Monday, 20 July 2015

In Search of Theme

"Rose in dark red" by David Sedlmayer
Theme is a tricky beast. Elusive, yet all pervading; hidden, yet evident in every aspect of a tale, it is the element that makes story universal and eternal. It is the element that leaves a reader pondering long after the last full stop; that urges them to look inside and evaluate the facets of their humanity.
But what is theme? And how do we find it as readers and convey it as writers? 

Let’s start by exploring what theme is not.

Often when I ask young writers to explain what they believe the theme of their story is, they will write things like: horror, romance, courage, love, murder, friends, death, betrayal, humour, and so on. Sometimes, they will say, ‘My story is about a girl who falls off her horse…’ These things are not theme.

Horror, romance, supernatural, tragedy, humour etc. are genres, or categories for stories. These are umbrella terms under which stories fall, but they say very little about the thematic concerns of the work or the intention of the author. 

Courage, love, death, murder, betrayal etc. are topics, or the subject matter, of a story. Topics lie on the surface of a piece of writing and convey what it is about, and what sort of events and characters might appear in a work. The subject matter can provide clues for theme, but it is not theme itself.

‘My story is about…’ is a red flag for plot – the building blocks of story – and plot is not theme.

So what is it? Horror writer, Dean Koontz, summarised theme when he said:
"Theme is a statement, or series of related observations, about some aspect of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author."
Let’s break this down:

Theme is a statement or series of related observations…

One way to recognise whether you are discussing theme is to remember that theme is always a statement, or a series of statements, about a topic.

about some aspect of the human condition…

Theme explores, illustrates or illuminates something about what it means to be a person, and part of humanity. All stories, no matter whether they have human or non-human characters, are about us, and what it is like to be us, at any given point in our history or imagined future.

interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author.

And this is the important bit that helps us to discern the difference between a topic (one word) and a theme (a statement). Any single topic (war, death, revenge) will have a multitude of ways that it can be written about; theme is how the writer talks about the topic. What is it that they are saying about the topic? What do they want us, as their reader, to think about the topic? In other words, theme is the writer’s take on a topic, not the topic itself.

Moral vs. Theme:

Fox & Grapes by John Rae 

Occasionally, when I ask students what theme is, they will say it is the moral of a story. Once upon a time – to use a cliché – this was true to an extent. Fable, fairy tales and parables certainly moralised, as did some longer works. A good example of a moralistic tales can be seen in Æsop fables, such as The Fox and the Grapes (available here):

ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
The moral of this fable is summed up in the final statement: blunt, blatant, and in your face. Theme, however, is much more nuanced than a moral. Theme explores, exposes, and above all, it raises questions for the reader to ponder. A good piece of writing doesn’t provide the answers; it invites thought and contemplation. As Howard Pease notes in, How to Read Fiction: A Letter from Howard Pease to a Fan, theme is not ‘tacked on’ to a story, rather it is something embedded, for which the reader must learn ‘how to hunt, how to dig.’

Pease’s letter (which appeared in ‘The English Journal’ in 1954) is a brilliant explanation of theme, told in the epistolary form, to a young fan of his work. You can read the full text here.

Theme: What it is.

Simply put, theme is what you, as the writer, want to say about your topic. It is your intention and purpose for writing. It is the conversation you want to have with your reader; it is your way of getting inside their head and asking them to think.

Like everything in life, however, themes have varying degrees of sophistication. Some stories may be little more than fairy floss for the brain and they are thematically simple: Is it right to steal your best friend’s lover? Will good defeat evil? These are the stories we read in early in life, or that we take on holidays. They are not meant to stretch our intellect and have little in them that is enriching, but they still have a place if only to allow us to escape reality for a short time, or to prepare us for a deeper engagement with story.

The best stories are those that explore universal truths, or ask difficult questions, or reveal an aspect of themselves, or their society, to the reader for contemplation. Novels and stories that have been banned, or have achieved longevity, often have themes of this kind. They are the works that shake people up, that challenge norms, and start revolutions at the personal level and, sometimes, beyond. 
Theme: Where to find it.

As noted above, theme is not stated bluntly. As writers, we embed our themes in the elements of our stories. Our characters are imbued with theme. Their actions in response to plot events, and the conversations they have, convey theme, while our settings subtly provide clues about what it is we are trying to say. Theme, then, is woven through story and, at the same time, is the foundation and the pillars holding our work together.

This ‘weaving’ of theme is what makes it so hard to find. As readers, we must delve beneath the elements of the story – those things that exist on the surface – to the place of implication, symbolism and meaning.

It is worth remembering, however, that for readers, theme is subjective. A reader brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to a piece of writing that will affect how they interpret or engage with a story. As Pease notes:

Now a short story or a novel, like any work of art, may have different meanings for different people. Not always can you say the author meant exactly this or exactly that. Each individual will find his own meaning. For him, that will be the true meaning.
As such, while we weave theme through our stories, we also need to ensure that our writing is clear, precise and layered with clues that guide the reader towards our intention for creating the work.

Theme: How to convey it.

Writers have at their disposal, a number of devices that allow them to guide the reader in their search for theme. Sustained metaphor, allegory, literary allusion and symbolism are a few of these devices. Most significant writing will employ these techniques to deepen the work; the trick is to use them subtly. As with all creative elements, literary devices must feel natural to the reader, as though they are a part of the ebb and flow of the story. In coming blogs, I'll explore some of these techniques and how they can be effectively used to enhance writing.


Thursday, 2 July 2015

A Few Words on Dialogue (Part 2)

Dialogue. Photo by Kgbo 

In my last blog, I wrote about intention and the need for our dialogue to sound natural, convey aspects of character and move our stories towards the climax. I also discussed the idea of active writing and the way dialogue ‘shows, rather than tells’ a story. Today, I want to continue this line of thought about intention by exploring dialogue attribution and the practical matters of punctuation and formatting.

Dialogue Attribution:

Getting our character to speak is a wonderfully active way to show them to our readers. This is not to say, however, that dialogue is never a form of telling; it certainly can be, in a couple of ways.
  1.  When characters ‘flag’ information for the readers: ‘Hello, my name is Dr Vivian Smyth and I’m a paediatrician.’ (This might be okay if Vivian is at medical conference but otherwise, no).
  2. When attribution is used to tell the reader how dialogue is delivered.

Dialogue tags can be hazardous to the health of your story. These pesky words are often used because we’ve been told that they make our writing stronger and more descriptive. Not true. In fact, they usually strip the dialogue of effectiveness and power.

Dialogue/attribution tags are those words we tack on after the dialogue, such as I snapped /screamed/hissed/growled, or I said, angrily, Sue said, impatiently etc. Tags like these should be used sparingly, and with intention. Before using a dialogue adverb (e.g. angrily) ask: ‘Can I show this emotion through action or through the dialogue itself?’ (Yes, you can!). Before using a verb tag (e.g. screamed) ask: ‘Can my character truly say this dialogue in this manner?’ This is about verisimilitude – the ‘realness’ of the story.

A good illustration of this point is the attribution tag ‘screamed’. Numerous writers, emerging and professional, use this tag in dialogue. For example:

            ‘I want to go home to my see my family and you can’t stop me,’ screamed Alison.

What is the problem here? Don’t know? Okay, try this – scream this line of dialogue. Go on, I’ll wait… No, don’t yell the words, scream them…

What happened? Could you get the whole sentence out without sounding ridiculous? No? And therein lies the problem. A scream is an inarticulate sound that does not contain words – think of any movie victim of grief, anguish or terror (or go here for an example from Home Alone). The reality is a character cannot scream more than one or two words: No! Yes! Help! And even then, we’re stretching verisimilitude. A similar argument can be made against other tags, such as ‘hissed’, ‘growled’, ‘howled’ etc. If you want to use these for a character’s dialogue, try it out yourself first. If you can do it, then so can your character.

One last thing, when overused, attribution tags become annoying, melodramatic and make the reader aware of the mechanics of the writing rather than the story. Consider, as examples, these two pieces of dialogue:

         ‘Please, Rach, can’t we work this out?’ Brett moaned.
         ‘It’s too late,’ Rachel cried.
         ‘But we love each other,’ Brett sobbed.
         ‘There are some things love can’t overcome,’ Rachel snapped.

          Brett reached for her hand. ‘Please, Rach, can’t we work this out?’
         ‘It’s too late,’ Rachel said, shaking her head.
         ‘But we love each other.’
         ‘There are some things love can’t overcome,’ Rachel replied, pulling her hand away.

Do you see the difference?  I thought you would; using actions and the words in the dialogue are a better option than using verb-laden attribution tags.

The best dialogue doesn’t require attribution tags (not even ‘said’, as can be seen in Margaret Atwood’s dialogue-only story, There Was Once, or in Tim Winton’s, Cloudstreet; read an extract here.) because the characters are so well-drawn and the actions are so clear, the reader can distinguish the emotional context and delivery of the word. So what do you use instead of dialogue tags? Usually said/replied/asked, or their present tense equivalent. These tags ‘disappear’ from the dialogue because the reader is concentrating on what is said (that is, they’re focused on the story). This is not to say that we never use dialogue tags – sometimes they are necessary – what it does mean is that we use tags with intention.  

Dialogue Punctuation:

Le Gourmet Pablo Picasso
Photo by Cliff
Weeping Woman Pablo Picasso
Photo by NichoDesign
As with all writing, dialogue has a basic set of punctuation ‘rules’, which are designed to assist the reader in following a conversation. More importantly, they ensure readers understand the meaning you are attempting to convey through the dialogue. Now, for some of you, the rebellious writer inside might be up on their high horse, shouting, ‘I ain’t following no rules.’ And fair enough— when you’re as good a writer as say, Tim Winton, or James Joyce, or Margaret Atwood (all of whom have eschewed punctuation at some point in their body of work). But, as with Pablo Picasso and other renowned painters, in order to break the rules, you need to first know and understand them because, then, breaking them becomes intentional.

Below is a guide to the basic formatting and punctuation of dialogue. I say ‘guide’ because some publishers and competitions may have slight variations on these. Always check the submission guidelines and/or style guides and follow these to ensure you give yourself the best chance at publication or winning.

  1. Indent dialogue in the same manner as a prose paragraph (usually 1 tab space)
  2.  Start each character’s dialogue on a new line.
  3. Keep a character’s action and dialogue in the same paragraph.
  4.  Use short dialogue paragraphs to increase tension, tone and pace.
  5. Avoid breaking dialogue to insert attribution (e.g. ‘I said’) without purpose or intention, for example, to include an action or relevant description.

An example (extract from The Shroudeaters by Maria Arena):

   His eyes surveyed my body and explored my face with deliberate slowness before he answered. I waited under his inspection, unmoved. ‘By supporting the proletariat in their struggle for just reward, we defy the darkness,’ he replied, holding out his hand. ‘And you are?’
  ‘Juliana Celeste.’
  ‘Didier Villette,’ he said, bending to brush his lips across my hand. ‘Enchanté.’
   Six months later, I agreed to be his wife. Six months after that, my parents killed me.
   My parents: Callisto and Constantine.

  1. Enclose dialogue with speech marks. I prefer single [‘…’] but some publishers prefer double [“…”]. Check their guidelines.
  2.  All punctuation belongs inside the speech marks.
  3. Dialogue within dialogue also requires speech marks. If using single speech marks, use double for the secondary dialogue, and vice versa if you are using double speech marks.

For example: 
       ‘I asked him three times before he said, “For God sake, Angelina, yes, the baby is mine.” That’s when I lost it, as I’m sure you can imagine.’

      4. Use a comma at the end of the dialogue if followed by attribution, otherwise, use a full stop.

For example:
        'Listen to me, Evette. I know about the money,’ I said, taking her hand.
        ‘Listen to me, Evette. I know about the money.’ I took her hand and held it gently.

5. Exclamation marks are NOT your friend. Avoid or limit the use of exclamation marks (in all writing). If an exclamation mark is needed, use one; multiple exclamation marks (e.g.!!!) are childish and become annoying to the reader. Exclamation marks are a form of telling rather than showing and, in most cases, they are also repetitive and/or redundant. Consider the following sentence:

‘You idiot!!!’ I shouted, slamming my hand on the table between us. ‘I can’t believe you could be so stupid!!! How are we going to pay the rent now?!!’ A wave of despair swept through me and, for once, I didn’t try to hide it from him.

In this example, the exclamation marks are not needed as the dialogue, attribution, action and description convey the emotion and emphasis. Occasionally, an exclamation might be needed (No! Yes! James!), but use them sparingly and, as always, with intention.
6. Ellipsis […]. These should be used sparingly in dialogue (and in all prose, if at all). They are used to indicate a long pause or trailing off of speech. Generally, however, finish the sentence. This is much better than peppering the story with unnecessary punctuation. If you do use ellipsis, remember they consist of three dots only. Like exclamation marks, using more than three dots looks amateurish.

Dialogue is an important device in story. When used well, it adds verve, tension and insight. When handled poorly, it a cinder block attached to the feet of our characters. Consider carefully, then, what a character should say to prevent them (and the reader) drowning in sea of irrelevant prattle. Rather, write with intention and make every word count.

Happy Writing,