I asked Robin to do a post on theme for last week’s Writing Memo, as a compliment to my post here. She did a great job of explaining what theme is and how to bring it out in your story. She talked about how to identify your theme, how to bring your theme out in your writing and how multiple themes can be, and often are, woven into a single story. After reading her post, it sounded so easy.
One of the most difficult parts of writing, for me, is determining what my story’s theme is. The theme is what your story or screenplay is really about, and it isn’t always obvious. Often you really have to think about the story as a whole and look for the underlying theme. Or at least, I do.
Die Hard is a story about a man, John McClane, (Bruce Willis), trying to save his marriage, but when her office party is taken hostage, it becomes a story about survival – survival of the good guys, as well as survival of the marraige. (Yes, I see the irony in the fact that Robin and I both chose to use Die Hard in our examples.) Survival is what the story is really about.
Lethal Weapon may be a buddy cop movie about the two cops getting the bad guys, but Roger Murtaugh, (Danny Glover), is struggling with aging and his approaching retirement, and his partner, Martin Riggs, (Mel Gibson), is struggling with the loss of his wife and certain suicidal urges. Dealing with aging and the end of life is what the movie is really about. But the underlying theme is not always easy to pick up on under all the shoot ’em up, good guy – bad guy stuff.
While pursuing my screenwriting emphasis for my M.F.A., one of the things that I was taught was how to breakdown the structure of a movie into different parts, or beats. My professor and screenwriting advisor, J.S. Mayank, had us use the structure model presented in the Save the Cat books by Blake Snyder. Professor Mayank had us watch a lot of movies and read a whole lot of screenplays and break their structures down, and one of the things I learned from this, is that in almost every movie, one of the characters states the theme in their dialog, usually by page five. As a general rule, it’s true. And if you can figure out what the movie is really about, you can put your finger on which line of dialog that is, however, that’s not always an easy thing to do.
For one thing, the line of dialog that states the theme usually doesn’t do it outright. To do so would make the dialog feel forced, untrue to what the character would say. For instance, the line that states the theme in Lethal Weapon is, “Your beard is getting gray. It makes you look old.” Coming from Roger Murtaugh’s daughter, as his family serves his 50th Birthday Cake while he takes a bath works well, but it doesn’t come out and say, “You’re getting ready to retire and your life is coming to an end. How are you going to deal with it?” It’s said and gone, and most viewers probably didn’t even catch that it was the theme stated unless they were looking for it.
These exercises in screenwriting were very helpful to me, but they required that I view movies in a whole new way. (We did a similar thing in my genre fiction classes, dissecting different novels to see what methods the authors used to portray their stories and how effective they are. And when you critique as you read, it’s a lot different than just reading to enjoy the story.) Most people watch movies for entertainment, right? I always had. But when you are doing structure analysis, you have to concentrate more on how it’s put together than you do on what happens in the story. And to figure out what the theme is, you have to watch, or read in the case of screenplays, with a philosophical eye to discover what the story is really about.
That’s where I had problems, especially when I was watching the actual movie, rather than reading the screenplay. I always sat down to watch a movie and immediately immersed myself in the story. Before I knew it, I would look up and realize the first five pages of script must be long past and I had failed to identify the line of dialog in which the theme was stated. It was the thing with reading screenplays. I found myself reading and re-reading those first five pages, searching desperately for the line that would tell me what the whole movie was about. I didn’t understand how I could be expected to pick out a line of dialog that stated what the movie was really about before I’d read the entire screenplay. And the sad thing is, I was no better at picking out theme in my own writing and writing a line of dialog to state it.
Here’s where I digress from Robin. You cannot decide what you want your theme to be and then write a story to fit. At least, I can’t. It won’t work. For me, theme must evolve from the story naturally, not the other way around.
When I decided to write, Bonnie, my screenplay for my thesis, I thought I was writing a story about two young kids who chose to live on the wrong side of the law in order to cope with the circumstances of living in the depression. But Bonnie is different than other renditions of the Bonnie and Clyde story, because it is told from Bonnie’s perspective, and before I had finished it, I found that what it is really about is Bonnie’s love for Clyde. Their love is my underlying theme. Just as love is the underlying theme in a story about a huge ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank into the ocean, sending most of the passengers to their deaths. And just as it worked for James Cameron, when he wrote Titanic, I think it works for Bonnie. Love is what it is really about, the underlying theme.
The point here is, I didn’t set out to write a story about a young girl’s amazing love. That is what evolved from my story about a young couple’s choice to embark on a life of crime. Love was Bonnie’s motivation. Undying love was my theme and I didn’t even know it until I was more than halfway through writing the screenplay. This is why I say theme is the most difficult part of writing for me, whether I’m writing a novel or a screenplay.
But, I still say writing to the theme is more difficult. The theme must emerge naturally from the story, whether you’re writing for the page or the screen. If I just write the story, being true to my characters, the theme will come to the surface of its own accord. But, that’s me. Obviously, it’s different for Robin, who likes to identify her theme before she begins the story and finds ways to bring the theme out. Which comes first for you?
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Godling and Other Paint Stories, by Jeff Bowles, is a collection of six short stories all thematically tied together by a very thin thread of paint, or more specifically, colors. In the ingenious mind behind these stories, it probably doesn’t seem far-fetched that paints would be self-aware, or that dogs could evolve into thinking talking animals with human-looking lips, but your average reader will take a look at these stories and say, “Wow!” But one thing these stories will make readers do, is ponder possibilities, because frankly, as an author with a God-thing going on, Bowles conceives of some really heavy concepts, the kind that really make you think.
The collection starts out with Godling, a science fiction tale of a God machine, which gave up its humanity for love, and may, or may not, be able to reunite to become whole once more. (With short stories, you really can’t have spoiler alerts, because they give away the whole thing, so you’ll have to read the story to find out what happens.)
Next is Traffic Patterns, a tale of a sentient traffic light that is granted godhood, for a time. And, Making Paint as a Means of Impermanence is filled with some truly disturbing images of how an attempt to gain immortality turns into an ever renewing ritual to maintain an impermeable existence. Wild Dogs of Buffalo is a canine Godfather, excuse me, I meant Dog Father. Anyway, I love it. It’s a truly entertaining read.
God, the Little Artist – An artist’s heaven. This is not the first time that author Bowles has killed God off in his stories. The main character is Mr. Williams. As in Robin? That’s what I kept picturing in my mind as I read this story. Robin Williams talking to the large baby God whose time is running out, as if perhaps God ages backward. When I’d finished, all I could think was Robin Williams as God. Now that’s scary. But, maybe it’s just me. (No spoiler alerts. Again read the story.)
Dr. Julianus Techt’s 5 Easy Steps to Building a Better You is an instruction manual on how to sell your soul in order to improve on God’s handiwork, which is you. Only Jeff Bowles would create such a story. As you read these stories, when you come to this last, do not… I repeat, DO NOT try this at home.
Godling and Other Paint Stories will be released on Amazon on September 25th, 2016. I highly recommend you grab a copy. Overall, this collection of short stories are all easy, enjoyable reads, which will give reader’s brains lots of food for thought. They are strange and unusual, but Jeff’s writing talent is such that it doesn’t take much to suspend your disbelief. I give Godling and Other Paint Stories five quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read, and she never charges for them. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Every story, whether intentional or not, has a theme within it. A theme is not necessarily a moral or lesson, but rather it is what your story is about at its core. Finding the theme of your story can sometimes take some work, as can making the theme come through in your writing, but it’s not as hard as it might seem.
What is your theme?
To find your story’s theme, ask yourself what your story is about. Maybe you won’t be able to break it down into a neat answer, but as long as you can answer the question you have the first step to finding your theme.
For example, let’s say you’re writing Die Hard. Your story would be about a cop who travels to visit his wife out of town, and ends up having to stop a terrorist plot. So what is the theme of this story? Well, it can be broken down in a lot of ways if you think about what the general terms of the story are: good triumphing over evil (cop vs villains), one man against the world (John vs the terrorists), or even how greed can lead to your downfall (the terrorists refusing to give up even though they’re losing because they’re determined to get the money).
The key to figuring out your story’s theme is to think about the larger concepts and the plot of your story, then try to break them down into simple terms as shown above. These larger ideas are the core of your story, and they help tell your audience what type of story it is. If you’re doing this and you are having trouble deciding what the main theme from your options is, ask yourself which potential theme if removed would completely change the story. The one that can’t be removed, and the one that is the biggest overall concept of the story, is your main theme.
How to show your theme?
Showing your theme throughout your story should not be hard. In Die Hard the theme of good triumphing over evil happens consistently. John is determined to do what’s right and to stop the bad guys, and despite all the trouble and missteps that happen, he ultimately always comes through. Even when he loses, it’s just further motivation for him to come back at the bad guys with even more vehemence so he can win. So for your own story, think of what your theme is and how your main character can represent that theme in some way.
Other ways to show your theme is to use something called mirroring. This is when you show the theme through minor secondary characters throughout the story. Sticking with the Die Hard example, you can see some minor mirroring of the theme “one guy against the world” when you look at the local cop who is stuck outside the building and is trying to help John. This cop is fighting against all the others to get John help and is the lone voice in the crowd. By showing your theme through these small mirroring acts you are also adding another layer of plot to your story.
You don’t always have to have the minor characters experience the same outcome as your protagonist either. You can use minor characters to show what the other possible outcome of your theme could be for your protagonist. For example, if your theme is good triumphing over evil, you could have a minor character lose to the evil to show the consequences if your character fails.
Can you have multiple themes?
As is clear with the Die Hard example, there is always a potential for there to be multiple themes in your story. Of course there should be one main theme that is the core of your story, but there can also be some minor themes that help build up your story as well. Maybe good vs evil is your main theme, but then you have themes involving love or, like in Die Hard, greed. These kinds of minor themes can contribute to your plot, as well as help deepen your characters, and many of them will appear without you having to force them into the story. If you look at your subplots, you should be able to see some of the themes that are present in them and bring them out a bit more so they are stronger.
In general, it’s a good idea to know what your theme is before you start your story so you can keep your writing consistent. Sometimes, however, the theme comes out and is discovered as you write the story. Alternatively, you can also start your story thinking the theme is one thing, but as you write you discover it is really something else. This is fine, and happens all the time, but if it happens this way make sure you go back once you’re finished writing and make sure everything is consistent throughout the story. The most important thing about the theme of your story is that you’re consistent, and the clearer the theme is in your mind when you start writing, the easier this will be to do.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
Wednesday the 21st is the 8th anniversary of the death of my son, Michael Daniel Lee Booth. Since his death, September has always been a pretty difficult month for me. His birthday was the 9th. He had just turned nineteen when he took his own life. I relate well to the song by Green Day, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, but of course, I can’t sleep the whole month away. It’s just not practical. So, instead I try and find some way to cope by honoring him in some way.
Since his death, I’ve talked a lot about how I want to write a book that will tell his story, and mine too I suppose, or at least the story of how his death affected me, and changed my life. When I first began thinking about it, I referred to it as a memoir, but it has to be more than that because there are so many others his death affected. I keep putting off writing it because I’m not sure I’m ready to dredge up all the memories that writing his story would bring. Some of them are still so painful it seems as if they only occurred yesterday.
For a long time after Mike died, it seemed that he was the only thing I could write about, and many of those writings will eventually be incorporated into the book. For now though, I’d like to make this blog post in honor of him, and share with you the eulogy I wrote. I stood up and read it at his funeral with tears streaming down my face, my heart breaking inside of me. People said it was brave of me to get up there and read it in front of all those that attended his funeral, and there were a lot. But for me, it was just something that I had to do. After all, I am a writer and he was my son.
Michael Daniel Lee Booth
When Mike Booth said, “I love you”, it was forever. And when he called you his friend, you knew you could depend on him to stand by you, no matter what. He loved to try new things, to explore and to learn. He had a love for life and for all that he held sacred. Mike strove for excellence in all that he did, and lived by a code of honor that was extremely tough to uphold. His Christian upbringing was intermixed with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs to make up the tapestry of his own personal belief system that was disciplined and unyielding. When he made mistakes, Mike was harder on himself than anyone else ever could have been.
When he got mixed up with the wrong people and things, he made some poor choices. He did not deny what he had done, but instead stood up and accepted the punishment that was given to him. He tried to make amends for his wrongs and was on his way to accomplishing that goal. He expressed great sorrow for his errors, and inflicted emotional punishment on himself over and above what the law could ever require of him.
He had a strong will and could accomplish anything that he set his mind to, including learning to speak Japanese and perform martial arts skillfully, all on his own. Mike had a love for Japanese culture and he could have lived off of green tea and sushi. His knowledge and skills were gladly shared with those who wished to learn. Mike had a love for nature and enjoyed all kinds of outdoor activities, including skiing, hunting, fishing and hiking. His imagination was endless and he created stories and drawings that reveal a talent far beyond his tender youth.
Mike was so much to so many people; a loving son, a dependable big brother, a doting little brother, a respectful grandson, a loyal friend and a devoted husband. He loved his dog, Zaar, who was a companion and loyal friend to him. Mike was sensitive, and hurt so easily and so deeply, yet he was too strong willed to ever let it show outwardly. Only through his writing, can we glimpse the love that he embraced or the pain that he felt. When he loved, he loved with all of his being. Mike was fun loving and enjoyed spending time with those that were important in his life. He had beautiful curls and the most wonderful smile that could light up my heart whenever I saw it. Mike turned 19 three weeks ago. He had a whole life ahead of him. He was much too young to be called home to God.
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This week I had the pleasure of watching the movie, Dead Pool. (Not the one with Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, the 2016 one about the Marvel Comic character.) This movie was so much what I expected, but also so much which I didn’t expect. In Dead Pool, Marvel has given us an anti-hero we can’t help but stand behind.
Right away, in the first scene we learn that Dead Pool, aka Wade Wilson, has an axe to grind against someone named Francis. The rest of the first half of the movie is spent giving us the backstory, so we understand the reason that axe is so sharp. Our villain, Francis, aka Ajax, not only tortures Wade in some extremely cruel and unusual ways, but in essence, he steals his life from him, forcing him to mutate in ways that make it so he can never go back. Believing that he’s lost the one thing that means the most to him, his super-sexy girlfriend, Vanessa, (and she’s not even a super hero, she’s just human), Wade takes on the identity of Dead Pool and will stop at nothing to make Francis cough up the cure.
In the movie description, Dead Pool is described as coming out of the experiment with “a ‘dark, twisted’ sense of humor, but I maintain the sense of humor was there in Wade, an ingrained part of him that even mutation couldn’t change. As we get to know Wade through flashbacks, it’s apparent that he is the perfect anti-hero, not real likeable, an ex-special forces killing machine turned mercenary. But, we also see that he has redeeming qualities through his obvious love for Vanessa and his ultimate, unselfish sacrifice, walking out of her life rather than burden her with his terminal cancer. Even though he’s not the most likeable guy, it’s hard not to empathize with him.
Okay, so his character is snarky. This may or may not be a redeeming quality. He says whatever is on his mind, prompting many chuckles from viewers, he says the things average folks might want to say, and behaves in ways which are undesirable. But the guy is honest and straight forward, in a smarmy kind of way. He makes it clear that he’s no hero and he is not out to help anyone but himself, in his quest to get Vanessa, and his life, back. You’ve got to give him credit, even if he is kind of a jerk at times. One more reason why he is the perfect anti-hero.
In fact, his character reminds me a lot of the characters Jim Carey plays, especially in the way he talks incessantly and often doesn’t think about the possible consequences before opening his mouth, or his totally outrageous behaviors. The trait certainly ticks off Francis/Ajax, creating a tension between the two adversaries, which leads to Francis/Ajax pushing harder to cause Wade’s mutation. So, in fact, Wade brings his circumstances down upon himself. In fact, that may be Wade’s fatal flaw, but he doesn’t seem to ever learn when to keep his trap shut. But then, that could be because for an immortal, a flaw really can’t be fatal.
Wade/Dead Pool may not be the most likeable character, but Francis/Ajax, the villainous character who forced the mutation on him, is even more unlikeable. In fact, it’s easy to actively dislike Francis with his super-fast reflexes and total inability to feel anything, making him a truly bad guy, and providing us with yet another reason to root for Dead Pool. No doubt that’s why Francis/Ajax is the villain. His lack of feeling also makes him the perfect adversary for Dead Pool, who heals super-fast, but feels the all pain, both physical and emotional. They balance each other out.
I’m not usually a big fan of digital imaging. I think most of it comes off looking pretty fakey. However, knowing Dead Pool came from the world of comics, I think I expected it to not be realistic and the digital imagery works for me. Comic book characters are expected to do things that seem totally unreal. They have super powers that allow them to do these outrageous things.
Which brings us to the discussion of Dead Pool’s super powers. I’m not sure exactly how his mutation has affected him or amazing feats he is able to perform beyond miraculous healing, accelerated movements and super human strength. Although they are alluded to, they are not spelled out for us. He doesn’t breathe flames or shoot webbing to swing from building on. Apparently, he puts his red tights on one leg at a time, like the rest of us, (no phone booth transformations for this guy). He uses weapons to defeat his adversaries and feels pain when he’s injured, just like a regular Joe. And he knows his limitations, too, calling on the help of Colossus and Nagasonic Teenage Warhead when the going gets tough and Vanessa’s life is on the line.
In many ways, Dead Pool was your basic super hero movie. Guys with super powers get out there and punch the crap out of one another. On the other hand, it wasn’t what I expected in a super hero at all. Dead Pool doesn’t save the world, or even his city, and his motivations are selfish. I think this movie was well written with interesting and colorful characters who are full of surprises, is filled with action, and is very entertaining. I give Dead Pool four quills.
Through all my conversations with other writers, I’ve learned that there seems to be two camps of people when it comes to naming characters, places, and things in stories. One group thinks that the names don’t matter, while the other spends hours finding just the right meaning for each name in their world. Personally, I think it depends on the story, as well as whatever it is you are naming. I do believe main characters should have names that mean something, or at the very least, ‘fit’ the character’s story, but I don’t think everything in your story has to have deeper meaning. If you want to give the people, places, and things you name in your story special meaning, there are several ways you can go about it.
One of the main things I do look at when I am naming something is the origin of the name. What country is the name originally from? What language is it? Is it predominant in a specific religion, or culture? These kinds of details can help you pick names that have more history behind them to help with whatever you are naming. If you have a character that you want to have an Irish background, then a name with a touch of Irish history would be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a historical or cliché name, but it is an option. Another option is to research popular names in Ireland and pick one that way instead. You may end up with a name that isn’t classically Irish, but it will still have a connection to Ireland.
The point of this kind of research for the names you give in your stories is that it creates a built in history for what you are naming. Without telling the reader, you are hinting at where your character might come from and what their family connections are. Now of course people in real life are often given names with no connection to their roots, and you can use this in your story as well if you want, but by making a deliberate choice to either use the name or not you are making every element of your story count. So be deliberate, and if you decide to go against your characters origins, then make that part of the story as well even if it’s a minor part.
Something else you can use to your advantage when naming a character, place, or thing in a novel are known preconceptions about the name you use. For example, if you use a name from a myth, many people will recognize it and have certain ideas about that character. Zeus is a mighty god with great power, who also happens to be a bit of a player, and a character named Zeus might be suspected of having some of those traits. There are all sorts of fables and legends out there from every different culture and time period, and even if you use one that doesn’t have meaning to the majority of the population it will still help deepen your character. The point is that it is another layer for a reader to find, and the ones that do will love the touch.
Beyond past myths, you can also use names from modern pop culture and such. Big names like Kanye or Justin are well known enough that they also have immediate pre-conceptions to them. Maybe in another 20 years they won’t have the same impact on your readers as pop culture changes, but for modern readers you can use names like those to paint a picture of who your character is. Big public names have personas around them, and if you’re writing a character with a similar attitude you can use those pre-existing ideas to help nudge your reader in a certain direction before they know anything else about your character.
One of the final elements you can use when naming things in your stories is symbolism. There are all sorts of names and words that have deeper meaning beyond them besides the word itself. Most names have some alternate meaning to them when you research the original language they came from. These sorts of meanings can be used to speak to the type of person your character is going to be. If you have a surprisingly brave character, then choosing a name that secretly means bravery could be a subtle nod to readers who know that. These are the kind of details that won’t change anything in the story for the most part, but they can add another layer of meaning to your story. It can be especially useful when naming objects in fantasy worlds.
No matter your take on naming in stories, it’s important to consider what the minor details of naming can do for your story. The small touches can often give a story the extra boost to make it something special. As a reader, I know I enjoy the small details that I discover later on about a story, such as deeper meanings in names, and it only makes me enjoy the story more. If you do go the special naming route, however, I find it works best if you don’t go too obvious with the symbolism in the name. You want it to be a small touch, not a neon sign in your audience’s face. Ultimately, if you find a special name is something that will add to your story, then use it, if not, then don’t. It’s your story, so you have to decide what benefits it the most. Trust your instincts and you’ll be fine.
That’s right. That’s what I said. If we’re writers, fear is our best friend. Now I’m not talking about all those personal fears we might have: fear of failure, fear of success, fear that no one will like what we write. No, those fears must be pushed to the side and we must carry on in spite of them, but whether we write books or screenplays, we must have fear to make each story work.
Every character must have a fatal flaw or something they are afraid of that must be overcome to complete their character arc. One solid rule in every story is that the character must change by the end of the story, and if the character is perfect, there is no room for change and nothing to challenge the character so he/she can prove what they are made of. Without a challenge, or conflict, there is no tension, and no story, or at least not a very good one.
Of course, there are always external challenges to be overcome, but there must also be an inner challenge, through which the character changes. Often the external challenge is the vehicle that brings about the inner challenge. If the character has a fear of heights, they might have to cross a log across a deep chasm to save a small child from a serial killer. Saving the child is the external challenge, but it requires the character to face her biggest fear in order to complete the task, and once the character faces her fear, she will forever be transformed. Thus, both the story arc and her personal character arc are completed.
Sometimes, it isn’t the external challenge of the story arc itself, but a lesson that is learned along the way that brings about the change in the character. In my western novel, Delilah, my protagonist has had experiences which make her feel that she has let down those whom she loves, making her afraid of getting too close to others. Her quest for revenge against the men who raped her and left her for dead, abducting her young ward leads her into Leadville, where she meets some very colorful characters, who teach her how to love again. In this case, the external challenge of revenge does nothing to help her overcome her fear of forming attachments, but those she meets along the way do.
One of my screenwriting professors had a nifty way of showing how the internal challenge and the external challenge and the character’s fear or flaw are always related. Before we could begin to write our screenplay, he would have us make a character triangle, where we noted three things. The first was the character’s want, which is usual an external thing that the character strives for throughout the story. Next, he’d have us note what the fear or flaw to be overcome is, and as I said, every character must have at least one. Last, he would have us note what it is that the character really needs, and this is usually an internal change or lesson the character needs to learn. Although the character may get what she thinks she wants, like Delilah, who thinks she wants revenge, achieving what she needs is what causes the internal change within and she must face her fear to do that.
So, go on. Get busy writing. What are you afraid of?