Like any new writer, I struggle with making my stories work. In my third, current novel, I am more or less following Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I didn’t consciously attempt to write it following a cookie cutter approach. I did not even know about Campbell’s template when I penned the first draft last November during NaNoWriMo. I hesitate to call it a template. The HJ is much more than that. Novels are much more than that. And I think I’ve learned from trying to apply it to my edits that it definitely cannot be used as a stamp. I tried, I failed, I grew frustrated with major parts of my story that did not tie together, that did not flow, and that left me wondering what to do.
By the way, Jefrey Eugenides’ Middlesex follows the Hero’s Journey across generations, a remarkable feat, an outstanding book. But I digress.
I’ve read bits and pieces here and there about this idea of theme. If you’ve ever read Sparksnotes book summaries, they delve into themes ad-nauseum — “Sparksnotes For Whom The Bell Tolls.” All stories have themes, and I think it might be safe to say most authors ignore themes. They more or less let them fall out on their own. Authors hate templating, like the Hero’s Journey, and writing to themes risks killing creativity by turning your story into a formula. Nobody wants to read formulaic prose, right romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, mystery, spy, or any other genre-specific reader out there?
I’ll go a step further. The themes of my story have been bothering me. I do have strong themes. I can feel them. I can almost touch them. But I cannot name them. Some things are difficult to clearly identify let alone name. How do you name the feeling you get when you wake up at three thirty in the morning to write? How do you name the feeling you have as you step out on to the back deck in your shorts holding your hot coffee and listen to the Robins chorus you? How do you name the feelings you remember on Father’s Day? I can clearly see both of my now grown children being born, but I cannot begin to describe that emotion I felt when they handed me my son, said “there’s a problem,” and left me alone with him for half an hour while the doctor pulled his placenta out with his thick, hairy arm.
I yearned to understand the themes of my story. I needed to fill in my understanding. Bash this emptiness with a baseball bat, if necessary.
On Saturday I did some research. I found some theme-based sites. I have a list of 100 common novel themes. I have some discussions on themes. I printed some out to take with me yesterday. Most of it was useless drivel. Sparksnotes is interesting reading, but it does not help much with understanding how to find themes. Oh, I had a 9am writing date yesterday morning at the new Second Cup coffee shop in Centerbeam Place, Saint John, NB. She didn’t show up; I barely noticed.
The WordIQ page is short and sweet. I made it even shorter for my purposes. I wrote down a list of words and phrases I thought might relate to themes in my stories, and then I began to write a paragraph on each item. Here is my initial list. You will notice many are related, and some are symbols. The first page suggests that symbols can be clues to themes, so I wrote them down too. There are many more symbols and ideas in my story, but this was enough for the first hour or two of my theme discovery exercise.
– working men-expectations
– words vs. fists
– overcoming a bad hand [dealt]
– expectations [repeat]
– wrong.right first impressions
– supporting rightness – justice
– passion – do what drives you
– mothers [wow, did I write this?]
– real men!
I looked at the list, took a big drink of coffee, and began to write. One paragraph each. Shouldn’t take long. Thirty minutes later I had the first item knocked off the list, didn’t have a sentence for it as the second article suggests, but I did have two pages outlining an important scene I need to write.
I was consumed. I saw a gap in my story I knew was there, had tried to fill, and had failed to fill. As I wrote this single paragraph which I won’t share with you, the need became clear. The missing scene became clear. I wrote two pages of outline for a scene-sequel combination to fill the hole.
Then a new partial scene appeared. I documented the idea.
I jumped ahead to community. I wrote a paragraph and nothing happened. I actually felt thankful. It’s one thing to find the missing link, but it’s another to have everything you do generate new ideas. It is nice to know that most of my story is solid, and by not triggering any new ideas, this theme relating to community made me feel good.
Then I wrote about guns. The word “gun” is not on my list, but I added it somewhere in this exercise. The last scene I read to my monthly group was about Dan cleaning his gun. I had thought about cutting the scene, and if it didn’t go well, I would have. Three said “wow!” with wide eyes and gaping mouths. I said “huh?” Apparently they thought he was going to shoot himself. Really? I didn’t mean to write that, but apparently I did, and apparently it was powerful. And the word gun popped into my head on Sunday morning as I sat in the warm coffee shop. I came up with another gun scene, a little more tension this time. And it is not a complete scene but the start of a scene I’ve already written, a scene I didn’t like because it dangled. It will not dangle any more after I fill it in with this prelude!
I left after an hour, drained and happy. And now I have a new technique for discovering my stories — write about the themes.