Tag Archives: theme

What’s the story, Rory?

I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.

Will I begin it?

That’s all that’s in it.

Irish nursery rhyme.

What’s the story?

Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well-constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.

Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.

Structure

A typical story structure might be plotted thus:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

 

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.

That’s all that’s in it.

 


And your point is…?

If you fly into the sun…

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level the stories are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

For your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.


What Does it All MEAN?

Life’s twisting path

(Oystermouth Castle, Mumbles, Wales)

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level the stories are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

For your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.


Naked truth

Self portrai in oil pastel, self-portrait in mirror.

 

Writing from truth, using a real event, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader, so they say. And as an artist, it is often your job to stand naked in front of the world.

 

Writing from fact does have its downside, however. Firstly, a straight account is reportage, not fiction so you must add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction, and interesting.

 

It is important to get to the naked crux of what your story is ‘saying’ and make sure your narrative never loses sight of this point and – so, even if when you were all driving to the hospital, Brad told a joke so funny you’ve just got to mention it. No, don’t mention it. Stick to the point of the story – the story is the hospital, remember, not Brad’s unrelated joke.

 

You may also have to leave out years of backstory if it does not serve to drive your own story on in any way. You may have been brought up by the funniest, most eccentric, most loving or most dysfunctional family in the world, but if they have no role in the story at hand, don’t mention them.

 

Another issue with writing from real memory is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

 

And remember if you stick too close to the truth, you may be setting yourself up for some legal headaches, especially if you are presenting another person in an unflattering light. It’s best to change names and/or genders, and settings. Once you make those factual changes, most people will fail to recognize themselves in fiction, simply because we don’t see ourselves as we are seen by others….


Location, location, location

Are you here?

A literary setting refers to the landscape and the people/characters that fill it.

The setting is the signature of many a writer: Stieg Larsson and Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Annie Rice and New Orleans (Interview with a Vampire), John le Carre, the world of spies.

Writing what you know

It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.

Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.

Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.

But I don’t want to write about my environment…

That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.

Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.

So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.

Or here?


Clean up clutter

Clean up clutter

There aren’t any rules in creative writing but…. there kind of are.

At least, if you’re a newbie, unpublished, unpractised writer, then you ought to learn the ‘unwritten’ laws of the craft. Once you are up and running, then respected and published and lauded, you can break every rule in the book (so long as you are doing so for a reason).

For now, learn your craft.

Probably the most common “rookie mistake” is to cram sentences with adjectives and adverbs. A new writer will often fall in love with words and phrases and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing deadens the impact of the sentence – which defeats its purpose. By all means, use adjectives but go easy and be clear.

An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:

‘A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’

There is too much going on in this sentence. Each individual image is in competition for the readers’ attention. The result is a boring blur. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly, so do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume.

I would pare the sentence to the following: ‘A cloud slugged over the hills.’

I hope you can see how ‘less is more’ here. The image is much stronger without shoehorning in all those adjectives/adverbs.

A note on adverbs:

Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”). Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. So, don’t use them.

Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.


Are you for real?

I'm not making this up!

 

 

Writing from fact, using a real event, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader, so they say.

 

Writing from fact does have its downside, however. Firstly, a straight account is reportage, not fiction so you must add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction.

 

It is important to get to the crux of what your story is ‘saying’ and make sure your narrative never loses sight of this point and – so, even if when you were all driving to the hospital, Brad told a joke so funny you’ve just got to mention it. No, don’t mention it. Stick to the point of the story – the story is the hospital, remember, not Brad’s unrelated joke.

 

You may also have to leave out years of backstory if it does not serve to drive your own story on in any way. You may have been brought up by the funniest, most eccentric, most loving or most dysfunctional family in the world, but if they have no role in the story at hand, don’t mention them.

 

Another issue with writing from real memory is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

 

And remember if you stick too close to the truth, you may be setting yourself up for some legal headaches, especially if you are presenting another person in an unflattering light. It’s best to change names and/or genders, and settings. Once you make those factual changes, most people will fail to recognize themselves in fiction, simply because we don’t see ourselves as we are seen by others….


All Work and No Play…

 

Humanity according to Sue

Writers worth their ink need to be making some point with their story. By that, I mean your tale ought not be solely just a boy-meets-loses-regains-girl trip. Beneath your storyline, there should be something else going on, a deeper message, your comment on how humanity works, or doesn’t.

It is a writer’s (or artist’s) job to present the human condition as they interpret it. I’m sorry if that comes over all heavy and scary. It isn’t meant to, I’m simply suggesting that once you’ve written your story, or even just have an idea for one, you should sit back and consider what it could be saying on a larger, universal scale.

A good way to understand this concept is to consider Aesop’s Fables. Each one is a tale that could be enjoyed on a superficial level by a child, yet there is a deeper meaning, or moral, which endeavors to teach the child some universal truth about life, ie being slow yet determined is often better than being hasty and fickle (Tortoise and the Hare).

A good place to seek inspiration is a list of proverbs. A proverb is usually a metaphor and encapsulates in simple terms, a lesson from the common experience of humanity. Here’s an exercise that might get you going: sit down and have a think about the specific meaning of the following and then go freewrite a story illustrating this philosophy.

Graveyards are full of indispensable people.

You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

The belly has no ears.

Trees don’t grow to the sky.

A dumb priest never got a parish.

The only free cheese is in the mousetrap.

Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

The squeaky door gets the oil. (Thanks to Sally Ann for this one!)


But What Does It All Mean?

Use of theme in creative writing:Seven Deadly Sins Theme Question> Gluttony is Good? Gluttony is Bad? (particularly cupcake gluttony).

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level the stories are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

For your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.

Pride is Good? Pride is Bad? What’s Your Take?


Life In The Blurbs

Can You Sum Up Your Story On A Pebble?

Blurbs, those wee plot synopses on the back of books, are a great writers’ tool. Firstly, writing a blurb for your yet-to-be-written novel helps you get to the kernel of what it is all about. Secondly, penning such a blurb will prompt you to imagine your novel as a reality and motivate you to keep going and finish what you’ve started.

Also, reading the blurb of a novel that closely resembles your own will help you get to the bones of your own story, structure and theme. Look at how these other works are summed up. Do they concentrate on plot or theme or character? What is the hook? And what is yours?

Remember, a blurb is not a synopsis. Blurbs are short, the shorter the better, maybe a line or two long. Some are even just a few words. You don’t have to condense your story to “Jaws in Space” but do boil it down as much you can. If you had to sell your story on the back of a postage stamp or a pebble, what would you write?

When you’ve crafted your blurb, place it close to your writing place. It will keep you focused on what your book is about – and make sure that point is then evident in the very DNA of every moment of your book.

Finally, when it comes to approaching agents, having a well-written blurb you can include in a cover letter will prove very useful. Your blurb is your elevator pitch. Spend time on it and perfect it.