Friday, June 17, 2011

Message, Moral, Meaning: The Theme

One of the first lessons children’s writers hear is “Don’t preach,” so by now you know better than to end your stories with obvious morals. However, many writers, even advanced ones, suffer from a different thematic challenge. The theme may be unclear, perhaps even to the writer herself.

Author Holly Cupala says, “Throughout the writing of Tell Me A Secret (HarperCollins, 2010), I would hit on something and think, This is the theme! Then a little later, No, this is the theme. It seems to be an evolving-or perhaps devolving-process, getting to the heart of the story, layer by layer. I even found an old blog of mine where I thought I’d hit on the theme and had the same experience-the chills, the thunderous weight of the moment you realize, ‘Wait, wait, wait. This is the theme.’ I think on some level I’ve been right every time, chipping away at the complex layers of what it means to write something as truthfully as possible.”

As this successful novelist shows, you don’t always have to know your theme before you start. Sometimes, you may discover your message as you write the story. Or you may start with one idea in mind, and change it as you go. You may even realize that you don’t quite believe your original theme-writing the story may help you explore new aspects of that idea, uncovering complexities and contradictions. This can result in a deeper, more meaningful story, so let that process unfold.

My World View

When trying to identify your theme, start big and then narrow your focus. Can you define your theme in one word? Is it about love, hope, courage, sacrifice? Once you’ve identified that word, try to state your theme as a single, clear sentence. What do you want to say about that word? For example, if your novel is about sacrifice, what about it? Is your character making sacrifices for her own future, for a loved one, for her country, for an ideal? What does she have to sacrifice? Narrowing in on the specifics can help you pinpoint your theme.

Once you’ve clarified your theme, work backward. Does your novel truly support it? Maybe you’ve decided that your theme is “The greater good is more important than the individual’s desire.” In that case, your main character should be giving up a desire in order to help a larger group. But perhaps you liked your character so much that you ended with her helping the group and getting what she wanted as well. That weakens your message, and suggests a different theme, “Good will be rewarded.” You might want to reconsider your ending.

Try to envision all the different messages someone could get from your story. I’ve read various unpublished manuscript about characters (usually young animals) who are ostracized because they can’t do something common (a bee that can’t buzz, a lion that can’t roar, a dachshund that can’t jump hurdles… whatever). Then, of course, something happens that requires that characters special talents, and he proves himself to the community. Besides the fact that this story has been done (Rudolph, anyone?), I question the theme. The writer wants to say that everyone has special qualities. Instead, her story could suggest that you won’t be accepted unless you prove yourself through heroic action. That might encourage kids to look for ways to show off, rather than to accept themselves as they are.

Having readers miss your intended theme can become a big problem, if they are seeing messages that go against your beliefs. Find a few people to read your story and ask them what message they take away. Make sure their response is in line with your ideals.

Don’t expect your readers to all pick out your theme exactly, however. If they do, you’re probably not being subtle enough. Just make sure they find a valuable message. In my Mayan historical adventure for kids, The Well of Sacrifice, I knew my main theme: make your own decisions and stand on your own. My heroine, Eveningstar, learns that she can’t depend on her heroic older brother, her parents, the government or religion to solve the city’s problems. When they all fail her, she has to act by herself.

One young reader wrote me and said, “The book…helped me think to never give up, even in the worst of times, just like what happened to Eveningstar.” I’m happy to inspire a reader to “never give up,” even if that wasn’t my main theme. And perhaps readers will be subtly influenced by my primary message, even if they don’t recognize it while reading.

Next week we'll look at what happens if you have too many messages.

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