Friday, September 30, 2011


My writers' group talked about "Theme" last Monday. It's a slippery individual that hides itself well. Fifty percent of our members say they can identify the theme of their article or book before they write and the other half "let it emerge."

During our critiques, first I ask the listeners to tell the reader what they believe is the theme of the reading . Then we hear what the writer thinks their theme is. More often than not, the two don't match.

My observation: those who either don't know what their theme is or let it emerge, rarely produce focused writing, although one writer manages to achieve it. In articles, the theme is essential or the piece will ramble and feel scattered at best, or create confusion in the reader at worst. In books, lack of a theme can produce red herrings, characters that are aimless or non-congruent, scenes and dialogue that don't contribute, and narrative that is over-written and/or unnecessary.

Solution for fiction themes:
Read pages 111-112 of Donald Maass's latest book, The Break-out Novelist: Craft and strategies for Career Fiction Writers, Writers' Digest Books: Cincinnati, 2010. (ISBN 978-1-58297-990-8) Maass provides four lists of questions that enable you to nail down the theme and core values of the novel or short story that you're writing.

(c) Laurel Hickey; SIWC
While there are many components that make up the craft of writing fiction, nailing down your theme is hard work that must be done early on.  Once you know what it is, write your theme in one sentence and stick above your monitor. Make sure every action, scene, line of dialogue, and all the narrative contributes to it.

The bonus: Knowing your theme reduces your re-writes.

PS: Don Maass's other book, Writing the Breakout Novel, FW Publications, Inc., was written before the one above and is a good place to hone your fiction craft. 

QUESTION: When and how do you identify the theme in your writing?
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