This week Writer’s Blog will be exploring literary devices to help you along with your writing. Literary devices are techniques and structures writers employ to convey their message and story. When done well, the use of literary devices can alter, manipulate and challenge the way a reader perceives any work. Used masterfully, literary devices influence how a story or essay can be interpreted and analysed, as well as how much the reader enjoys the work. Today’s device is Theme:
How To Master Theme
In my time as an intern at a publishing house, themes emerged as an unlikely yet important factor in defining the most enjoyable and publishable reads. At once simple yet difficult to define, themes are the conceptual framework that ideas spring from and exist in. Despite being typically associated with the realm of readers and critiques rather than writers, they are an essential tool to understand and keep at-the-ready in your writer’s tool kit. Let’s look more deeply into this underrated literary device…
What Are Themes?
Themes are your story’s message, morals, lessons, driving concepts, key ideas and big questions. They can stem from something concrete such as war, money or family, but they are abstract in nature.
“While the subject of a work is described concretely in terms of its action (e.g. ‘the adventures of a newcomer in the big city’), its theme or themes will be described in more abstract terms (e.g. love, war, revenge, betrayal, fate, etc.).” – The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
Most themes are “universal”, meaning they can be understood in concept by almost everyone, regardless of race or nationality. They stem from basic human experiences, understanding and lack of understanding. While tricky to pin down with a definition, most people understand theme innately – but it’s important to know that theme is not plot, premise, conflict or concept.
Why Are They Important?
Whether you’ve planned it or not, chances are your story has at least one theme. And that theme affects everything: the characters, the plot and the setting. Such a powerful and natural device deserves all the attention you can give it.
“The theme of any literary work is the base topic or focus that acts as a foundation for the entire literary piece. The theme links all aspects of the literary work with one another and is basically the main subject.” – Literary Devices
Thanks mainly to our education system, most readers process stories through themes, so it’s important to be aware of them when you’re writing. Readers may not know what it’s like to be a super-spy, but they understand love and betrayal. Themes are the key to connecting your reader with a foreign experience.
Coherence and Unity
Themes can bring plots, subplots, scenes, settings and characters together as a whole, coherent piece of work. If your work is long enough to have subplots and side characters, they shouldn’t be there just to fill in pages. A subplot’s purpose could be to develop characters or setting, but for it to really feel a part of the story, it should work to develop the same theme/s as the main plot.
Most writers don’t write with a theme in mind. There’s no rule about when you should start thinking about themes. For a first draft, not thinking of them can be beneficial. Themes emerge naturally in stories, and focusing on other literary devices at first can help you stop sliding into cliché. But if you write a draft and then realise your themes are all over the place, it may take a fair bit of work and reimagining to fix them. The first step when working with themes is, obviously, identifying them. From there, you can make sure they’re performing their role as the story’s framework.
More likely than not, high school English has you well-equipped for identifying themes. A theme can be described as a key lesson or question that drives your story or characters. But sometimes you’re so close to the story that it’s harder to see the bigger picture. This is one of those cases where it’s useful to have a writing buddy, but in the circumstance that you’re lacking one, most people should be able to identify a theme in a story.
“Theme doesn’t have to be profound, but it must always be true to the storyteller. One of the most fundamental motives for writing novels is to reveal the truth as you see it, to share your life experiences and show people what this world looks like through your eyes.” – Harvey Chapman
Sometimes the theme you identify doesn’t ring quite right. Trust your writer’s instinct and take some time to ponder the concept and what it means to you regardless of the story. Then, with a new theme (or simply a new angle on the theme), get writing.
Sometimes themes are related and work together to strengthen each other, such as the themes of friendship, love and betrayal; others such as family, the environment and life purpose can detract from each other if not well thought out.
Combining too many non-related themes in one work can be messy. When was the last time you read a story that successfully contained the themes of loyalty, friendship, religion, time, the environment, loss, the law, racism and health? Maybe three or four themes from this list could play out in a story, with additional related minor themes. But stretching a story across too many unrelated themes can lead to confusion, superficiality and a lack of unity.
Thematic Write / Edit
Now you know your themes, it’s time to write or edit with these firmly in mind. If you find a scene or a side-comment from a character touches on another theme, seriously think about whether it is necessary. If not, change or delete it. If it is, think of ways to achieve the same goal without involving a new theme.
Everything can build and develop theme. Plot, motifs and characters are great places to start, but the list is endless. Even setting can tie into theme through the way it affects atmosphere and meaning. If your theme’s idea of “love conquers all” reaches its peak in a graveyard, you’d want to be aiming for a Romeo & Juliet style of “love conquers all, even death”.
“If you’re working on a theme involving sacrifice, you don’t want to have your characters making sacrifices in every chapter. Theme works best when it’s subtle.” –Melissa Donovan
Sticking to your themes is important but, having said that, so is subtlety. Theme is important, but so are plot, characters and plausibility. A useful tip for not getting too repetitive with your theme is to look at it from different or opposing perspectives. Consider the different ways love is portrayed in Pride and Prejudice, all the while leading to the one idea of marrying for love.
“Theme is life itself, as manifested in our stories, as seen through our characters, and as experienced through our plots.” – Courtney Carpenter
Themes are the framework of stories – a literary device that shouldn’t be forgotten. They add meaning to your work, draw your reader in and pull everything together as a whole. Be sure to keep this tool close by whenever you write.
This week Writer’s Blog will be exploring literary devices to help you along with your writing. Literary devices are techniques and structures writers employ to convey their message and story. When done well, the use of literary devices can alter, manipulate and challenge the way a reader perceives any work. Used masterfully, literary devices influence how a story or essay can be interpreted and analysed, as well as how much the reader enjoys the work. Today’s device is Structure:
How To Master Structure
Structure, or form, is the arrangement of story elements according to purpose, style and genre. Structure doesn’t just happen on it’s own. Rather, it’s carefully considered by the author to make sure their intended meaning is conveyed.
In order for a story to be truly immersive, the structure must play the part of a skeleton. In other words, the structure supports the story to ensure the most powerful delivery of elements, yet in a manner unseen and not easily identified by the reader.
“Fiction is supposed […] to be entertaining and narrative, so structures have to be buried a little bit. If they become foregrounded too much, it stops being fiction and starts being poetry – something more concrete and out of time.” – Eleanor Catton
Structure may be confused with plot. While the plot is the events in the story itself, heavily affected by character, setting and theme, the structure is how these elements are presented to the reader.
Why do we need structure?
Structure is the literary device that turns words and sentences into a story. It aims to present that story in the most favourable way, for a specific audience. The writing process is more than simply piecing together words on a page:
“[…] turning all that raw material into a novel isn’t simply a matter of putting it into words on a page or screen. You have to ‘translate’ it into a form that readers can relate to. That’s what structure does. And if you ignore it or mess with it, you risk frustrating – or worse, losing – readers.” – James Scott Bell
Consider this very article. If we opened with the ‘tips’ section, and finished with a definition, readers would become frustrated, scrolling up and down to make sense of the information. If all the quotes were lumped in a pile right in the middle of the article and sub-headings placed at the end of their sections, instead of at the start, would the article be easy to read? No.
It doesn’t matter if your sentences alone read like golden honey. Your story must have a readable and engaging structure or your readers will switch off.
Types of structure
Most stories can be either rigidly or loosely aligned to a particular structure and these can be expressed through simple diagrams.
A common example of structure in modern fiction is The Fichtean Curve, involving moments of rising and falling action, a climax at the height of the curve and a resolution, may it be a happy ending or a tragedy.
Perfect for fantasy or science fiction, the Hero’s Journey begins with an interruption to a protagonist’s everyday existence by an opportunity for adventure. They journey into the unknown, facing obstacles and undergoing a gradual metamorphosis. After overcoming every hurdle, they return to their old world with a new mindset. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is a fine example of this structure.
Another common structure, In Media Res, means ‘in the middle of things’. If your story begins on the third or fourth crisis point of a Fichtean Curve, the stakes are very high already. You hook your readers in from the first word. Events prior to the start of the story are revealed gradually through the narrative or through flashbacks, like in the movie Vantage Point. Alternatively, any boring introductory scenes can be dismissed entirely, like in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies or Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.
Frame narratives are, as the name suggests, stories told within stories. Useful for setting the stage or casting doubt on the reliability of a narrator, this structure is more common in the crime, adventure or fantasy genres. The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith and every title in the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, are frame narratives.
Historically, the popularity of different types of structures has fluctuated. Of course, as story-telling continues to evolve, structures are constantly reworked, simplified and deconstructed, according to the writer’s target audience and purpose.
Working with structure
The way that writers approach structure can vary. At one end of the spectrum are the strict planners. Before they begin a first draft, these writers spend hours constructing each scene, and the order in which these scenes will appear.
“Some writers can produce marvellous plots without planning it out, but I can’t. In particular I need to know the structure of a novel: what’s going to happen in each chapter and each scene.” – Emma Donoghue
At the other end are the writers who leave the story in charge, writing without the ‘restriction’ of a preconceived plan.
“I don’t plot the books out ahead of time, I don’t plan them. I don’t begin at the beginning and end at the end. I don’t work with an outline and I don’t work in a straight line.” – Diana Gabaldon
And then there are the authors who occupy the middle ground.
“I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things undecided while I write.” – J.K. Rowling
Newer writers need time to discover how they work best when it comes to planning. On the other hand, you might already know where you stand, so it’s best to go with what works best for you.
In some instances, such as children’s picture books, the structure will be fairly straightforward. Other books are more expansive, such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“I first read The Lord of the Rings as an adolescent. It’s a dense novel, a sprawling, complex monster of a book populated with a prolific number of characters caught up in a narrative structure that, frankly, does not lend itself to conventional storytelling.” – Peter Jackson
Tip: Reflect on some of your favourite poems or books and see if you can identify the structure. In most novels, you should be able to plot a graph of the structure and locate critical turning points.
Using structure to edit
The first stage in the editing process is called a structural edit. This only highlights the importance of a strong structure. Even before an editor looks at a manuscript at the sentence level, they start by gauging whether the structure is logical and appropriate for the intended audience.
Tip: Before you send your work to a professional, you too should consider structure when you first edit your text. Read through your work from start to finish, checking that sentences, paragraphs and chapters flow with logic and clarity.
Furthermore, you can check the pace of your story through a broad lens. Is one chapter far longer than most of the others? Are some chapters too short in comparison?
Approaching structure in different ways
Some authors may choose to toy with structure. Understanding your purpose is important. However, it’s also crucial to note that straying from the norm might not be as popular as sticking to well defined conventions.
This doesn’t mean that you should shy away from experimentation. When practising your craft simply for your own benefit, not for publication, you might choose to remove a critical turning point or write a story so convoluted that readers can’t make sense of it.
Tip: Try planning and/or writing your story from the end. Understanding the fate of your characters will strengthen their personality and motivations when the story is read from the beginning. And as you track backwards towards the beginning you’ll know for sure that the end of the book is supported by every word that comes before it.
“Structure is translation software for your imagination.” – James Scott Bell
At first, structure might not seem like the most important device, but imagine if you had no skeleton. Imagine if your car had no chassis, your bridge no pylons. Your story will fall and fail. This device is a must-have for your literary toolbox. Now it’s over to you!
Via the amazing resource that is Writer’s Edit: https://writersedit.com/literary-devices-master-structure
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Would you like to know how to supercharge your writing?
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