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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Plotting With Theme - Esri Rose

Adding a theme to your novels can make readers relate to characters on a deeper level and give a mythic quality to your stories, making them more memorable and satisfying.

I’m going to give two examples of theme in movies most of us have seen: Bridget Jones’ Diary, and About a Boy. Both these films do us the favor of actually stating the theme.

Bridget Jones’ Diary

The theme here is, “Look for a love that doesn’t ask you to change.” Remember Mark Darcy saying, “I like you, just as you are.” That’s enough to give most women goosebumps. This theme resonated with women so much, it propelled both the book and the movie into superstardom.

Bridget Jones’ Diary presses home the theme by having the heroine ignore it for most of the movie. The framework of the movie -- all those notes about cigarettes, weight and alcohol units – are there to show that Bridget believes she’s unlovable as she is. She spends all her time trying to bend herself out of shape at work, at parties, and in the bedroom, instead of looking for people and situations where her unique gifts will work.

About a Boy

Here’s a movie that puts its theme front and center. In a voice-over right at the beginning, Will says, “No man is an island,” but he believes that he’s proving that theme wrong. Will spends most of the movie trying to convince himself that he’s happy with his island life. But he would have to live in a vacuum to actually be an island, and the human race comes knocking at his door in the form of Marcus. Marcus, although a kid, is more evolved than Will in that he realizes relationships are what make life worth living (especially for his mom, who is suicidal), and he provides the perfect foil for Will. In this film, there’s a point-counterpoint between Will, who struggles to remain emotionally disconnected, and Marcus, who struggles to connect despite the fact that his social skills are rudimentary.

Developing Your Theme

It’s difficult to decide on a theme right from the get-go, although literary writers do it all the time. Sometimes that’s all they start with. For commercial writers, it’s easier to write your first draft and then see what elements can be developed into a theme. One good thing about theme – if you make it really recognizable, it can infuse life into the quietest of scenes -- good news for romance writers who don't deal in bombs or evil uncles. In About a Boy, Will takes a bath, plays pool, and shops for CDs. These scenes would be snoozers except that they show how empty his life is. The theme allows us to understand both the character and the life lesson the movie is getting across. In fact, let’s just substitute life lesson for theme, and suddenly it all makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

How To

Think about how the conflict illustrates a life lesson your primary character hasn’t learned, and show how avoiding the lesson negatively affects your character's life. Make your secondary characters exemplify the lesson, as positive or negative examples. Construct situations that bring up the life lesson. Do all this, and you’ll impart a cohesiveness to your book that will make it very satisfying to read. It’ll have a theme.

Continuing Themes

A certain theme often appears over and over in a writer's books, and attracts an audience who loves to read books with that theme. A good example of this is Anne Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist. Tyler’s characters are forever trying to escape their lives, their spouses, and their pasts. Her theme is probably, “You can't escape yourself.”

I’m working on the second in my Elves Among Us series (Bound to Love Her out in early May!), and if I have an overarching theme, it might be, “Don't live with fear.” Feel free to let me know if you think that's it.


9 Comments:

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Thanks Esri. Theme is still a fuzzy concept for me from a writer's perspective.

I like stories where the theme is not apparent from word one--no heavy preaching, thank you!--but unfolds slowly as the story unfolds. I always wondered whether writers planned it that way or planned it at all. Now I know theme can be a starting point, infused along the way, or added after the first draft.

 
At 12:19 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

That's a satisfying way to tell a story, too. Where the theme is the answer to the mystery of why the character isn't happy. I can't think of an example of one of those stories because...well, because they're more subtle.

 
At 1:48 PM, Blogger Marianne Harden said...

Thanks, Esri, great topic. I'm especially please since this is my first WNP blog look-see.

My books are driven by theme and premise, not that I immediately understood the differences between these two aspects. That took a little work for my tired brain to grasp, but I finally got it.

Being a panser, I find theme keeps me focused like a finger tapping my shoulder to point out when I've strayed.

That said, I do like theme to be more the sunlight coming in through the window rather than the room itself. Subtle is good.

Thanks again for the posting. I enjoyed reading it and many earlier ones.

 
At 2:28 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Glad you found us, Marianne!

 
At 2:49 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Yes, welcome Marianne!

And Hi (waving) to Patricia!

Esri, I can't wait to read your book and analyze for myself what I believe your theme to be. :) Meanwhile, I love both of the movies you used as examples. My favs for sure. I don't usually actively TRY to use theme, but it always seems to be in my books when I'm finished. Most of my books and many romance novels I enjoy, seem to share the theme: "I don't need a man for my life to be complete." And then the story goes on to show that my heroine may not need a man to complete her life, but having a good man sure can make life a little bit easier, more enjoyable, and fun. :)

Great post, Esri. Thanks.

 
At 3:46 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

That's a good theme, Theresa. I enjoy books with that theme, too. Congrats again on your 2008 GH final! I hope I get to read your books real soon now!

 
At 8:26 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

(Welcome, Marianne! We're delighted to have you!)

Esri, I find theme the hardest thing to think about. I'd really have to strain to figure it out. But I think my books HAVE themes.
I just don't know exactly what they are!!!

 
At 10:31 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Hey, Marianne! Waving to my Passion's Slave CP! This is a great place to learn, Marianne. And ladies, Marianne seldom goes astray. Her writing is tight and really draws you in.

I'm with Patricia. I like it when the theme is there but kind of sneaks up on me. I don't like for it to be too obvious. I think my theme is if you spend all of your time trying to prove who you are, you might miss the love of the one person who LOVES who you are. Does that make any sense?

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Great blog, Esri! Like you, I rarely start out with a theme, but one always emerges before I'm done. Then in the rewriting process, I can pay attention to theme. I think my current WIP's theme revolves around innate justice.

 

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