Breaking from my usual I 8 Wednesdays to feature author, Jennifer Erin Valent. I’ve appreciated connecting with Jennifer online. It’s wonderful to engage with an author who demonstrates such devoted attention to craft and a keen ability to invoke questions in me about how I’d handle certain situations. I love how she makes me think!
I’m excited to share with you her thoughts on theme today…
From the time we’re kids we have an obsession with why. Why can’t I stick that up my nose? Why do I have to study geometry? Why didn’t I get that job? Why am I here? Why does cheesecake go straight to my hips?
That sort of need for a reason makes up a huge part of our humanity. We like to have explanations for the things that happen to us, for what we do, for what others do.
So if you say you want to write a novel, I’ll ask the obvious. “Why?”
Is it an overactive imagination? A passion for story? An addiction to words and how they’re put together? All good… all things that can make you the writer you’ve always wanted to be. But these things can also be distractions, and if you’re anything like me, all that creativity spilling out over the keyboard can make for a muddled mess.
That’s where a theme can be very handy.
Wikipedia defines theme as “the central topic, subject, or concept the author is trying to point out.” I love this definition because it’s active. It tells us that a story has a specific purpose and that the author’s job is to develop that purpose throughout.
To my way of thinking, theme can help a writer with two things:
I don’t necessarily know the theme of a novel as soon as I start to construct it. Oftentimes, I start with the characters and setting and develop my ideas for the main plot with their help before I ever touch on theme. But it was a different situation all around with my current work-in-progress. This time I was struggling to leave behind characters I had been with throughout an entire trilogy. I had no idea how to continue to write in the same vein with completely new characters and settings. So I settled on the theme as my starting point. What impact did I want to make with this tale? Who did I want to speak to and why? Did it have to do with friendship? Justice? Redemption? By the time I had figured out the core of what I hoped to achieve, I had people and places and words flooding my brain.
When it comes to keeping the plot flowing forward at the right pace, theme can keep us accountable. It’s easy for me to wander down rabbit trails when I write… and that’s not to say it’s always a bad thing. Discovering different avenues as I work can take me deeper into plot development (even if it amounts to some killer editing sessions in the future!) But it really is important to make sure that the events I create continue along a clear path and have some purpose in the overall storyline, even if it’s simply to advance the characters in order to bring them to my desired conclusion.
Now, clearly, every crumb of a story cannot be directly related to theme or else we’d end up with a textbook. A novel needs shading and nuance. It can’t be one note. But all of those words and phrases and events should take readers by the hand and lead them down one winding but continuous path towards that feeling of fulfillment when they turn the last page.
So when you sit down to write, before you dive head first into the pool of imagination and whimsy, try asking yourself why. Look inside your soul before you look inside your mind. And once you’ve determined your reason for writing – whether you want to change the world or just make it smile – stick to it! String that purpose throughout your story like paper dolls.
Leave those readers wondering why they shouldn’t turn back to page one and start the journey all over again.
Jennifer Erin Valent is the award-winning author of Fireflies in December and its sequels Cottonwood Whispers and Catching Moondrops. She lives in central Virginia where she has worked as a nanny for nearly twenty years. A lifelong resident of the South, her surroundings help to color the scenes and characters she writes. To find out more visit her website at jennifervalent.com