Tuesday, September 21, 2010

English Class with Ms. Moskowitz--Part 1: Theme

Hello, I am Ms. Moskowitz, and I will be your teacher today.

I'm fresh out of a long day of classes and ready to toss some words at you. Topics we will cover: theme, motif, and allusion. We're starting with theme.

Before I start, we have, as usual, a few caveats:

1. I am a sophomore in college. Just...yeah. I wouldn't be blogging this if I didn't know it, but it's something to keep in mind.

2. I'm sure people will have different definitions for some of these. They're words and everyone approaches them differently. These are my interpretations and my explanations, and God knows I have a weird way of explaining stuff.

3. The most important point: no one is making you think about these things. You don't need to think about theme or motif or allusion or anything else to write a good book. You don't even need to know what they are. There's a good chance that, even if you don't know these terms, this is stuff you've already been doing.

But knowledge is power. And whether or not you choose to use these things, I really do believe that you should be aware of them. It's good to have options, and if thinking about any of these things helps any of you (they help me) then I've done my job.

Let's begin! Class in session.


This comes first and foremost, because, in my experience, it comes first and foremost. Well, almost. Theme is the second thing I think of when I'm formulating an idea. I start with characters, proceed to theme, and then put together a plot. That's all I need to start writing.

To put it in the most naked of terms: Theme is the message of the book.

Most books have several themes. Let's talk about uhhhh I don't know. Romeo and Juliet. Here are some things you could legitimately say are themes in Romeo and Juliet.

--True love transcends societal segregation.
--Teenagers will choose their boyfriends over their families.
--True love leads to death.
--Teenagers are incapable of lasting relationships.
--Love leads to death.
--Teenage boys are full of hormones and fickle affections.

and there are a million other themes you could find in Romeo and Juliet. The truth is, if someone tells you that something is the theme of a work, it's very hard to prove them wrong. I could say the theme of Romeo and Juliet is "cats are better than dogs," and even though that's true, it's probably not one of the themes of Romeo and Juliet. Can you prove it?

And that's a very important thing about themes--they are very subjective. Because a theme is always, always, ALWAYS a full sentence.

For a theme to be a theme, it needs to be an opinion. It needs a verb. It needs to be something that you can find and identify and argue.

So "cat" could not be a theme. Cats are either in the books or they're not. No amount of arguing is going to change that. But I can argue that Romeo and Juliet has the theme "cats are better than dogs" until the cows get home, because theme is way more abstract than a simple world or two.

Let's talk about how this fits into your own writing. Your theme is the feeling that you want people to take away from the book. It's the question or the opinion or the decision that you want them to be rolling around in their brains when they close your book.

Don't worry if your theme sounds trite as hell. "Self-destruction doesn't work as a solution," is a theme in BREAK. Like, wow, hannah. Way to say something really fucking original, there. Here's your Pulitzer.

No. Themes are totally allowed to be simple, because it's still all about execution. If I were beating the reader over the head with my message (let's say for the sake of this argument that I did not do this) then it would be a different story, but if you have to suss out my theme from my 44,000 words, then I'm doing an okay job.

Theme's job is to answer the question so what? You have a nice story and some cool characters, but why do I care? What footprint are you leaving? That's your theme.

And please don't ignore that thing I hinted at two paragraphs up--you do NOT need to spell out your theme. At least 90% of the time, you shouldn't. At least 90% of the people who think they fall into the remaining 10% do not. Take out the part where you state your theme out loud, please. If your writing is strong enough, you don't need to say what your theme is.

Having a theme is NOT the same as having a moral. You don't have to be trying to teach you reader something, but your book should, in a sense, argue something. There's a reason you're writing this book. Sharing that makes the reader care too. But you've got to resist the urge to beat the reader over the head with it. Trust your reader!

Theme is your backbone, but you wouldn't go around smacking people in the face with your backbone. Keep that shit to yourself.

So class is over for today. I'll be back later with motif and allusion. They're simpler. But theme is first.

Now I have e.e. cummings stuck in my head--since feeling is first/who pays any attention/ to the syntax of things--appropriate, I think.

Anyway. I realize I'm spouting a lot of esoteric crap, here, so hit me with your questions/comments, please.


Dawn Embers said...

A very interesting post. I only think about theme if I have to with my own writing. I just figure out the characters, then their stories and I start writing. Might have to try considering theme one of these days.

I get called "teacher" at work cause the kids don't always remember what they are supposed to call me.

Melanie said...

*Melanie raises her hand. She has a question, but hopes she doesn't look like Hermione trying to answer one of Snape's questions meant for Harry's' total humiliation.*

Ms. Moskowitz calls on the girl in the front row.

Damn it. Her again? Everyone knows that students who sit in the front are total brown noses. Note to self, offer that girl a tissue after class and tell her she has some brown shit on the side of her nose.

Ms. Moskowitz calls for another question.

*oooh, ooooh, I have a question, call on me*

Ms. Moskowitz calls on me. Whew. Shit. What was my question? Panic. Sweat permeating through my pores. Oh, right.

Was just wondering if you always come up with your characters before your theme. I found this very interesting because I always come up with a theme and then the characters. Inquiring minds wanna know. Thanks :-)

hannah said...

Melanie--usually I come up with one character and then the theme. Because usually ideas for me stem around a fascination with one specific character--Jesse in BREAK, Noah in INVINCIBLE SUMMER, Lio in THE ANIMALS WERE GONE, Graham in ZOMBIE TAG (interesting seeing them all written down--looks like these are usually the supporting leads, typically the MC's brother) and I work out a story for them. So maybe initial character, theme, other characters, plot.

Nicole said...

great post! theme has always confused me a bit and this helped a lot. you explained it better than my English teacher - so maybe my mind just doesn't work right too?

Liam said...

*Makes note to sit in the third row next time. Or the last row. Because everyone loves the asshole jerk kid who's also a brain.*

Dominique said...

Great post on themes. By the by, I'm totally impressed that you were willing to tackle themes in a blog. I don't know if I'd have been willing to try that, so kudos.

Off to go sit in a corner now and think about the themes of my books to see if they're really there.

Melanie said...

thanks hannah. and for the record. i hope i didn't offend with the brown nose comment. i was always the one sitting in the front of the classroom. :-)

hannah said...

of course you didn't!

lunaticextraordinaire said...

I have a question... i' m a little afraid it might sound stupid but here it is: What if I dont have a theme?

Mind you, I know what i want wanted to tell with my novel; i had a story to tell and share, I have a structure and all that shit, but the thing is, I've some difficulty to figure out what's the theme or even worse, the moral. Does that mean Im in trouble?

I dont know if my question was clear enough... maybe can you give me more examples of what exactly is a theme?

hannah said...

lunaticextraordinaire--what do you want the reader to be thinking about when the book is finished? what kinds of questions do you tackle in the book?

amongdahlias said...

"Themes are totally allowed to be simple, because it's still all about execution."


"Theme's job is to answer the question so what?"

Simple, awesome advice on a tricky subject! And you have a knack for making learning fun! :) Thanks for the great post, Hannah!

lunaticextraordinaire said...

so... i guess the answers to these questions forms my theme, right? then, what if i have multiple themes? is that a bad thing or should i just stick to one?

and thanks! it's so nice of you to take your time to adress these questions and answer them! By the way, i bought your book the other day and I only read the first few pages but from what I've read, I guess you have another Canadian fan! ;P

hannah said...

lunaticextraordinaire--I LOVE CANADIANS.

And yes! Multiple themes is cool. Like Romeo and Juliet has multiple ones in the example.

lunaticextraordinaire said...

Ok, now, I feel better about myself. Thanks.

*resumes stalking blogs*

cathellisen said...

Obviously we all work differently, but theme is def an unconscious thing for me. It's there when I'm done, but I don't actively set out with one in mind.

There's an organic quality to my work even when I do outline, and some of that comes from me just trusting that my sleeping brain knows what it's doing.

Admittedly, this means I have to edit a fuck-load before things work, but sometimes the sleeping brain surprises me in ways that make me grin madly.

Your description of what theme is is pretty nifty though. :D

Megan Schwark said...

Love this post. It is so difficult getting people to understand that theme is more then one word. I think teachers should use your blog as a reference.

I'm a college sophomore as well!

Jason said...

Thanks for this. Looking forward to more.

You're right, it's possible to write well without knowing what a theme is. However, it's interesting to think about how much clarity might come to a book by stating the (primary) theme before beginning the writing.