On Theme with Julie Cohen
First, she greets us with Hannibal Lego and reminds us it’s Snape Sunday. It can only be Julie Cohen, whose workshop on theme, last in the weekend of the wonderful Festival of Writing 2015, is designed to help a writer to identify the theme in her novel, develop it, and focus her entire novel around it. There are two schools of writers: some who think a lot about the book before beginning to write and others who simply begin. Julie says, “When I try to write a novel, I often start with the theme first. I put it on a Post-it, put it up so that I see it all the time, and then it brings everything back to it. If I’m trying to think about what happens next, then I know. It informs everything I’m doing.” Chuck Wendig disagrees. He says theme is very specific, but Julie finds her more general approach more fruitful. “So many workshops are about specifics,” Julie says. “This workshop is about the abstract, about finding something very abstract and then applying it to your work.” As writers, we often have core themes. I certainly do, ones I return to, again and again, no matter the setting or characters I use. As writers, if we share core themes with other writers, they will still be ours, because we are all so different. We see the world through such different eyes.
What is theme?
The emotional core of the book
The question you’re asking by writing your book
The main idea you’re exploring
The focus, not necessarily of action, but of feeling or ideas
The pivot upon which your book turns
How do you figure out the theme of your novel? Find one or two abstract nouns. (Chuck Wendig says it should be a sentence, and not a question, but Julie is, reassuringly, more generous.) In her novel, Dear Thing, Julie’s theme was parenthood, which gave Julie her characters and her settings and her situations, as well as her language and imagery, symbolism and metaphors all centred around parenthood, carrying and being barren, raising and rejecting.
First, she offered an exercise for us to find the themes of our novels, asking us to think about: the main characters’ conflicts and desires, the premise of the novel, title and first line, the novel’s main emotions, the idea/problem we were most interested in, and the resolution. She noted some common themes: Identity, Finding one’s place in the world, Overcoming the past, Justice, Loss; and said that, often, theme is reflected in a piece’s last line:
“There’s no place like home.”
“After all…tomorrow is another day.” (Adaptation/change.)
“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (Empathy)
Next, we were asked to take a blank piece of paper, or use Scapple as I did (as with their other marvellous programme, Scrivener, you can use it free for 30 days on trial) and put the single word we’d chosen in the centre. Next, begin to add words around your theme, the ideas the theme conjures up. Using parenthood as her theme, Julie quickly added words around it, from all the kinds of parents there are to states of parenting, “anti-parenting”, having and losing children, being unable to parent, not knowing that you have a child. From here, she could apply these states to creating characters and subplots as well as to design the locations specific to her theme, from the school gates to pregnancy yoga.
Why is focusing on theme important – and how does it make for a better novel? When a book is filled with theme, it is clear and focused. It is satisfyingly whole and will help to make endings feel “right”. When theme creates secondary characters, it gives them purpose as the novel is able to look at the theme from multiple points of view. (Take Harry Potter. He is able to vanquish Voldemort because of love, and Voldemort cannot understand Harry’s power because he had no love. And, by the end, we can see that the much-maligned Snape did everything because of love, for Lily Potter.) Theme helps to refine your hero’s conflicts, making them deeper and more personal.
Chuck Wendig says you should be saying something with your novel – a message to the world. So the reader walks away with this belief. I walked away with a new theme for a book I’m struggling to get right. Understanding my theme for this book, as separate from the core themes I’m always looking at, allowed the mists of ideas to clear and for me to see what it is I’m trying to do, so much so that I was up at 4 am, writing a new scene in the style I mean. It is said that whatever gets you up to write won’t have to be changed, is right and will stick. Here’s hoping!