Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Amy Rose: On Theme

Since it’s my first post here at the Crowe’s Nest, I feel like it’s the right time to share something it took me four finished, unpublished novels to work out. As someone who loves and writes sci-fi, I know the pitfalls (both paradoxical and practical) of wanting a time machine so I can go back and tell this to myself before I set out to write that first novel. So I’ll share it in the hopes that it can save another writer some time, agony, or hair that would otherwise have been pulled out or set on fire.

It’s okay to know what your novel is about before you start writing it.
I don’t mean the premise of the novel.  I don’t mean the beginning or the ending or even what the main character wants. I mean what it is ABOUT. Capital ABOUT. I mean the theme, or as some writers put it, the central question. Casting it as a question keeps me reaching outwards in lots of different directions—not expecting an answer but eager to barrel down all avenues that spoke out from that center, knowing that it will result in lots of chewy ideas, resonant subplots, engaged characters, details of setting and word choice that echo or subvert, circle or underline that central question.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with figuring out theme through revision. When I started writing, that’s what I thought novelists did—and many do. But I struggled and rough-drafted and revised myself into the realization that I am not one of those novelists. I get lost in the wonderful work of figuring out character, voice, world-building, exciting plot events. I have written entire novels (and sometimes rewritten and rewritten entire novels) only to have them come apart in the worst dry-cookie crumble. Knowing what the story is about binds it all together for me.

It is also utterly okay to use a theme to figure out the structure of your novel.
If your writer-brain has the same sort of geography as my writer-brain, you might even start to think of structure and theme as inseparable. To me, structure is what happens when I strike the match-head of character against the nubbly stuff of theme. All of a sudden, plot events are racing to happen. I don’t feel the need to force them that used to dampen early drafts. Rather than feeling forced or gimmicky (a big concern when writers approach structure first and writing second,) to me these events feel organic, because they feed off the same central idea, connecting to each other and falling into a chain of causality, often in ways that surprise me.

So, HOW does a writer get from theme to story structure? There are lots of ways, and all I can share are some basic steps and questions that help me.

What is your central question?
Have one? Good. Don’t answer it. Think about it as hard as you can, in every direction that you can, but don’t answer it. What you’re looking for isn’t an answer, it’s a series of events: the events that could only come from the specific combination of character, setting, and theme in your story.
How does the central question connect to the premise of your novel?
If it doesn’t, you might need a different central question—or a different premise.
What happens when you put your characters, in the setting you’ve picked, up against this theme?
I brainstorm a list of events, usually starting with ones that are driven by the main character. Then I pick one that would seem to fall at an obvious point in the book, whether it’s the beginning, the end, or an act climax. (I usually use a three-act structure, sometimes more.) Once I pick one or two of these points that feel “obvious” and natural, I start to see how the other points I’ve brainstormed could fall into the remaining spots, maybe as climaxes for other acts. If they don’t, I brainstorm some more! I try to come up with a balance of charges for these events—not just whether they’re “good” or “bad”, but whether they’re positive or negative in terms of this character’s relationship to the theme.
What happens once you have your main points set up?
Fill in or as much or as little of in between as you like. That’s one of the nice things about this method! There’s a lot of flexibility, and things can change from writer to writer and story to story. It’s up to me how much I want to think about beforehand vs. discover through writing. This also makes it easier for me to deviate from early choices and outlines and take it back to the basics of the story when things need some tweaking.

This is just a start, of course, but it often launches me into a story. All writers are different in how they approach story and structure, and these are just some of my favorite questions. I’d love to know more about how you approach the process!


  1. Oh, Amy! This post really resonated with me. Well said, and some fabulous pointers on writing with that central question in mind, too! Great post!

  2. This is such an intriguing approach to craft, and I'm curious to try it. But since I'm sort of a visual learner, I think I need some concrete examples to make it less abstract. You will have to write another post!

  3. I feel the same as Elizabeth. I need some concrete examples.

  4. Thanks for this post, Amy Rose, I especially love how you say "don't answer that question." We are writing the story to find the answers.

    I'm still figuring this out for myself, too. This "central question" is what I sometimes call the "heart" of the story-and that heart often, eerily, circles back to something I'm dealing with in my everyday life. I've even found this theme or heart may transfer from one story that wasn't working, to another one that does.

    Take, for example, my story about the boy whose skull fractures into a million pieces and trickles out his earI finally figured out, after a dozen drafts, that the story was about the ordinary in the extraordinary, but I had squeezed the juice out of that story so I borrowed the theme for a superhero character I had created, and it worked well. And I think, all these years, I've really been thinking about that theme, what makes the ordinary extraordinary, in all facets of my life. So I bring that heart, that passion, that energy and emotion to my story. It is the theme, the central question, the heart. And I still have no real answers :-)

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