Monday, March 19, 2012

Finding Your Theme

I did a post asking what everyone's theme was about a week and a half ago. Several people said they weren't sure what their theme was, or what theme was in general. And that's when I realized what a crazy concept theme is! It's about as easy to explain and understand as Voice is. They're both so abstract.

As I showered that morning (because that's where ideas come from, you know), I thought about how I would explain theme. And wouldn't you know it: a couple of things finally fell into place in my book! So THANK YOU to everyone whose comments prompted me to think more about them.

And because I know that it can sometimes help just to hear a different voice give their explanation of a concept, here's mine.

Your book is like a salad. The concept and plot and characters and setting-- that's the lettuce and toppings on your salad. The theme is the salad dressing. It's the thing that's there throughout, the one common "flavor" that ties it all together.

You probably have dressing (theme) in your salad (book) already. Maybe it's not the type you want, and maybe not all the toppings are coated, but likely you have some in there even if you didn't think you did.

So how do you find your theme?

Look at your protagonist's character arc. That is a HUGE CLUE right there. In almost all cases, their arc, or the basic thing they learn, in its simplest form, is the theme for your book. But the theme isn't only in the MC's arc, just like the salad dressing shouldn't only be on the raspberries. It's throughout.

Let me explain in an example.

Okay, so some high school kids who are actually mechanical / science prodigies are offered a chance to go to an elite high school whose classes will stretch even them, and give them a chance to reach their intellectual potentials. At the school, after doing some searching, a group of the kids discover that the teachers are actually aliens who are stranded on our planet, and they're using the kids to figure out how to build a new space ship.

Okay. That's your concept. And the start of your basic plot. It is NOT theme at all. Moving on.

The MC is a boy who was the quarterback at his public high school, where he hid his intellect from the whole school, but most of all from all his teammates. It helped him fit in better. At this new school, he finds he can actually have his intelligence out in the open and still fit in. When it's no longer an issue of fitting in, he realizes the reason he kept his massive brainpower a secret was so he wouldn't turn out like his dad, who missed most of MC's childhood because he was in federal prison for hacking into the Justice Department's computer system.

That's part of your character arc. And great clues as to theme.

From here, you could play up the "I'm new here and trying to fit in and find my place" theme. Or "Can I help save the day / the school / the system / the world, without treading into waters that will take me to a bad place?" Or "Trying to figure out who I really am." Or heck, even "Can two people who share a love of math and everything logic go beyond what makes sense long enough to fall in love?"

So once you find your theme, what do you do with it?

Let's take the I'm new here and trying to fit in and find my place theme. That theme needs to be running throughout your character arc. When he's at his old school. When he's at his new school. It needs to cause issue with the emotional / romantic parts. With all his parts in the plot.

But it can't stop with the MC. It needs to be spread throughout. So those aliens: they're stranded here, right? They suddenly have to try to fit in and find their place in a world they find completely foreign, while hiding the fact that they're aliens. And lets say there's a secondary character. A love interest for MC. Maybe she's been the smartest person in her school for so long, that going to a school with super-geniuses puts her in the uncomfortable spot of not being the smartest. Not being the person everyone looks to. And now she's trying to figure out how she fits into this new world. And, if you want to get bigger with it, how this newly-created school fits into the world of schools and where that can take you.

Of course, you could go on and on. The best thing is to weave that theme throughout all the areas that the plot dictates you have included in your book. It doesn't mean you have to add new areas. Just get a little salad dressing on everything you've already got.

Obviously theme can't be heavy handed, or it becomes didactic. You want it to be subtle. When you eat a salad, you don't want the dressing to be overpowering, right? If you hit them over the head with the theme, they will only be able to find one interpretation of it, and it might not be what they want. Leave it subtle, and each reader can interpret that theme in their own way, and each one can come up with a different opinion on what the theme was. It might not be the exact thing you were going for with the theme, but they'll interpret it the exact way they need.

And that's the true beauty of theme.

And the winner of the ARC of EDENBROOKE is..... Steph Sessa! If you get a chance, hop on over to her blog and tell her congratulations!


JeffO said...

Great post, Peggy, very well explained and illustrated.

Out of curiosity, do you write with a theme in mind from the get-go or do you discover it as you go or after the first draft?

Kelly Polark said...

Well explained, Peggy!

And I totally want a fresh salad for lunch today now, too. :)

Peggy Eddleman said...

Jeff-- Thanks! And good question. I guess a little of both. I like to know my character arc from the get-go, and that usually means that I know my theme. How it relates to the rest of the characters and the book as a whole, comes later. I'm drafting book 2 right now (I'm about 10 chapters in), and I haven't figured out character arcs or themes, and everything feels so flat! I hate hate hate not knowing. It feels wrong. Some people do best discovering it as they go. I'm not one of them. ;) I guess I do best discovering HOW to sprinkle the theme as I go.

S.P. Bowers said...

What if I don't like salad dressing? I know, everyone thinks I'm crazy. Maybe I'm part Rabbit.

I remember reading through my novel and seeing a recurring theme. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had a theme! I guess for me writing true to my characters and their motivations made the theme apparent without my actually thinking "this is my theme"

Kimberlee Turley said...

When I make a salad, I rummage the fridge and pantry first, then once I look at everything in the bowl, I decide the best dressing to go with it.

That's sort of what happens when I write too, but then I get to go back and take out or add elements until the whole saldad/story becomes worthy of the menu at Panera Bread.

Krista said...

Great post! Don't think I have ever heard theme explained so well!

Z said...

Beautiful description of an obscure concept. Thank you! Some writers (like CS Lewis) start with the theme and build a story around it. Others (like Tolkein) insist there never was a theme, even though it's as obvious as snow. There's always a theme, always a salad dressing, even if some choose to leave it in the little cup on the side of the plate :)

Tara Tyler said...

i thought after high school i could stop thinking about themes...ha ha!

you always make me work!
my wip theme is to overcome, no matter the obstacles put in front of you, dont give up!

Annalisa Crawford said...

Great post. Although, I have a horrible feeling my theme is: we/you are doomed.

That's not good :-/

Cassie Mae said...

You are a genius, woman. Explained this so well, even this slow girl understood what you were saying :)

Unknown said...

What an awesome explanation. I love that you compared it to a salad dressing. Also, I'm going to use your method to discover the themes in my books.

i'm erin. said...

Good job on the explanation! I was wondering how you were going to pull it all together after we talkeda bout it. Oh, and I found my theme by talking to you. ha ha

Jenny S. Morris said...

This is such a great explanation. I knew my theme of being different and how that affected growing up pretty early in my WIP, but other themes like: not being able to defeat evil alone and learning to forgive people came as the writing did.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the breakdown Peggy. So glad I stopped by. I love picking up different ways to learn the craft of writing well. I struggle with theme even as a pb writer.

Leigh Covington said...

This is awesome! A perfect way to explain it. Now I'm off to figure out my own theme. :) Thanks for the tips Peggy.

Talli Roland said...

Great post, Peggy! I always try to get a grip on what my theme is before I start writing, so that my character's actions can help contribute to that.

Precy Larkins said...

Great post! I was just thinking about themes in books the other day. Do writers start out with a theme in mind? I've always wondered whether most writers do, since theme can be shown through the use of metaphors and descriptions throughout the book. Or whether it was all coincidence, and the author didn't plan for the theme to be consistent?

In my WIP, I have subtle references to the story of Psyche and Eros, and I also use butterflies as symbols of the psyche and the soul, since my MC has to battle with psychosis.

Weaver said...

Love your analogy. And I want to read that book.

This made me laugh:

"Can two people who share a love of math and everything logic go beyond what makes sense long enough to fall in love?"

Jessie Humphries said...

Oh dang it, I'm not good at making salads! I better go take a shower and figure this one out .)

Ruth Josse said...

Salad dressing = Theme. Genius! Great way to explain it!

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

That salad looks really yummy!

I have several themes...that is to say, I need to be more specific in my theme ;)

Golden Eagle said...

Having read a lot of posts that mentioned theme, and being fuzzy on what it was exactly, this post was a great help. :)

Alleged Author said...

What a great way to explain theme!

Alleged Author said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angela Brown said...

I have to admit I love this post. If for no other reason than it made me hungry for a delicious salad with a balance of dressing spread throughout. Guess I won't be able to look at a salad the same way again :-)

Michael Horvath said...

If ever there is a problem to solve or a challenge to address, relate it to food and things will become so much clearer.

Jay Noel said...

Great metaphor (and delicious too). Helps make the idea of what a theme is so much more tangible.

I've read a couple books where the themes bordered on being didactic, and it's a big turn off. It's good to make the reader have to work a little.

Unknown said...

This has got to be the best explanation of theme I've read yet. Honestly, I never understood it til I met the salad. Time to go and find that dressing.

Kelley Lynn said...

Wow. I could really go for a salad right now.

And every time I eat a salad I will think about my current WIP and make sure that my dressing is all over it. (Even though I always take my dressing on the side...but I completely understand the analogy :)) would be interesting to see what amazing concept you could draw from the dressing being on the side... :) haha

Carrie Butler said...

Pegasus, the salad analogy was brilliant! You should teach a workshop... only it can't be in Utah. You guys have too much fun there as it is. :P

prerna pickett said...

thank you for a more thorough explanation. I think I finally get what the theme of my story is.

Nancy Thompson said...

What a totally awesome post, Peggy! When I started writing my novel, I never even considered theme. It wasn't until I was well past being finished that I realized I even had one. It was forgiveness, a subject I had a lot to learn about. Perhaps I wrote about it for a reason, 'cause I could certainly gain from forgiving. But I still think it's strange how that theme showed through, even without trying.

Laura Barnes said...

Love those shower ideas! Great post. Thanks.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

This is probably one of the best explanations of theme I've read.

Laura Pauling said...

I have to say it took me a while to understand theme. But I started to get it when breaking down books for structure according to Save the Cat. And I noticed that well done theme meant the difference between a good book and a great book.

Awesome explanation!

Valerie Hartman said...

Awesome analogy, kudos for going healthy this morning!

I have identified themes both ways - planned in advance and discovered along the way. Sometimes my "plan in advance" comes off a little heavy handed. "Discover along the way" and then beef up in revisions keeps me surprised and learning from my own work - sometimes I even feel clever with myself! Other times, not so much.

In my grad school courses, the professors teach ART as content and context. Content is the salad, the obvious parts. Context relates it to humanity and gives the reader something to relate to (hence, theme!) and process for themselves. You need both to give your work dimension, depth and for me, an A.

jabblog said...

Great analogy and a fresh way to analyse writing. More and more I find myself unconsciously analysing as I read.

Connie B. Dowell said...

I love the analogy!
I notice that once I've figured out what the theme is, I find all kinds of ways to weave it into the details of the story.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Excellent discussion of theme, Peggy, thank you!

Ansha Kotyk said...

Thanks for the great post Peggy. I'm having issues with theme in my current wip. This definitely helps. Or maybe I need to take a shower. ;)

Angela Cothran said...

Perfectly explained! I've read a few books lately that are all theme and no real plot. I really struggle with that. I need characters doing something to get me interested in the theme.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

You are awesome! Thanks for taking the time to spell this out!

Maggie said...

What a lot of comments on this post! And I see why, theme as salad dressing is the perfect analogy. Thanks for your take on this topic!

Peggy Eddleman said...

Kelly P-- Thanks! And yes- I'm totally craving salad now, too.

S.P.-- I LOVE when that happens! Then all you have to do is weave it through a few more places, and find the areas where the theme can strengthen the scene. So fun!

Kimberlee-- Ha! I love the way you explain it! Yes. Exactly that.

Krista-- Awww! You're so sweet!

Z-- I think you're right. It's there, covering everything, or it's there on the side, but always there. :)

Tara-- Yep, Tara, I'm here to make you work. ;) I'm gonna take a leap and say that if you chose that theme for your book, it's a theme in your life, too. I think you'll be okay. :D

Annalisa-- Haha! We/you are doomed! Best theme ever.

Cassie-- Wow. Thanks! And slow girl? Psht. Whatev. I bet you can't even stand to walk slow.

Clarissa-- Ooo! Nice! I hope you have tons of success with it!

Erin-- Thanks, Erin!

Jenny-- I LOVE when that happens! It sounds like we might work the same way- plot a lot, but figure out other things as we go.

Jennifer-- I'm glad you stopped by, too! And thank you!

Leigh-- Thanks! And best of luck!!

Talli-- I do, too. It makes everything so much easier! (I say as I'm writing a book where I haven't figured theme out yet...)

Cherie-- Ooo! I like the themes in your book! And as far as other writers- I imagine it happens much the same way as plotting does- some are pantsers and others are plotters. It doesn't matter how you go about discovering the theme, as long as it's there when you're done with revisions. :)

Donna-- Haha! You want to read the super smart HS kids in an alien class story? Hehehe. Awesome. And I had to stick in a romantic element somewhere. :)

Jessie-- Yes. Shower. That's when brilliance shines down on you. (Also: my excuse for taking 30 minute showers.)

Ruth-- Thanks!

Shelly-- Hehehe! Come on. There isn't such a thing as too many themes, right?

The Golden Eagle-- Nice! I'm glad it helped!

Alleged Author-- Thanks!!

Angela-- Hehe! Nothing would make me happier than theme pondering happening every time you eat a salad now. ;)

Michael-- I feel EXACTLY THE SAME WAY.

Jay-- Thanks! And I totally agree about didactic books being a turn-off. Make a reader think, and what they get from it will be so much better!

Imogen-- Awww! That makes me so happy! Best of luck finding your dressing. :)

Kelley-- :D That makes me happy. Also, check out Z's analogy in these comments. She addressed the "salad dressing on the side" thing brilliantly.

Carrie-- What? Too much fun? I have no idea what you're talking about. ;)

Prerna-- Yay! I'm so happy!

Nancy-- I think that's one of the incredible things about theme. I think we really crave them in books, so even if we don't consciously think of it while we're writing, our sub-conscious gives us the base of it anyway.

Laura-- I know! The shower's the best!

Lynda-- Awww! Thank you so much!

Laura-- Ooo! Nice! I love it! And I agree- for a book to be great, it has to be there, fully developed, without being overbearing.

Valerie-- I've discovered them both ways, too. (Actually, I REALLY hope I discover the theme for my WIP soon!!) I laughed out loud at your "You need both to give your work dimension, depth and for me, an A." part. Love it!

Jabblog-- Me, too! Sometimes it makes reading a little less fun, though. :( But so important to improve craft!

Connie-- Yes! That's why I love when I find mine right at the beginning. It can affect so many things!

Susanna-- Thanks! And you're welcome. :)

Ansha-- Yay! I'm glad it helped! And there's really nothing like showering for ideas, is there?

Angela-- I'm right there with you. I need THINGS TO HAPPEN. I'm definitely a plot girl.

TerryLynn-- Thank you! And you're welcome.

Maggie-- Aww! Thanks!

Katie Dodge said...

Brilliant! Love that analogy. :) And showers are a great place to think, aren't they!?

E.D. said...

Great examples throughout! Thank you Peggy - but please bring those cookies back!

Angela Ackerman said...

Really excellent post, Peggy--super helpful to me. :)