Saturday, June 7, 2008

Revising the Novel - Back to Theme part 3

I've been amazed at how powerful thematic thinking could be. To me, theme was always a nebulous term, something I searched for (or made up) in high school literature classes, trying to place meaning into a story that I didn't necessarily think had meaning. But now I've changed my mind completely. Theme is a powerful, provocative tool. Now don't get me wrong. If used incorrectly, too heavy-handed, didactic or pedantic, it will kill your story, slog it down with verbiage and your strong desire to "make a message." But used correctly, it can enhance your story, elevate it, give it substance or as Stephen King calls it, resonance.

Here's how theme can benefit your story:

1) Once you've identified your theme, which you'll usually find in the changes (or lack of changes) in your major character or characters throughout your novel, it gives you a powerful focus for your revision. My story is about a scientific/medical experiment, a cool one at that, but my theme is really the growth that happens in my hero. With this in mind, I now have a pinpoint focus on the story I need to tell. All extraneous scenes can be cut, scenes that don't move my story forward and lead to this conclusion. Maybe a few scenes need to be added, scenes that are necessary to properly set up the conflicts and changes my hero will go through. Again, I'm not talking heavy stuff here. The vehicle through which my hero's change occurs starts off as a subplot to his getting the experiment started. But as the story progresses, and he battles with forces trying to stop him etc, that subplot re-emerges and becomes crucial to the finale. A powerful demonstration of how his research has changed him, while showing him in action, using that very research project.

2) With your concept of theme in hand, you finally know what your novel is about. This is huge when you come to trying to sell your book. As I mentioned earlier, during my discussion with Robert Dugoni, when he asked me what my book was about, I stumbled on endlessly about minor plot points and incidental characters and complications. That is what my plot was about, but not my book. I can't tell you how much I struggled with this. When I was writing queries, I was near incoherent in trying to get across my story. How was I supposed to reduce 450 pages of boiling plot into two paragraphs that were interesting enough to get the agent's attention? Theme. That's the answer. Remember, you book isn't about your plot. Your plot is a vehicle to tell a story. Your story is your theme.

After babbling on to Robert for what seemed like hours (I do believe kingdoms rose and fell in the time it took me to stumble through my plot) Robert politely nodded and said, "So your story is about a doctor, driven by the suicide of his brother to complete a research project, only to find that in the end, it leads to his own redemption as he learns to forgive his past."

To which I could only reply, as intelligently as possible, "Um, yeah."

Now, how embarrassing is it to have a complete stranger, someone I've known for less than an hour, turn around in just a few moments, and tell me what my novel was about far more coherently than I ever could? Robert is exquisitely tuned into the concept of theme. As an expert story-teller, he can sift through the detritus of subplots and characters and drill down to the root of the story. That's what makes his writing so effective. That's why he's a best-seller.

So, now armed with Roberts digestion of my novel, I went back and took a deeper look. Suddenly, my book made sense to me. It wasn't about the research (as cool as it is) or the villains trying to stop it, or the murders, or the political intrigue, or the manhunt, it was about one lonely, self-isolated guy, living in a world of hurt, searching desperately for salvation, believing he'd find the answer locked in a musty old basement laboratory, when in reality, the answer always rested within his own family and forgiveness.

Sounds like a better story to me.

1 comment:

Martha Alderson said...

Another terrific post.

A clear thematic arch makes for a meaning story.

Themes often come from our own thematic beliefs. In truth, when a character is changed and transformed over time by the dramatic action, the story means something -- becomes thematically significant.