that is why I am excited to be taking it again.
If I had just a penny for every person who ever said, “I should write a book” or just thought about it, but didn’t, I would be rich. That’s another advantage of this class; you finally have a reason to do it. I may only be twenty-three, but I have wanted to write a novel since I first read To Kill A Mockingbird more than a decade ago. Since then, I’ve written poems, essays, flash fictions, short stories, and jotted down ideas for that infamous first book we all want to write… eventually.  Now I’m doing it.
What’s been better than finally starting it has been accepting the fact that it is going to be bad. It sounds insane, but it’s freeing. It will be a bad first draft, a bad second draft, a bad third, and probably more, but it will get better. Writing a novel is a different process for everyone, but the thing that is important to learn is that it is a process and the first step is to just get it out. I’ve been encouraged in this class to not edit and that was a completely foreign concept to me. I am the kind of writer that edits word by word of every sentence as I go, and then does it again. In this class, that wasn’t an option. You are forced to keep moving and expand your ideas, get all your thoughts on the page and edit it later. Now for some, it’s possible to get an entire novel on the page in a semester, but not most which is why I am taking the class again so that I can keep working on it. I knew when I signed up to draft a novel in a semester that I was going to panic a few times, and I will next semester as well, but it has been worth it. I’ve started my novel, I feel like a writer, and I’ve learned more about writing in this one semester than in the last 3 years of college. The best advice I can give you is to hone your craft. If you want to be good at it, study it.
[Editor’s Note:  Tune in tomorrow for two opposing blog posts: Miranda Wuestefeld on planning a novel and Jennifer Perov on why she doesn’t plan extensively.  – Lauren Burch]