Posts Tagged Theme
I’m just back from a few days in Venice teaching a writing masterclass (I know, it’s a hard life). In my lectures, one subject I found I returned to repeatedly was the hidden clues that make a novel work. Readers often don’t realise they are there, and that means they’re hard for a writer to spot.
Does that sound vague? Let’s have some examples.
Readers have a strong sense of whether surprises are fair. Sudden fatal coronaries, floods, falling trees and brake failures have to be used with careful judgement because they are convenient for the writer. They must be foreshadowed so that they seem inevitable and surprising but not arbitrary.
So if you wanted to warm the reader up for a car crash, you could plant a hint much earlier in the novel that one of your characters is often fined for speeding, or that it’s Christmas and drunk-drivers are on the roads. Foreshadowing mustn’t be obvious, so you need to disguise your intentions by making the scene appear to perform some other function – such as a couple arguing about who will stay sober for the drive home.
Enough secondary and background characters so that the world is populated
Some characters seem to exist in a vacuum. They have no connections to other people outside the main action. But if you add, as appropriate to your genre, a few colleagues, neighbours, extended family members, they seem to acquire more reality.
You also need extra people to make public settings believable. When you describe your protagonist walking down the street where they live, add a little life – a person hauling a suitcase out of their front door, perhaps. If the scene takes place at the dead of night, add a cat hunkered down on the parapet. If your characters meet in a coffee bar, give us a snapshot of the stranger sitting in the window, tapping on a laptop.
Here, you can learn from the movies – you’ll almost never see a street scene or a coffee bar that doesn’t have an anonymous random person doing an ordinary thing. Without it, the scene would seem strangely empty, artificial. The same goes for novels.
Many writers plunge into a scene’s action too abruptly. Although it’s good to get the story moving, we can also be disorientated if we don’t know who’s in the scene, how many people there are and what they are doing. Include this in your opening so that the reader can load it in their mind.
With themes we have to use a light touch. I see manuscripts where the writer is desperate to point out their clever theories that make their story look universal and weighty. The characters have a lot of conversations, about the theme. They see it on newspaper headlines or their Twitter feed. Indeed, the characters might seem to be enacting a series of examples the writer’s theme, instead of following their real, human urges.
Themes work best when they are covert, not lit in neon. So the clever writer will nudge the reader to notice them – perhaps with their choice of language, names, a symmetry in the characters’ situations. It’s certainly there, and it has to be placed carefully – but it is hidden.
All these details are easily missed by readers – and this is their very nature. They are usually smuggled in. They do their work in disguise, under the waterline. Without them, the world of the story might seem unconvincing, a scene might be confusing, a plot surprise may seem arbitrary, or the novel may seem hectoring instead of engaging.
Let’s discuss! Have you come across these techniques? If you have, how did you become aware of them? Are there any others that you’d add?
What is plot? What ingredients are essential, regardless of genre? How do we use themes effectively, and subplots? What makes a satisfying ending? Author-entrepreneur and heroic podcaster Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to answer these questions and more – and as you see, at 33:47 you can be assured of authorly hilarity.
You can either listen to it as a podcast or read the transcript here, or you can watch us laugh, furrow our brows and occasionally drink tea by clicking on the screen below.
I first suggested it in my purple writing book Nail Your Novel, as part of the section on revision, and it must have struck a chord because time and again it gets picked up by other writers around the blogosphere. Here’s KM Weiland and here it is most recently being passed on by Larry Brooks, at all stations from Jenna Bayley-Burke to Porter Anderson.
Since it’s proving so useful, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at why we might do this.
But first, here’s what you do (from Nail Your Novel)
Imagine you are writing a blurb or a review and that you have understood everything the writer was trying to do. Be specific about the story, the themes and the mood…
When might you do this?
You could do it when you embark on major revisions, to firm up your ideas before you hack and slay. Or any time you’ve got in a muddle and lost faith. What you do is step back and write how you would like the book to work if all problems were solved. If you step away from the details and look at the big picture, you often find you are not as lost as you think. Whether you knew it or not, you have strong, specific ideas about what the book would be.
What should you put in it? Everything distinctive and exciting about your novel. This might be any or all of:
- how the themes will work
- the influence of the setting and what it brings to the story
- the functions the characters might perform; perhaps whether they will be likable or not – and why that will be enjoyable
- what the set-pieces are
- why the big reveals will pack such a punch
- the literary traditions the novel might fit into, if that’s your bag
- the kind of readers who might enjoy it
- if you’re planning a non-linear structure or something tricksy like two narrators, why that was a clever move.
You can probably see you have to do a bit of head-scratching, so this exercise is good for making you justify – and understand – your creative decisions.
The title of this post suggests you do it when stuck, but it’s also a very useful exercise to do it at the start, as a mission statement for what you hope the book will be. Especially in that first flush of enthusiasm when the idea is seductive and brilliant. When you’re courageous and undaunted – you simply know it will be good. It’s good to harness that for later when the honeymoon’s over.
Novels take so darn long to write that there usually comes a time when we’ve lost perspective. We confuse ourselves with infinite possibilities. We may even suspect we’ve ruined everything. If you wrote your ideal version review to start with, you have something to pull you back together. Even if the novel changes substantially in the writing, it’s useful to have a record of this early, optimistic vision. (It might have got richer, more sophisticated. Or you may find that fundamentally you’re still on course.)
Most of all, this exercise gives us confidence. By confidence I don’t just mean feeling better; I mean clarity and boldness in the way we handle our material. We can pitch the mood, decide what themes to highlight, what word choices fit, what’s superflous. We can strengthen character motivations and plot. Novels that work well know where they’re going.
So if you’re feeling lost, write yourself a rave review. Spoil yourself and strengthen your novel.
Thanks for the pic Bidrohi >H!ROK<
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available on Kindle and in print. Sign up for my newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.
In the Norwegian version of the film Insomnia, one of the characters tells an anecdote that is never finished. It appears inconsequential, perhaps a throwaway line to illuminate character. But good scripts never contain spare remarks, and this interrupted fragment quivers through the rest of the story like a deep note from a cathedral organ.
It is like the job the characters are doing – investigating a murder and having to create the ending for themselves. It returns later when parts of the story become dreamlike and the main character is tormented by guilt. It is like the everlasting arctic sunlight that won’t allow the day to end.
So leaving this anecdote hanging is a rather clever move by the writers.
Stories need closure – of course they do. We need to feel they ended in the right place. In most genres this does mean tying up all the ends and solving the mysteries. (We’ve all been infuriated by novels that are deliberately teasing us towards their sequels – The Hunger Games and Twilight. They don’t seem to be playing fair.)
In most genres, the fun for the punters is wondering how the murderer will get caught, how the romantic twosome will get together, how the battle was won, how the world was saved (or lost). That’s what they’re there for.
But if you are writing a story that aims to go deeper than the events, perhaps you don’t want to tie everything up or explain everything.
Insomnia ties up most of its physical threads – it ends when the case ends. But morally it is anything but neat. The characters leave the story with unfinished business and nagging burdens – and this is its true power. It is the toll paid by those who have to deal with murder. The viewer carries it too, as sharer of this experience in all its ambiguity. (Did ever a post try so hard not to give spoilers?) It plays fair, but it deepens the mystery.
Stories don’t always have to give us answers. Sometimes the questions they give us are as important.
Have you got a favourite story that doesn’t answer all its questions? Or do you hate it when writers do that? Share examples, good and bad, in the comments!
Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon. Not too late to nab a Kindle copy if you’re aiming to be a Wrimo!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
I’m glad I wore my hat to meet these folks. They host live literary events around the UK, one of which was the recent Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Manchester, which featured on BBC Radio. Other writerly shindigs have made it to Channel 4’s TV Book Club, the pages of Company, Woman & Home and The Bookseller. One reviewer has described them as ‘blowing the cobwebs away from the literary world and infusing it with colour and life’. If you want to clasp them to your bosom already, skip the rest of this spiel and go there now.
They are For Books’ Sake, an online community that showcases classic and contemporary writing by women writers past and present. They rather like the look of My Memories of a Future Life and have asked me over to write about three characters who blew my own literary cobwebs away. So I whirled time back to my school days and picked out three fellas I’m glad I met between the pages and not in real life. Don a mad hat and come on over.
I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.
In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.
First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.
Spice it up
But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.
We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.
Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.
On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’
Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.
Do it in order first
If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.
Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.
In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.
If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.
Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
Over at the red home of My Memories of a Future Life I’ve been a bit more active than I anticipated. I’ve been writing material to put up nearer to my novel’s release, but people have already been asking me questions – which can only be answered in posts. In case you’re curious, here are the first three posts: