Tag Archive | Workshop

Why You Need a Theme in Fiction

Theme is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of any writing instruction. This may be because it’s highly personal–or because some writers instinctively know how to weave in theme, while others don’t. I had to learn about theme, and its importance to make a story resonate.

I learned about them when I learned about story structure. It’s a vital element. Theme is a writer’s touchstone. It not only makes a story resonate, it tells you want needs to be in a story, and what should be left out.

Using theme in all major turning points makes a story structure work. It creates the main character’s arc.  Think of the movie Casablanca where Rick has the papers of transit–and keeps getting hit with choices about who is he going to give these to–and he starts off all hard-nosed and making choices about selling them, not giving them to anyone who is desperate….but at the end he gives them to Ilsa and her husband so they can escape–those papers are used to SHOW Rick’s changing through the choices he makes and becoming the hero we really want him to be. That’s theme at work.

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on theme for Hearts Through History this October.

We’ll cover:

  • What is theme—a clear definition.
  • Why does a story need a theme?
  • What is too specific, and what is too vague?
  • How to find your theme.
  • Distilling your theme to one sentence.
  • Relating theme to characters.
  • Developing goals and motivations around your theme.
  • Weaving theme into turning points in your story structure.

A great theme can be explored over a lifetime of work—but if you’ve never thought about what theme can do for your stories, or if you struggle with keeping a story on track, this workshop can give you some new writing tools.

Why do you need a synopsis?

tablettypeIn these days of Indy publishing a synopsis can seem an unnecessary burden. Why write one if you’re going to self-publish? Right?  This April I’m going to be teaching my Sexy Synopsis workshop for Outreach International Romance Writers, and here’s a few reason why every writer could use a strong synopsis right from the start.

1. A road map helps you avoid dead ends and detours. Maybe it’s different for other writers, but in every book I’ve written I get to a point where I forget what I set out to do. Lost in the woods–heck, lost in knee-high grass even. The details swamp me and I look at the story and it gets stuck. A synopsis is my tool to remember what it is I need to write next, and to get me back on the path. You don’t have to be a slave to a synopsis, but it can save you.

2. A synopsis shows your weak spots. This is really helpful. You can look at a synopsis and understand at once that the second act action is contrived, or the main character motivation is weak, or the ending fizzles. Correcting these structural errors in a synopsis can save you pages and pages of revision. I’ve known writers who had to throw out large chunks of their book–that’s never fun, and frankly I’d rather write a synopsis than face revision hell.

3. Your synopsis is the start of your marketing copy. Every book needs a blurb–a good one if it’s going to sell. If you find you don’t have a kickass opening paragraph for your synopsis, chances are you’re going to also have a rambling, weak blurb for your book. This doesn’t help you grab readers. Pitching to an agent, or an editor, or a reader is all the same thing–you need a hook and your concept locked solid. That’s where a synopsis can help you refine your idea.

4. A synopsis can be revised. Get a new idea? Check it out with a revised synopsis? Does the whole story still make sense or is the new idea pulling you in a direction that won’t work for your other characters? A synopsis lets you check your story beats, your character motivations, and also lets you check in new ideas. A synopsis should not be written in stone–you want to be able to weave in those great new ideas. But you also want to keep control of your story so you give the reader the most satisfying story possible.

5. A synopsis is vital for any series or connected books. Did you forget the name of the main character’s neighbor? What about the hero’s eye colors? Are you writing about three sisters and now you have to go back and pull out details that sister two needs in her book? For the connected books I’ve written, the synopsis becomes the most useful tool to keep me on track so I don’t have to keep reinventing worlds.

6. A synopsis will show if you really have enough conflict to carry the story. One synopsis I did ran into pages and pages due to having a lot of characters, and a lot of conflict. I soon realized I had a novel not a novella on my hands. If you can easily fit your story into a one-page synopsis you may not have enough conflict for 80,000 words. Better to find that out with your synopsis and not on page sixty where the story runs out of gas.

7. A synopsis can help an artist create a book cover for you. More than once I’ve pulled out the short scene and character information from the synopsis to create a book cover–for traditional or self-published, indy or small press, a synopsis is simply a really good marketing tool.

So, take a deep breath. It’s not that bad once you get the knack of it. And now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get a synopsis done for the book I’ve started and which now needs a better road map.

Character Arcs, Plot Lines, and the Synopsis, oh my

My synopsis workshop finished up this past April for RWA’s Outreach International Chapter, and I’ve also been judging in some contests–boy do folks need to figure out their story arc and plot lines (and character arcs, too). This is one place where a synopsis can help you because it highlights every flaw in your story–all the weaknesses come out. Which is why I think editors really ask for these things.

So what are the THREE big flaws that I’m seeing (on a regular basis)?

1) The big one is that there is no plot line or story arc. In other words, the story rambles along and stuff happens.

This usually can be traced back to the main character (your protagonist) not having a strong, clear goal that’s well motivated and which kicks off the main plot line, or the main character’s arc in a more character-driven story. This goal can be as simple as survive a night in a haunted house in order to win a million dollars (motivated by the need for that money to save mom, who is about to lose the family farm), or it can be to win a contest to win her own self respect, or it can be as big as saving the universe. But there’s a couple of important things about this:

A) The main character’s goal must matter to that character–there has to be something personal at stake.

B) There have to be consequences for failure–ones that would shatter than character.

Once these are in place, the character has been set on a path. Now you’ve started a story arc. The stuff that happens now tries to push the character off that path (this is your plot). Worse and worse stuff happens until the character gets faced with a crisis–and this crisis had better be one that pits the character against wants and needs, so that the character has to make very tough choices. This is where the character gets stripped down to their core–to what makes that person tick. (And if you don’t know this, you need to get to know your characters better.)

Now stuff does happen still but it’s all related to the character’s struggles to get what that person wants. And you make it worse for the character by layering  in what a character needs. As in if you’ve stuffed your character into a haunted house for a night, what your character may need is sanity and a sane world, and that haunted house may strip both away from her. Now your character has internal conflict–stay for the money (external want) or leave to be safe (internal need). And now you can add in an antagonist with a conflicting goal.

This is going to complicate the pl0t–and give you more conflict.

Now your antagonist needs to be thought out–as in what does she want and need?

For example, what’s your ghost’s goal in driving everyone out? This is where you do not want to cop out and go for the cliche. In other words, don’t just go for “She’s insane” or “She’s angry because she was jilted.” Those are weak motivations.

Orson Scott Card in his book on Characters & Viewpoint notes that when you’re digging for your character’s motivations, the first three or four things that pop into mind will always be cliches. (If you don’t have this book, go buy it now, then come back to read the rest of this.) These great ideas are cliche because they are cliche–they’ve been used to death. Keep digging for better motivations. This is vital for any antagonist–write this person as if this character is the hero (we’re all heroes in our own stories).

Could be the ghost is trying to protect others from the damnation that caught her–except she’s driving them mad in the process. Or maybe the ghost has a secret she’s trying to hide. Or maybe the ghost is trying to find a body she can inhabit so she can live again. (And see how those cliches creep in as you’re batting ideas around–that’s why you keep writing down ideas.)

Find out what your bad guy wants as a goal. Find out what your bad guy needs, too. We all need love, right? Well, we all need our own internal rationalization systems, too. Even someone who is mad will have their own reasons for doing what they do.

2) The other biggie I see is that in what’s supposed to be a romance, but the romance is put in like an afterthought. The action overshadows the romance, so the story doesn’t seem as if it’s really about two people struggling to build a relationship. This one is tough.

In a romance, the romance is the main plot line. It’s the main story arc. So you have to have thought about both your hero and your heroine. What does each person want from a relationship? What does each one need? This can be different from the action plot line. It could be your heroine needs to save the world from a plague of vampires–that’s the action sub-plot in a paranormal romance. The plot needs to put her in conflict with a hero (and possible love interest). It makes sense that in this case the hero is the head of the vampires–that’ll give you great conflict in both the romantic plot and the action plot. But now you have to figure out what does each person need and want on a personal level–and how are these going to conflict?

Does the heroine need a steady guy? (And what’s her reason for that–did she grow up in an unstable home?) If she needs stable, you want to either pair her up with Mr. Seems-Like-A-Bad-Risk, or with Mr. Stable-But-Boring. And then you add in what she wants. Could be your vampire fighting heroine needs a partner to watch her back–and she gets Mr. Unstable. Or could be she needs a vampire to come over to her side–so she’s got to seduce one into helping her. The trick here is to keep looking for what adds more conflict and more complexity. Pair up the compulsive clean freak with the slob (The Odd Couple is really a great romance disguised by the fact that it has two guys). Layer in reasons for your romantic pair to be attracted to each other–and layer in plenty of personality issues to drive them apart. Make the relationship the focus of the plot.

Then go back to your action sub-plot. Just remember if the main plot line or story arc is all about action, then you’ve got something other than a romance on your hands. In a romance, the relationship is at the center of the story.

3) The third big thing is that every character’s motivations needs to be clear–that means this info must make it onto the page. This is one where I often feel, as I’m reading, as if the writer knows this stuff, but it hasn’t gotten to the page.

There is the story in your head. There is the story on the page. There is the story in the reader’s head. Ideally, all these match. If one is off, the story flops. This is where you want to ask–“Did I put in WHY my character acts this way or feels this way?” In a synopsis, you simply tell the reader–“He hates cats because he was once locked in a closet with ten of them.” You want to make sure the reader understands WHY your character acts as she does.

The other part of this is make sure your reader understands the setup for the story–how the plot line or story arc kicks off. Get a friend you trust to tell the truth to read this, too, and make sure you are not fudging things. It’s too easy to think, “This is good enough.” You need outside eyes here and someone who’ll say, “This doesn’t make sense” or “I don’t believe this.” That is something to fix with stronger motivations. (You can have a character act out of character or do amazing things only if this is sufficiently motivated–if you have cake-making mom suddenly pull out a sword and behead someone there’s got to be something in her background that would explain why she can do this, or she’s doing this because her child is threatened and she’s got adrenaline making her into super-mom.)

Too often I’m reading something and all I think is “why”. Why did that happen? Why does she feel that way. The worst is when a synopsis just says: And they fall in love. Well…why? What’s different about this relationship and love story? What’s motivating the emotion. Again, this is where a friend who will write “why” all over your synopsis can help. Answer every why–or leave the reason for the question coming up out of the synopsis.

There’s other stuff you can do, but if you cover the big three, you’ll have a much stronger book (and a stronger synopsis).