Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Story and The Mess Underneath

This post was sparked by Erica Orloff's post asking "So Does it Start With a Theme?"

For me, I have to start with the emotional journey of the main character. I have to know she's going from X to Y. And in any journey, we learn something from the journey, and maybe that's the theme.

A few days ago, I talked about Finding the Love, and how I can't really flow until I find that sweet spot. Mostly that's finding what I want to say, what I believe passionately enough in saying that will drive me through the mess of writing a novel and organizing my thoughts.

But I'm not big on symbols and themes as a matter of theory, but in practice, they're there. I just really hate for them to be noticeable. If someone can say about my work, "X is a symbol for Y," then I feel like I've failed a little bit.

For example, I have a two-sentence exchange in my mind, one that will take place at the end. I'm trying to decide whether it hints at the theme, or tells the theme.

Because, see, if you have to use a two-sentence exchange to tell the theme, then the story hasn't told the story. If you've effectively told the story, then two-sentence exchange can bring a feeling of closure, of getting the job done, of tying things together.

So I'm on the fence about those two sentences.

I don't like to be obvious. I fear my intrusion into the story. It's true; I might use symbols (if the following is a symbol), but I'll do everything I can to cover up the fact that it's a symbol. I use theme, sorta, but I'll do more to hide it than tell it, you know?

For example, say I've got a girl picking up a gun at the end of a story. Maybe she's a ... hmmm ... bounty hunter, LOL, and her career has been a rough journey for her, a journey of accepting who she is. Maybe her reluctance to pick up the gun has mirrored her reluctance to accept herself for who she is.

So I might go back through my story and scatter the gun throughout. I'll make sure she doesn't touch it, but I'll also make sure it's there. I'll make sure she goes out of her way to avoid touching it.

But each and every time, I'll make sure the gun has an immediate reason for being there that serves the scene, not just the symbol, you know?

So is the gun a symbol of her self-acceptance? Or some such thing? I don't know. Is the gun a symbol at all? I've never been much for symbols; literature classes drove me crazy. I like to enjoy a story (and a piece of music) as a whole.

The process of deconstructing the thing takes some of the magic away, for me. At the same time, I enjoy learning how a story is put together, and it's an important study. I deconstruct all of the stories I read. But then I have to put them back together and enjoy the whole.

I'm just a mix of contradictions. :-)

I respect the use of symbols and themes. It's just who I am as a writer. I want my readers to be in the story, living it so deeply that they feel like they're in the world I created.

I'm conscious that any "technique" might cause the reader to notice that someone wrote this story, and that it's a story, and not currently what they're living. I dread pulling a reader out of a story.

Those are just my goals, though. I don't know if I pull it off.

That's the most frustrating part of writing for me. I can't live in my readers' minds and know exactly what they're thinking and feeling and experiencing while reading my stuff.

I can't tell you how I yearn for that knowledge.

I don't know. What do you think? Themes? Symbols? Who you are as a writer?

17 bonus scribbles:

Liz Wolfe 5/31/2008 07:30:00 PM  

If I have themes or symbols, I'm not aware of them. I think I write for entertainment value. I want my reader to be drawn into the story, to always wonder what's going to happen next and then to be surprised by it. Maybe I should give some thought to themes and symbols though...LOL.

Bernita 6/01/2008 06:42:00 AM  

Know exactly what you mean.
Thing is, symbols/themes are present whether you intend them consciously or not.

Erica Orloff 6/01/2008 09:26:00 AM  

Hi Spy:
My symbols are really the external signs of my characters' internal lives. I think of it like my office. Buddha statues all around, my garden outside the front window. Bird feeders. Knitting needles sticking up out of a vase on a high shelf, so Demon Baby doesn't get ahold of them. Candles everywhere. The clock I bought as a sign of defiance of my ex-husband. You can look at all of that and get SOME idea of who I am.

When I write, I guess I pick the quirks and things that tell a story. A garden (in Spanish Disco) that is Eden-like. Dolls (in Spanish Disco) for babies a secondary character cannot have. And so on.

However, I still start with character arc--emotional journey.

Edie 6/01/2008 10:06:00 AM  

I just wrote this on Erica's blog, but Michael Hauge says our stories should have themes but it's better not to know them before we write the book, because then we tend to overdo it.

I know my theme ahead of time, but then I naturally forget it. I focus on how to get my character through the scene. That's hard enough without worrying about theme. Any symbolism comes from my subconscious. For me, that's a better way to do it.

spyscribbler 6/01/2008 10:07:00 AM  

I keep thinking the same thing, Liz. I've been giving more thought to them lately, too. I hope for surprising the reader, too, but I'm wondering if that's one of the my weaknesses. I don't give much thought to that, but I need to!

spyscribbler 6/01/2008 10:08:00 AM  

Bernita, that's so true. I think that's why I do more erasing of them than putting them in.

spyscribbler 6/01/2008 10:17:00 AM  

Erica, I wasn't saying symbols are bad things at all. :-) Just I'm uncomfortable with them. The way you define symbols, then I use them a ton more than I think I do.

"The clock I bought as a sign of defiance of my ex-husband. You can look at all of that and get SOME idea of who I am."

ROFL. I had an idea, whether correct or not is questionable, LOL, but ... a clock as defiance? That sounds like a fascinating story!

spyscribbler 6/01/2008 10:20:00 AM  

Edie, I loved his presentation at RWA. For me, I guess it depends on how much I'm thinking ahead as far as my imagining time. I kinda need something to keep me focused.

I agree with forgetting it. If it's there too much, then it's heavy-handed. That's what I fear most.

Erica Orloff 6/01/2008 01:39:00 PM  

Spy:
I had gotten my first "big money" job as a PR/marketing guru at a computer company. With my first paycheck, I bought a Burpee Seed Clock. The seasons roam around the face and tell you when to plant. I paid too much for it in an antique shop (it's actually only about 35 years old) . . . but I ADORED it, and he was livid. I mean LIVID! It was my paycheck, and it wasn't like I spent a fortune--maybe $85. But it was this symbol of the marriage. He never let me forget--and I mean never--that I spent too much on it since it really didn't have antique value. And I didn't CARE that I spent too much on it since it spoke to my heart. It sits square on my besk now, right above my computer monitor. A reminder that I am in charge of my own seasons and destiny. And Amen that I left a man who chronically belittled me.
E

LaDonna 6/01/2008 03:16:00 PM  

Spy I agree that taking the story apart, takes some of the magic away. My brain just doesn't work that way. I write the story, and by feel I can tell if it's what I envisioned, or more. If it feels right, I'm happy.

I'm in awe of the analytical mind, because mine's not wired exactly that way. I'm sure I have some of that power, but it stays hidden. LOL.

LaDonna 6/01/2008 03:17:00 PM  

Erica, forgot to mention I LOVED your clock story. Awesome, you go!

Avery DeBow 6/02/2008 04:59:00 PM  

My themes tend to develop organically, unconsciously. I don't know if that's the way to do it or not, or if I'm just lazy about it all, but I think if I tried to put the theme and symbols in consciously, it would come off as ham-handed.

Great story, Erica.

Anissa 6/02/2008 05:01:00 PM  

This has been on my mind lately too. I wonder if I have themes. I'll have to think through my latest WIP and see if I can find any. I don't think I could start out with one in mind or, like you said, it would be much too heavy-handed. Interesting topic!

spyscribbler 6/02/2008 05:37:00 PM  

WTF, Erica? Man, it's your money! And why in the heck would you buy it for the resale value? If you liked it, you weren't going to sell it, so why would that even be a consideration? You're going to keep it and value it!

Cripes. You know, I know someone's husband who would be the same way. I'm told he can be supportive, but I just see that he's not. With even little ideas that would just be fun for her, he squashes them. And sometimes the things he says ...

Oh well. I don't know. I can't judge.

But I can for your ex. Good riddance! Yay Clock!

spyscribbler 6/02/2008 05:39:00 PM  

LOL, LaDonna. I kind of phase in between. Sometimes I can be ruthlessly analytical about writing, to the point of appalling some people, I suspect. Others ... I don't know.

Mostly it's leftover from college. I don't have time to sit around for hours and discuss whether the theme was X or Y in a certain book. There's no right answer, so I don't really want to hear it, LOL. It ruins the story for me. I just want to enjoy it on my own.

spyscribbler 6/02/2008 05:40:00 PM  

Avery, that's precisely what I fear. I think. I have to look up "ham-handed," LOL.

:-)

spyscribbler 6/02/2008 05:41:00 PM  

Anissa, there are times when I don't know what a story's about until 2/3 of the way through. Then I have to reshape and refocus.

I don't know. Like I said, it's a mess underneath the story, LOL. :-)