Thursday, July 23, 2009

Simplifying Your Theme

As I've been studiously avoiding working on my revisions for my WIP, I realized something.

When I wrote the book, I had a general idea of my theme. I didn't write it to preach a lesson, and I didn't have an agenda that I was going with, but if someone had asked me to summarize my work in one word, it would be:


Each character must face a harsh truth, and then decide how they'll deal with that truth. I wrote the book with that main concept in mind: what is truth? Is it easier to face truth or live a lie? Given the choice, would you choose truth or lies? Does everyone deserve the same truth? How do people react when faced with a harsh truth?

As I'm revising, though, I've come to realize that "truth" as a central concept is too weak. Truth is a simple noun: it just sits there. And too often, it allows the characters to just sit there, talking. And whenever characters are just sitting there, talking, the text is boring. Truth as a concept is a little to static.

When I looked back over what I'd written, and refocused on those central questions revolving around truth, I saw another pattern, another central concept that, while I didn't set out to write about, emerged from the text.


Sure, my characters face harsh truths: but the dynamic part of the story was when they chose how to live with and what to do about those harsh truths. When I focused my writing on "truth," I too often had the characters listening, talking, and thinking. When I focused my revisions on "choices," the characters still heard, talking about, and thought about the truths--but they were quicker to react and put into motion their ideas.

In fact, this has led to a complete rewrite of my opening chapters. Before, I had one character very accepting of the lies that he was told. He was, to put it simply, a pushover. He allowed himself to be bullied, and he was weak and low self-esteem.

Originally, I did this so that I could set him up. He was weak in the beginning, then grew stronger in the end. He was lied to in the beginning, and sought the truth in the end.

But...he was weak. And people don't like to read about how weak someone is: they like to read about how even the weak can be strong.

So I've moved Chapter 15 to Chapter 1, and I've let this character be weak for only a few pages before he's presented with information that he thinks is the truth. After that, he starts making choices...and choices = action.

And action isn't boring.

So, how about you? If you could sum up your WIP in one word, what would it be? Does that word reflect your goals for your writing? (For example, is the word very abstract when you have something distinct you want to do, or is the word very passive when you want to be proactive, or is the word introverted and contemplative when you want your writing to be extroverted and action-packed?


MeganRebekah said...

Dang you stole my word. Choices has been my main word all along, and how each person has a choice to make every step of the way, even when they think they don't. I guess that's bound to be a popular theme.

Jennifer said...

Revenge, I think. I'm not quite sure how to answer the second question, but the first is definitely revenge. It's about how revenge messes people up, ends lives, and, ultimately, destroys a country.

Man, it sounds kinda epic when you put it that way...

Awesome post, Beth. :)

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

I don't really think about the theme too heavily, but choices would definitely be a big one for me! Perhaps choices and strength? Cool post!

Scott said...


By the way, thanks for mention the 'T'word. My therapist is planning her next cruise.

Seriously, I write without a theme in mind. I hated searching for themes in high school and college. Here was my question to the teacher one time: what if the author wrote the book without a theme? She wasn't amused, not at all, but I could tell she was thinking about what I said.

I mean, seriously, what if Moby Dick is just a story about a man with OCD going after a white whale. No theme, nothing, nada! Just a man with psychological problems and a whale. Hmmmm . . . .

: )


Anonymous said...

ACK! I can't do one word. I'm playing with a few very short phrases.
Breaking through fear.
Building your own world.
Finding a place to fit.


Trisha Pearson said...

I've read a lot of things about theme and I have to confess, I still don't really get it. I'm going with the old "good vs. evil" answer for my WIP. But choices...that's a great theme, one that makes perfect sense and doesn't give me a headache.

Unknown said...

What a great exercise! Mine would be "Forgiveness".

Shannon Morgan said...


That may changed, or be refined. I think theme will be part of how I remake my book over the coming weeks.

Casey Something said...

I think redemption is at the heart of my story, and that's what I've been going with, but it's hard to say.

Clementine said...

Hi Beth, my new wip is all about authenticity. My middle-grade historical novel is about acceptance, (in a nutshell)

Pen Pen said...

I originally wrote the book in order to almost go back in time and FIX something that happened to my dad--to-in some way-BE there for him-to change what happened and sacrifice myself for him the way nobody did at the time...Through writing the book, I was able to be there-but I was also able to accept what happened and to give reason to it. It didn't end how I expected it to--The journey of the characters ended up teaching me more than what I was trying to impart! :)

Danyelle L. said...


In a lot of ways, yes. :D

Elana Johnson said...

Ah, excellent question, Beth! One word? Freak, I have to think?

Mine would be DUTY. (I could have gone with choices, you know. My MC muses about her lack of choices throughout the book.) But yeah. Mine is DUTY. As in, Do you have one? To anyone besides yourself? If so, what--oh, you only wanted one word.


Anonymous said...

Oh this is such a great post! I love how you reflect on your own writing and seeing what you want to convey! =D

If I had to sum up my current Paranormal WIP it would be: Acceptance

My fantasy WIP would have to be: Love

Anonymous said...

Hmm...One word...I would have to say detachment. And for the WiP - it wold be Sacrifice

Anonymous said...

That's a really hard question. Hmm... I'd have to say that (after about 5 mins sitting at computer thinking) the word to sum o=up my WIP would be 'Searching'. Or maybe 'Revenge'.

Eric said...

Nice post. I may have to continue this thought on my own blog, so thanks alot :) But as for the one word question, that's really tough. I hadn't thought about my WiPs in those terms before now, so I will be sitting down and doing just that.

Oh, and I have awarded you something on my blog. Feel free to stop by and see what :)

Unknown said...

WOW! I have LOVED hearing everyone's words!! This has been great--THANK YOU ALL for sharing!!! :)

PJ Hoover said...

I can never think of themes for my books. Never.

Christina Farley said...

Wow Beth, this is a really good topic to think about. I've never thought of summarizing my book with one word. Hmmm... choice could be mine or maybe its control? Must think over that one.