Friday, November 13, 2009

Themes? Interests? Symbolism?

Chicken? Egg?

Okay, we definitely were on a roll yesterday, and I'm going to try to keep it going. (Although I may very well fail, oh, god, the pressure, how am I gonna write something as comment-worthy as yesterday?)


So, according to your comments, it looks like we start our novels based on: the things that fascinate us, character and theme, putting a fresh spin on an old tale, theme, theme and story, situations, character, depends on the book, story, character and theme, more character and theme...

And when the writing is good, it all just builds on itself, doesn't it? It all seems so organic, because of course those actions would happen to that character based on that situation which underscores that theme... and it all just rolls together, and then on the page it's almost like seeing Athena, sprung forth fully-grown from Zeus's skull. Or, as Stephen King describes it, like uncovering the final pieces of the fossil and realizing that even the smallest bone from the beginning of your efforts really does fit into and support the whole, even if you couldn't see and understand the whole when you first got started.

So, where does that leave us, dear writers? If we start with something we love, something that drives us, whether it is a compelling situation or character or plot/story or thematic idea... can we go wrong, so long as we remember to bring the remaining elements to bear during the rewrite process?

Perhaps King was just warning us away from starting with theme as it overlaps with symbolism, rather than as it overlaps with character and story. One of the themes in my novel is the concept of identity... how do you know who you are and what you stand for? But another theme is that of naming... how are we represented and perceived based on the names and labels that others choose for us and that we choose for ourselves?

Identity might fall into the character-theme overlap. If I care about that moment where a person realizes who s/he is and who s/he wants to be,* then I will make certain character and story choices to bring out a tale that fascinates me (and hopefully, will fascinate readers).

Names, however, might fall more into the symbolism-theme overlap. If I start writing a book because I think names and their origins and meanings are ever-so-cool, and I definitely want to have the names of each of my characters mean something... well, that's kind of a non-starter, isn't it? Instead of being like the thin line between reality and fantasy in King's Bag of Bones, it's more like the use of blood in Carrie: something that "can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work" but not, ultimately, a basis for a novel, whether plot- or character-driven.

Where is the line between theme and symbolism? Are there symbols that you find especially moving? Are there any that are strong enough to carry a story, or are they just an element of the language craft?

Tell me more about what you write, and why it moves you.

* "...he had seen men come of age before and it always moved him. It was not a matter of their twenty-first birthday."
-- Hemingway, The short Happy Life of Francis Macomber


  1. Are we on the same page or what? I'm moved when I see the fruit of my character development. I love the introspect that takes place!

  2. If there is any symbolism in my books, it's purely by accident! However, themes come through with each one. I don't always know the theme until it's complete, though.

    Have a great weekend!

  3. Very erudite observations, Carrie.

    When I was about 5, my younger sister and I decided to make a surprise cake like we'd seen in a "Little Rascals" episode on TV. When my mother wasn't looking we got a big bowl in kitchen and just randomly started throwing things in and mixing them up. Well, guess what? No cake and one hell of a big mess. My mother later would laugh about it and told that story for years.

    My novel now is like that surprise cake except that now I realize to make it actually work you have to follow at least certain rules and a semblance of a recipe.

    I like stories that involve the journey, both actual in geographic terms but also the journey for self. This probably is influenced because of all of my family's moves when I was growing up and my continued gypsy spirit that I have maintained throughout life. It is an old theme, but I don't think the journey to finding one's identity and relationship to the world around them will ever get tired.

  4. I love themes, so I want those to flicker light throughout the book. I don't know that intend for much symbolism.

    Something to ponder...thanks!

  5. I'm trying to weave a strong theme of redemption in my book - not sure if I'm succeeding. Also agree with you about characters names having meaning. I always look up the meaning of a name before I use it and I try to match those meanings with the characters personality.
    I'm rewriting a fairytale so a lot of the names are chosen for me, but I still use their meanings to build personality.

  6. Did you see your plug over at Rachelle's? Someone listed your blog as one of their favorites.

  7. Oh, you ask such difficult questions. As somebody said before in comments over here, I think it depends a lot on what type of book you write. There are books that start from a concept, no matter how abstract and just stay there. Because that is what the author wants to do and she can do it brilliantly. Obviously, nobody should ever lie to themselves that such books may be entertaining. But they can be exceptional books and people will read them for all the many and more important reasons than entertaining. I think.

    That being said, I have to admit that I shy away from books that are too intellectualized intentionally. I feel like I don't need to read anyone who just wants to show how smart they are. That can be a big trap, I think.

  8. God, I love that Hemingway quote. As for what moves me, sometimes it's image, sometimes situation. Strangely, it's not been character yet. The germ of an idea's there when I start, but how I get to the end of any given story is constantly surprising.

    How people react in extremis is something that fascinates me, though, and keeps coming back in my work, whether I intend it or not.

  9. My own wonderings about life are what move me. My characters explore questions I have--and are put in situations that illustrate some of my frustrations and issues. Symbolism follows entirely by accident and long after the fact I go "Oh YEAH, I get it now!" and things often click right into place. It's the best moment in writing a story--when I realize that my instincts were right and the story clicks and comes together for ME.

    So what I'm saying is, I realize things right along with my characters. I write to make sense of the world.

  10. I think a lot of my best stuff is an accident. Sometimes I'm intentional about symbolism and foreshadowing, but usually I get to the end, re-read, and see a bunch of stuff I didn't realize I was doing but worked. It makes the reading part a delight even for me, the one who wrote it.

  11. I think symbolism that rally works in my writing often happens by complete accident. I later go back and see hidden meaning. That is when what is inside you is really bubbling to the surface and that is just the way I like it to happen. No amount of planning can make that kind of magic happen.

  12. Wow, what a great post! I just found your blog today and I just had to tell you how much I enjoyed reading some of your entries. I love connecting with other writers this way, so I hope you don't mind that I'm following your blog now...

  13. I almost always start from character. Characters come to me and start telling me their stories. I write my way in for a bit, then stop and outline. I start to see the overall shape, and find ideas I want to explore. Themes and symbolism grow organically out of that. Sometimes I don't realize what they are until revisions. In revision, I decide which ones to shore up some more and which ones need to be cut because they don't serve the overall piece.

  14. Carrie,
    I know you're more familiar with this than I, but another blog bestowed me with this "Friendship Award" and I hope you don't mind if I pass it on to you. See my 2nd post for Sat, 11/14. It seems kind of like a chain letter to me, but I guess it's a way to get more notice for your blog so I hope it gets some desirable traffic for you. And you've always been so darn nice and friendly and you get a lot of nice comments from your readers. You do a great job!


  15. I love to take opposing themes and converge them, somthing like a mad scientist would do when pondering what would happen if he mixed this solution with that solution then something really crazy happens, like combining science and the supernatural.

    Stephen Tremp