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Punching Up That Theme

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Holes - Louis Sachar - YA Books - theme - writing tips - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle

Louis Sachar’s Holes via Google Images

So you’ve gotten past the first draft, perhaps past the fifth draft, and you’re starting to hone in on bigger picture ideas like theme.  But what are the themes in your story?  And how do you make sure they don’t come across as forced morals?

Since I have trouble with this in my writing, I thought we could examine how the experts have done it.  In this case, those experts are JK Rowling and Louis Sachar.  Both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Holes explore the theme of the importance of true friendship, and both of these books do it in a way that is real, warm, and absorbing, despite some crazy circumstances.

In Louis Sachar’s Holes, our “cursed” protagonist Stanley Yelnats has gotten himself into quite a pickle.  Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert with a bunch of much less innocent delinquents.  Stanley makes friends with another outcast, a kid named Zero.  Inevitably, they get into some much more serious trouble (I won’t spoil it too much here), and they end up saving each other’s lives.  For the first time in as long as he can remember, Stanley has a real friend.  When he and Zero are still mired in craziness, Stanley is the happiest he’s ever been because he has someone he can depend on:

As Stanley stared at the glittering night sky, he thought there was no place he would rather be.  He was glad Zero put the shoes on the parked car.  He was glad they fell from the overpass and hit him on the head.

With some fantastic showing instead of telling, Sachar explores this theme of the importance of true friendship without getting preachy.  We know, through Sachar’s spare, straightforward storytelling, that Stanley and Zero needed each other.  The theme is an integral part of the plot, and it gives the story depth.

Rowling explores this same theme in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone), the first book in the series.  She knew (though we as readers did not) that the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to hold strong for an entire series and had to ring true.

Harry winning their friendship.  JK Rowling was so adamant about the importance of this scene that she had to convince her editor it was worth keeping.  On her old website, she explained, “Hermione is so very annoying in the early part of Philosopher’s Stone that I really felt it needed something (literally) huge to bring her together with Harry and Ron.”

What can we learn from these expert authors?  What questions can we ask ourselves while revising?

  • Which themes exist already in my story?
  • Which of these themes is most integral to my plot?
  • What can I do to make this idea clearer?

What do you all think?  How do you approach theme when writing?

About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

13 responses

  1. That part in the Philosopher’s Stone was one of my favorites 🙂 Thanks for the post; I’ll keep it in mind as I keep editing my own novel!

  2. Theme can be tricky. Sometimes you can plan it out; other times it weaves itself in naturally. I try to keep a one-sentence theme summary in my mind throughout my writing so that I’m consistent with its thread, even if the theme is small and not very monumental.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned showing, not telling.

    It’s very useful to follow the path of a character who is going through a realization that you’ve gone though yourself, or that has been experienced by someone you know. Show the details that led you to make your “moral insight,” or whatever you want to call it, bit by bit. The readers will infer the lesson themselves without you ever having to spell it out for them, if you play your cards right.

    I like Carrie’s idea because I can see that it could lead to consistency. But even more than when you are writing, I think you need to consider the theme when you edit. The details you keep are those that support the theme. The others can often go.

    • I think you’re definitely right about keeping theme in mind when you edit — it keeps your writing focused a bit more that way. I also think it’s easier to be clearer about what all your themes are after the first draft, once you’ve had time for the story to settle in your mind for a while.

      • I totally agree about letting the story settle.

        Sometimes, I pick up what I wrote a week or two before and go, “Oh! I wrote that!?!” or I realize that whatever I thought I was writing was not the true focus of the piece.

  4. I enjoyed this post! I find themes to be hard for me to pin down, particularly in a larger piece of writing. With a short story, it seems easier. When I get bogged down in a longer piece, I truly feel lost and overwhelmed. >.O

    • It definitely takes more consistency to stay focused on a theme throughout an entire novel-length piece. I have trouble with that, too! We just get to keep plugging along. 🙂

  5. Loved this blog subject and comments…some very pertinent pointers for writers/storytellers to keep in mind.

  6. I”ve written nonfiction for 7 years but have just started writing short stories so your post was very helpful to me. Thanks and thanks for stopping by one of my blogs. Glad you liked the Texas small town pics.

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