Writing is full of potential ‘dump’ areas. The back story dump, which I talked about last week. The info-dump, aka exposition. And this week, I came across a novel that was wearing its themes rather dumpishly.
When this author wanted to alert us to one of her themes, the characters had a chat about it. Or it was on a TV programme they were watching. Or in the college lecture they’d gone to. So far in this book we’ve had the failure of language 101, the women’s movement 101 and male/female stereotypes 101. (And this isn’t, by the way, one of my clients’ WIP manuscripts. It’s a published literary novel.)
There’s nothing wrong with the odd mention of a theme here or there, of course. After all, characters have got to talk about/watch/learn/be interested in something. A line or two won’t hurt, to give flavour here and there. So long as you don’t stop the action for half a page while you deliver a lecture. (And some writers do it for far longer.)
Bring theme to life
If you feel the need to shake your resonances, you have to do a bit more than dump an essay on the reader. Theme shouldn’t come from what the characters intellectually talk about, but from what they feel. The kind of problems that cause trouble for them. Or the way everyone in the universe of the novel behaves. Then the themes become tangible influences in the novel.
So how do you create this feeling?
Sub-plots, my friends
One of the best ways is with sub-plots. Your main plot may examine the theme from one angle; if your sub-plot comes at it another way, that makes the reader more aware of it as a force in the world of your story.
Shakespeare, as we might expect, knew how to make a theme sing for its supper. Take King Lear. In the main plot the king is abdicating and splitting up his kingdom, and trusts the wrong children while wronging the one who is truly decent. In the sub-plot, an illegitimate son (treated badly by everyone from the day he was born) schemes to get his brother disinherited because he feels he deserves his chance. Yes, from time to time the characters deliver speeches about thankless children and unnatural behaviour, but they are provoked by what is what is happening to them. (You can find out more about using sub-plots in my book, Nail Your Novel.)
Themes tend to be intellectual concepts. To make them work in a novel, you have to bring them to life. Not dump them in and constipate your story. I dare you to tweet that line.
Thanks for the picture, Marco/Zak on Flickr
How are you bringing themes alive in your novel? Share in the comments!