So you have your characters: compelling, quirky, obsessed. They’re doing stuff: active, dramatic, in motion. At the end of it all, you hope your reader will feel a certain Aaah.
That deep, satisfied, readerly sigh is the result of theme.
Theme can be hard to talk about, write about, wrap our brains around. It is a bit too big, sometimes: Veering into abstraction or pedantry, it feels like it might take away from the story. We don’t necessarily want to reduce our complex, gorgeous narratives to something so basic as “loneliness” or “modernity.”
Nevertheless, theme is necessary: It is what connects your particular story to the universal. Without theme, you don’t have a narrative; all you have is a string of anecdotes.
But how can you come up with themes when your book has so many problems?
While writing my nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, I was blessed to have the writer Susan Griffin as my coach. I would go into each session fretting tearfully about an insurmountable obstacle: “My family is too big and scattered! I don’t know how the reader will ever keep track – I can barely keep track myself! Plus, how am I ever going to choose who to focus on and do justice to all of them without offending anyone and, and, and…?” (Cue tissue and hot tea.)
After a suitable interval, after I stopped hyperventilating, Griffin would gently say, in a charming Americanism, “Well, you just need to turn that sock inside out.”
She would point out that, in fact, the very thing that I was whining about was my material. She would encourage me to get curious: Isn’t diaspora really about this exact confusion? What is the nature of this scattering? How do people track and stay in touch with each other across distance and other gaps? How does scattering affect our psyches and emotions and relationships?
She urged me to write into this material, instead of seeing it as an obstacle and letting it block me. As I followed her direction and breathed through my fear long enough to become curious, I found myself directly engaged with what I learned to recognize as key themes of the book: confusion as an aspect of the condition of migration/diaspora. The emotional impacts of loss of physical proximity. Loss and gain as parallel tropes. The struggle with how to compensate for and cope with these losses.
Writing into this “problem,” linking it to characters and specific anecdotes, empathizing with all my ancestors as they too puzzled over the same questions, was much more productive than the hair-pulling I’d been doing.
Here’s how you (possibly with the help of a coach or wise friend) can “turn your socks inside out.” This might take the form of a chart, a scrawled diagram or a simple list.
- List five to 10 of the biggest problems with your book.
- Get curious. One at a time, ask probing questions about each “problem.” If you’re working with a friend, have your friend ask questions, too. Take notes.
- Get global. Look for keywords and big concepts. Point your questions toward themes.
- Narrow down the list to two or three major themes, and find at least three places in your book where you can weave in the themes.
A little theme goes a long way. Add it when you sense that things are getting random or too far afield to connect your story back to a central thread. Rely on your first-draft readers to tell you when you’re being heavy-handed and need to pull back.
The truth is, somewhere in you, you already know your themes. They are the reason you write.
Minal Hajratwala is a coach and creator of the Blueprint Your Book intensive for writers. Her latest book is Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment.