Monday, September 13, 2010

What's the Big Idea?

I once read that if you can’t state the theme of your writing in one short sentence, your story has serious problems.  So, I’m looking over my writing and asking myself, “What’s the Big Idea?”

What is the basic theme to what we write?  Is it “Be yourself?”  That’s certainly common enough in children’s literature.  Is it “Everyone deserves a second chance?”  Or is it “Anything worth having is worth fighting for?”  Or maybe even “Love is blind?”

A theme can strengthen our writing in two important ways: first, it helps to focus the plot, and second, it gives our story added depth.

Fiction is a place where broad ranges of experience can be brought down to the individual level.  In the end, that is what readers care about anyway—the struggles, experiences and growth of the individual.  Fictional writing is a place to explore what it means to be human.

Most of our writing has a theme, even if we didn’t do it intentionally.  Taking the time to recognize those themes and then build on them throughout the plot will transform our writing from a “fun story” to something that has universal and lasting meaning.

Deborah Perlburg gives us three questions to help us dig deeper and find the big idea.

1-What is the overall point of my story?
2-What do my main characters learn?
3-How do my main characters change at the end of their journey?

Don’t worry if your theme sounds the same as so many others.  That’s the beauty of universal concepts; they can “generate countless different plots and stories.” 

Stories that make good use of a theme linger in my mind for days after I’ve finished the book.  When I read books that have won awards, such as the Newbery, I find that these are the authors who have taken a universal idea and brought it down to the individual level in a masterful and meaningful way.

We can take our writing up a notch by using themes as a foundation to give our stories added strength. 


Scott said...

What I think is interesting is that, often, a writer can't identify or even mis-identifies the theme, compared to the theme a reader finds.

We might intend to express a certain theme, but the reader brings a new perspective and might find an entirely different meaning than the writer intended.

I had a prof who talked about this at some length regarding imagery in poetry. he claimed that the person least able to identify the theme or meaning is the writer. It's not hard to see how an academic would see things that way and why, but there's still something to be said for the statement.

Lining the clouds with silver said...

Come teach a children's writing class at BYU! Another awesome post, as always.

Paul West said...

Scott, I agree with your prof. For the life of me, I can't determine just a single theme to my novel. Rather, I can see several themes. Which one should I use? That's my quandary.

Julie Daines said...

Paul,here are some more ideas that might help:

What is the take-home message, the new insight or new way of thinking you want the reader to glean?

You can't force the theme into the story. Instead, characters carry the theme. Develop your characters fully and set them in a world where their values will conflict with each other. Allow your character to struggle naturally and passionately and the theme will emerge without effort.

HA! I know without effort is a joke, but there you have it. Advice from James Scott Bell.