Thursday, January 03, 2008

Novel Concept

Posted by Lynne

As a young girl, one of my favorite memories involves reading a book bigger than me filled with black and white illustrations and fables written by a man named Aesop. I imagined Aesop as an old man with a long white beard, I didn't know what the words philosopher or sage meant back then, but I knew he had to be wise. Why? Because of the morals at the end of his tales. The simple one liners that pulled the whole story together.

A few weeks back, I began to ponder the notion of theme related to the novel when a writers forum I visit tackled a discussion about it. The question posed was do you know your themes before you write or are they made visible after you write? I was a bit surprised to learn that some writers don't know their themes until the end of a full draft.

To me, every great story has themes and the writer simply must know at least some of them before writing. I'll use one of Aesop's to illustrate my point. In the Dove and the Ant, the ant falls into the river and the dove drops a bough to help the ant get safely to the shoreline. Later the ant stings the man about to use his bow and arrow to shoot the dove from the sky. The moral--one good turn deserves another, and little friends can be great friends.

The theme or moral argument in this little example is a major underpinning of the story structure. Knowing the message-- the truth behind the writing--drives plot, informs character, and even offers authenticity to setting.

I'd been thinking a lot about theme before Christmas, and then the books I received as gifts forced me to examine it on a deeper level. If you don't agree with me-- that great writers know themes before writing-- I challenge you to read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan or Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas or Beloved by Toni Morrison. I can barely breathe when I read these masters because every word, though never heavy handed, gently takes the reader by the hand to bring her to a universal theme about love, or identity, or justice, or friendship, or dreams.

If you want to create a truly accessible work of fiction, I encourage you to examine the idea of themes in writing. Another of my favorite gifts was John Truby's, The Anatomy of Story. Truby does a great job discussing the need to articulate your themes before writing and he offers so much more about creating a workable premise for your novel. It is a must read if you resolve to write a novel this year.

Each day before you write, revisit your themes. Immerse yourself in your character's truth. I believe your wisdom will find its way into your story, and readers will be forever changed.


Anonymous said...

I was well into the second draft of a short story, trying to figure out how a plot device fit into it, when the real theme slapped me on the forehead with a big DUH! It wasn't what I started with, but it worked so much better and made everything fit. I just had to adjust a few atmospherics to make it work.

Now, as I expand the story into a novel, my original theme, which came with a great title, has had to be ditched for yet another theme. (I don't have a new title yet.) My characters kept saying a particular line and I realized, Oh, this is what this is really about.

Kinda cool.

I suppose it's possible that you don't know your theme until the piece is written, but I can't imagine that, really. Though I'm now a firm believer in the story telling itself--the theme emerging through the process of the writing.

Last night, my two main characters had this fight. They needed to have this fight, I knew it was coming, but I had no idea how it would resolve. I was surprised and pleased at the outcome.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Expert writers claim that when we lose sight of our themes, we get stuck in the writing of our story. I'm glad you listened to your characters and then found your way.


Sustenance Scout said...

Thank you for this, Lynne!! K.

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