A Journey through Theme Development

Today we’re going to wrap up our look at theme, one of the four corner pillars of novel construction. All year I’ve been emphasizing how important it is that writers work on all four “corner pillars” supporting their story at the same time, in a kind of holistic process. Brainstorming these four pillars at the same time, strengthening each as you see how they fit together, will help you end up with a strong, tight novel.

There is no need to work on these in a certain order. Start with your idea, then keep moving through the elements that pertain to building your protagonist and his goal, your concept with a kicker, your conflict and high stakes. Use the inspection checklists at the bottom to ask those hard questions of your structure and work out the answers until you have those pillars fashioned and hardened like concrete!

Everyone’s process in going from idea to finished novel is different. I’ve experimented with many methods, and over the course of writing more than a dozen novels I’ve come up with the process that works best for me. I am not talking about the way I create outlines or charts or write scenes on index cards (which I do for almost every novel). I’m talking about the creative process of bringing random, chaotic ideas into order. And the way I do this gets me targeting the essentials of the four corner pillars right away—especially theme.

An Example of How I Flesh Out Theme

I have this idea to write a novel called The Menopause Murders. Okay, I realize I’m taking a huge risk here, because, as you know (since I shared with you the fun definition of high concept in an earlier post), someone is going to steal this idea. I just hope they don’t kill me over it. My feeling, though, is no one will write the book I’m planning to write. I’m sure they just won’t end up with the novel I picture in my head. Because my life experience is unique (and you can’t have it).

So, here’s my concept: A mousy, weak housewife, who is dominated by an irritating, arrogant husband and who suffers two obnoxious, spoiled teenaged children, suddenly gets broadsided with menopause. (Sorry, guys, you really will never be able to write this story—unless from the husband’s POV, and I think my husband has dibs on that).

I have a great idea for the opening scene, and I have the basic storyline: My protagonist goes online (which I did when I got a weird symptom I could not figure out), and learned there were 39—yes 39—symptoms of menopause. After hearing shocking and hilarious stories at my writers’ lunch from numerous women who somehow survived menopause (not sure how many of their husbands did), I formulated this idea. My character will get all 39 symptoms over a period of time (TBD, but most say menopause averages four years. My condolences to those of you who have suffered longer).

What’s my heroine’s goal? To get through menopause alive. The kicker? Every time she gets a new symptom, she murders someone (yes, literally). By the time she is done with menopause, she’s murdered 38 people. Wait, I said 39 symptoms. Yes, but the last symptom she gets is short-term memory loss, so at that point she will forget she’s killed anyone, or wanted to (nice twist at the end).

Okay, I have a great concept and kicker, a protagonist with a goal. I’m creating conflict (her husband will be the detective investigating all these murders, her children will hate her new personality, she’ll get fired from her job, she’ll end up divorced, and on and on). I’m not sure of the climax yet, but I know in the end she’ll have reinvented herself, gotten a new man and new career, and live blissfully happily ever after, completely ignorant of her crimes, with the murders unsolved.

I picture a very funny Kill Bill–style story (noir), but even while coming up with all these things, my main focus was on theme. Why? Because this story could be about a ton of things. It could be just a fun ride (wasn’t that the point of Kill Bill? I mean, really, do those movies have themes?).

Theme Comes out of Passion

Remember I spoke in recent posts about the way to finding your themes? You need to explore why you want to write the story you are writing (or planning to), which will require you to give up months of your life to accomplish. Why are you doing this to yourself and your family? Because there is something about the idea that is compelling you.

So here’s what compelled me to even start brainstorming this story: 1) the fact that quite a few women I know have cancer (and some have died) after the onset of menopause due to hormone treatments 2) women often feel old, useless, washed up as a woman when they go through this “change of life, and 3) they offer suffer the mistreatment of ageism/discrimination of old age (even if not old).

What compelled me to even think of writing this novel were those things I began to be passionate about. What I cared about. I cared that women were dying of cancer because their doctors gave them drugs without warning them of the danger. I cared that women feel invisible, oppressed, put down because of their age. I cared that many women are dumped by husbands (some because of those menopause symptoms) who go after much younger women (no, this hasn’t happened to me; my husband is a great guy), whereas it’s almost impossible for women to dump their husbands for younger men. Theme galore.

Are Message-Heavy Novels Bad?

No, I don’t plan on making this a heavy, preachy, lecturing novel to make someone feel bad. But you can bet this novel will be rich in theme. I personally feel humor is one of the most powerful ways to strike home heavy messages. My favorite novels are the ones that make me cry while I’m laughing.

I hate to use the word messages because it implies a serious agenda for writing a book. Some people do have heavy agendas, though, and some of those novels are fantastic. A novel like The Help has some very intense themes, and, I would say, a heavy message about racism. So does To Kill a Mockingbird. Heavy themes, heavy messages, aren’t bad at all. But if you examine closely the great novels that have thematic messages, they are done beautifully through the thoughts, actions, and speech of their characters. You won’t find pages of pontificating on the evils of racism in those novels.

I hope this has given you some inspiring ways to approach your novel’s themes. Think of themes as topics, issues, concerns. Find the heart of your story’s ethics and morals. Brainstorm by asking questions of your characters and their passions.

As you read the novels you love, jot down the themes you see presented. Then pay attention to how the writer brings them out. Use a yellow highlighter and mark up every line that speaks to theme (on a used paperback and not that special first-edition hardcover version!). You’ll be glad you did.

Moving On . . .

We’ve now completed our look at the first four of twelve pillars—the four crucial corner pillars of novel construction. I’ve spent a third of the year on just these, but for good reason. I hope you see how, by constructing your story by focusing on these first four pillars, your novel will hold up to scrutiny and the weight of time. I’ve added the fourth inspection checklist below, so grab it, print it out, save it, along with the others. May they help you construct a solid novel.

Next, we’ll dive into the remaining eight pillars—the supporting ones—beginning with Plot and Subplots in a String of Scenes.

Any thoughts on these four pillars so far? Which one is the hardest for you to build? Which is the easiest?

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

9 Responses to “A Journey through Theme Development”

  1. Susannah MacDonald May 28, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    I had to laugh at this one! Over the course of my Change(!)
    there have been a number of folks I have gladly murdered! As I rattle away at this reply something fiendish occurs to me… I’ll keep you posted.

  2. Susannah MacDonald May 28, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    I meant of course, to write ‘could have gladly murdered’. I think that is called a Freudian slip of some kind!

  3. Staci Troilo May 29, 2014 at 5:13 am #

    Do let us know when you publish that one. I’ll be first in line to buy a copy!

  4. Sherry Marshall May 31, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

    What a fabulous idea. The more books out there the better, especially novels, as it is still such a taboo subject. And don’t get fooled by 4 years of menopause! It’s a lie. Most women have some sort of symptoms from between 5 and 10 years! whether mild, medium or so aweful, they may well think about commiting murder!

  5. Audrey Kalman June 2, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    Thank you for this! I needed to hear these ideas right now. I have begun working on a new novel in an unfamiliar genre. As I’ve begun researching, I realize how many similar novels have been written. I will cling to your line, “My feeling, though, is no one will write the book I’m planning to write,” because I really do feel passionate about the ideas.

    • cslakin June 3, 2014 at 5:11 am #

      I’ve seen numerous writers fearful that someone will steal their idea. They are afraid if they post a sample of their work, they are in trouble. But I see “famous” authors all the time giving away free chapters and stories. It really is true there are no new stories, and if you give a hundred writers a storyline to write, each resultant book will be entirely different. What stands out, to me, as I edit and critique, is the passion a writer infuses into the story she is telling. If that’s missing and the themes are lacking, the book often feels flat and uninteresting. As the saying goes: “If your writing doesn’t keep you up nights, it won’t keep anyone else up either.”

  6. sibilant June 2, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    I just wanted to say thank you for guiding us through these four corner pillars and taking the time to create the checklists. Your 12 key pillars series has been very helpful so far and I look forward to the rest of your posts this year!

    • cslakin June 3, 2014 at 5:07 am #

      You’re very welcome~

      • Elizabeth June 5, 2014 at 7:56 am #

        You struck a nerve, in that I’m 64, have 7 radiation treatments to go post breast cancer surgery, tho I think my cancer is due to choices and ignorance related to diet, exercise, emotional well-being, lifestyle, and environmental toxins, that’s all.

        I’m so glad you’re discussing theme as it is so slippery to get a hold of. I think of it as “the hole on the soul” of the protagonist, a yearning originating from a hurt or harm in the past. From knowing that need, the theme is clear. One book I like that is almost entirely on that subject is A Story is a Promise by Bill Johnson.

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