USING THEME TO BRAINSTORM YOUR STORY

Many thanks to those of you who attended my workshop ‘Using Theme To Brainstorm Your Story’ at this year’s When Words Collide Conference in Calgary. Several people asked for a copy of my Powerpoint presentation. I am unable to provide that, but here are the main points of my workshop.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEME AND PREMISE
THEME is what your story is ‘ABOUT’.  It’s the emotional heart of your story. It’s the human emotion of your story which creates an emotional resonance within your reader. The theme of your story can be told in one word.
For example:
Love/Betrayal/Trust/Respect/Change/Survival.

PREMISE is the What If? of your story.  It’s your plot.  It’s what your story is ‘about’.  For example:
This is a story about a businessman who hires a hooker for a week.  (Pretty Woman.)
This is a story about a lawyer who cannot tell a lie for 24 hours. (Liar, Liar.)

JENNIFER KENNING QUOTE
The theme is the coded message that you consciously plan and the audience subconsciously decodes.  The theme should resonate through all of the characters and subplots and be interwoven into the premise and plot. The theme should be present in some form in each scene

Why does your script need a theme?  Because you’ve created this killer premise, but unless there is some emotional logic for the audience (reader) to connect to that premise, the audience (reader) will leave the theatre – (or close your book) – apathetic to what they have just seen or read.

EXAMPLES OF THEMES
Sometimes a good way to illustrate a theme in your story is to contrast it with the opposite. For example:
Betrayal/Loyalty
Poverty/Wealth
Truth/Lies
Resilience/Defeat
Pride/Humility
Sacrifice/Selfishness
Survival/Death
Tradition/Change

SINGLE WORD TITLES
Authors sometimes state their theme in their choice of a single word book title.  Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

ROCKY 
I hate sports films with a passion – especially boxing ones – but I love Rocky and will watch it over and over again. Perhaps it’s because the underlying emotion of respect permeates every single scene in the movie, whether through dialogue, setting or action. Take one of the first scenes in the film – Rocky goes to his locker to find his key no longer works. His belongings have been relegated to the hooks on the wall, commonly known as Skid Row. What a display of lack of respect for Rocky, that is.  Imagine how he feels? His self-respect must be shattered. Apollo Creed also fails to show Rocky respect in a way that will come back to bite him. He thinks little of Rocky’s boxing skills – even waving off one of his trainer’s concerns when his trainer sees Rocky’s preparation for the match – therefore does not train for the fight. By the end of the match, Creed’s attitude has changed.  ‘Ain’t gonna be no rematch’.

Very often you will find that the same recurring theme crops up in your stories because it will be something that is important in your life or your value system.

Back in 1975, Sylvester Stallone was an aspiring actor with dreams of making it big. But he had a lot going against him including a slight paralysis of his mouth which left him mumbling.

Inspired by a boxing match between Mohammed Ali and Chuck Wemper, Stallone wrote the script of Rocky in 3 days. Producers were interested in the script – but not in him. Stallone refused to sell the script unless he played the title character. The film went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Award.  It won two, including Best Film.

In an interview about the Rocky films, Stallone said, ‘Until a man – and this means a woman too – has been through a real baptism of fire, when you are scared, when you are hanging on, when someone’s hurting you – then you are going to see what you are really made of and then you are going to get the only kind of respect in the world that matters and that is self respect. That’s pretty much what my journey has been. This has been about getting Rocky self-respect… and maybe a bit of that will rub off on me.’

THEME BRAINSTORMING TOOL

So how can you use theme as a brainstorming tool? Easy. Grab a piece of paper and draw a cross in the middle.  At the top, write PHYSICAL, and the bottom, EMOTIONAL. On the right hand side of the page, write your THEME, and on the left hand side, write the OPPOSITE of your theme.

Theme scan

 

CASE STUDY – TITANIC

James Cameron said that Titanic was about MAKING EVERY DAY COUNT. I hate to argue with such a successful director, but I’m not sure you can can make every day count unless you have the FREEDOM to do so. So for me, I would say the theme of Titanic is freedom, and it is illustrated by depicting FREEDOM and it’s opposite (ENSLAVEMENT) in dialogue, setting, action scenes etc.

So how can you use the above diagram to brainstorm your story?

In the case of Titanic, take a piece of paper, as above, and write PHYSICAL at the top and EMOTIONAL at the bottom.  On the RHS of the page write (what I believe is) the theme – FREEDOM.  On the LHS of the page, write ENSLAVEMENT.

titani theme cropped

Then you can brainstorm ideas which you think represent Freedom and Enslavement in physical and emotional forms.

I realise the typeface on the above document taken from my Powerpoint – is too small to read (I’m the very opposite of a geek when it comes to tech stuff), but this gives you an idea of what your page should look like. Below I have listed examples from the individual quarters.  (These only a very selected few from my memory of the film.  If you watch it, you will find many – many – more.)

TOP RIGHT HAND SIDE. PHYSICAL EXAMPLES OF FREEDOM:
Rose poses naked for Jack.
Rose cuts Jack’s chains with an axe as the ship sinks.
Molly refuses to be confined by a social convention that insists she wait for a porter to carry her bags, instead deciding to carry them herself. (This is an example of the theme being carried throughout the story via sub-plots and secondary characters.)
Jack’s hair streams in the wind
3rd class is stark but full of life and energy.
Rose dances in steerage.
Rose spits into the wind.
Rose smokes a cigarette in 3rd class.
Rose makes love with Jack.
Iconic scene of Jack and Rose on prow of ship.
On the Carpathia rescue ship – Rose refuses to allow Cal to save her and return her to her old life.
Rose attempts suicide – preferring the release of death to living the life proscribed for her.

BOTTOM RIGHT HAND SIDE – EMOTIONAL EXAMPLES OF FREEDOM
Make each day count.
‘I don’t want your money.’
Rose’s love of impressionist painters who paint what they feel rather than exact depictions of their subject.
‘I remember how the sunlight felt – like I hadn’t felt sun in years.’
Rose says to Cal, ‘I’d rather be Jack’s whore than your wife.’
Rose finally has the freedom to tell her story to her granddaughter and the ship’s crew.

TOP LEFT HAND SIDE – PHYSICAL EXAMPLES OF ENSLAVEMENT
Rose ties her mother into a corset.
Cal puts his hand on Rose’s shoulder and tells her he will be her ‘first and forever’. Rose’s expression is bleak.
Cal beats Rose. She cannot fight back and the maid’s subservient position prevents her from intervening to rescue Rose.
Jack is handcuffed to the ship’s piping.
Rose smokes a cigarette and Cal stubs it out
1st class dogs are taken down to the 3rd class deck to piss and poop – a clear visual of the rigid class structure and people’s roles within the class structure.
People cannot move freely from one deck to another – they are held back behind metal doors.
1st class is exquisite, but there are rules to be followed.
Cal has a safe in his cabin.
Rose places Jack’s photo and the jewel in Cal’s safe and writes, Darling, now you can keep us both locked in your safe.

BOTTOM LEFT HAND SIDE – EMOTIONAL EXAMPLES OF ENSLAVEMENT
Rose: ‘It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains.
Rose: ‘It was their whole world and I was trapped in it, like an insect in amber.
Everyone believed the ship was ‘unsinkable’ therefore Ismay, Smith and Andrews made fatal decisions. Had they not been ‘trapped’ in their thinking, the ship might have been saved.
Rose on the necklace Cal gave her – ‘After all these years I still feel it closing around my throat like a dog collar.’
Rose: ‘Why can’t I be like you, Jack. Just head out for the horizon when I feel like it.’
The sailors manning the lifeboats are so trapped in the British class system, that they allow themselves to be intimidated by the rich into lowering the lifeboats without filling them, even though there are not enough lifeboats for everyone aboard.

These are only a few examples, but hopefully it gives you an idea how using theme can help you brainstorm your own story.

The Virgin’s Promise – Kim Hudson: Part Three

In this third and final blog installment – The Thirteen Steps of the Virgin’s Promise – taken from Kim Hudson’s book The Virgin’s Promise, I can only offer you a hint – a flavour – of her concepts and ideas.

The thirteen steps Hudson describes are fascinating, all the more so because she compares them with the twelve steps of The Hero’s Journey. And if you read her book (which I highly recommend!) she takes several movies, which follow the Hero’s Journey and others which follow the Virgin’s, and points out each step.

Plus, you know she’s on to something important when Christopher Vogler himself (The Writer’s Journey) says in the forward: This book repeatedly pounds me how much I didn’t know… Many of the terms she uses are compatible with those of the Hero’s Journey and simply emphasize a different shade of meaning in some common signposts. But other elements of her grammar of storytelling are unique, recognizing turning points that don’t have equivalents in the Hero’s Journey language, that are uniquely feminine, or at least reflective of a more inward and emotionally based approach to drama and life.

 THE THIRTEEN STEPS

By Kim Hudson

 ACT ONE:

1) DEPENDENT WORLD: This is often the domestic realm. The people around the virgin are dependent on her or vice-versa. There remains a force within her kingdom – and within her – that keeps her attached to this world.
Material Survival
Social Convention
Protection
Need for Love.

2) PRICE OF CONFORMITY: This is about the suppression of the true self. Even if the virgin knows what she wants, she might not see a way of getting it because she may be:
Sleeping through life.
Living with restrictive boundaries
Living a life of servitude.
Facing psychological danger.

3) OPPORTUNITY TO SHINE: Something happens here that allows the Virgin to reveal her talent, dream or true nature. It can be:
Directed by fate.
Actively pursued.
A wish fulfilled.
A response to someone in need.
The result of a push from the crone.

4) DRESSES THE PART: This can be a fun moment for the audience or reader, but it is NOT a frivolous moment.
She becomes beautiful.
Receives a physical object she begins to use.
Participates in a fashion show and knows her potential.
Undresses (not necessarily physically) to reveal her full potential.

ACT TWO:

5) SECRET WORLD: Once the virgin has had a taste of living her dream and made it a tangible reality, she creates a Secret World in which to experiment and practice in her journey to realize that dream.
Creates her world: This can be a physical place or a state of mind.
Fear of Discovery: What if she’s found out?

6) NO LONGER FITS HER WORLD: She starts to see her dream as a possible reality but it becomes clear she can’t keep juggling the two worlds forever. At this point she may become:
Reckless.
Attract attention.
Declare her task too hard.

7) CAUGHT SHINING: Her two worlds collide and the consequences she feared come to pass.
She grows too big.
Circumstances change.
She is recognized by the dependent world while she’s in her secret world.
Betrayed.

8) GIVES UP WHAT KEPT HER STUCK: This is a MAJOR turning point. As Hudson says so beautifully: ‘Just as a butterfly sheds a drop of blood as it emerges from it cocoon and experiences a period of vulnerability, the virgin must sacrifice some of her past to move into her future.”  

In her Price of Conformity, she had an experience that developed into a complex, burying her pain and creating a belief or pattern of behaviour that keeps her from taking action and claiming her life.

In this major turning point, she brings that belief or behavior to a conscious level and challenges it. She has lost her dream life and must take the steps necessary to make it reality. This begins with letting something go or of allowing it to die. The usual reasons to remain in the dependent world are:
Fear of Being Hurt.
Fear of Loss of Love.

ACT THREE:

9) KINGDOM IN CHAOS:
The world becomes uncomfortable.
The Kingdom uses its power to bring the virgin back into line.

10) WANDERS IN THE WILDERNESS: It was easy to follow her dream when the dependent world still existed as a fallback position, but it’s a different matter following the dream no matter what the consequences. She finds herself faced with:
Test of Conviction.
Moment of Doubt.

11) CHOOSES HER LIGHT: She trusts herself and pursues her dream whatever happens.
Last stage of transformation.
Introduces her true form to the kingdom.

12) RE-ORDERING/RESCUE: This is when her shadow side is truly banished.
She – and others – see her value.
Reconnects with her kingdom.
The false rescue. (In a false rescue, the Hero will fight for the virgin but only to prove he is brave or to assert his will over another.)
The Test: When the hero fails to value her true nature, the virgin must reject him.
Multiple rescues. There can be multiple rescues, each one testing the virgin.

(In writing a compelling romance, the rescue provides the CRUCIAL obstacle to love. The hero fails to value the virgin in her authentic form due to his:
Immaturity – Ever After
Fear of Commitment – Pretty Woman
Fear of Embarrassment – About a Boy)

13) THE KINGDOM IS BRIGHTER: The virgin has challenged the kingdom and thrown it into chaos. They have accepted her back and made adjustments to accommodate her AUTHENTIC nature or dream and realize the Kingdom is better off for having gone through this experience as it needed change.
Evil has been uncovered and removed.
New life has been injected into the kingdom.
Unconditional love binds the kingdom.

So there you have it – The Virgin’s Promise in thirteen steps. But as I said above, this is just a taste of Kim Hudson’s book. Please check it out, examine the films she talks about and you will see the important differences between the journey of the Hero and that of the Virgin. You won’t be disappointed.

When Words Collide

I spent a great few days last weekend at the When Words Collide conference here in Calgary. Now in its fourth year, it just keeps getting better and better.

Special guests this years included writers, Jack Whyte (check out his website just to listen to his amazing voice!) Brandon Sanderson, Robert J. Sawyer, Jacqueline Guest, Mark Leslie and Shirlee Smith Matheson and editor Adrienne Kerr.

I belong to a wonderful writing group The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association, whose members generously share their knowledge and expertise on both the craft and business of writing, but sometimes you need to get out there and hear from other experts in their field. So much has changed in the publishing world that it’s hard – and sometimes a little intimidating – to keep up, but the focus remains on bringing the best book to the reader whether it is traditionally published or self-published.

The dates and location have already been set up for next year’s WWC – August 14-16th at the Delta Calgary South – and registration is open. At the bargain basement price of $40 it’s a wonderful deal.

See you there!

When Words Collide – The Heroine’s Journey

My second workshop of the When Words Collide Conference this Sunday morning is a discussion on The Heroine’s Journey. Is the Hero’s Journey the same as the Heroine’s?  Do you need to be male to be a hero and female to be a heroine?

My own new personal heroine on this topic is Kim Hudson with her book The Virgin’s Promise.  Please check her out.

If you would like more information on the difference between the male and feminine journeys – and a link to a YouTube interview with Kim Hudson – please click on this LINK.

Happy writing.

When Words Collide – Theme Workshop

I’m really excited to be giving two workshops at this year’s When Words Collide Conference in Calgary, August 8-10th.

The first, on Friday morning, is part of a pre-festival workshop offered by The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association where I will be presenting along with fellow writers Jessica L. Jackson, Mahrie G. Reid and Sarah Kades.

The topic I’m discussing is Theme and its importance in your story. This is a subject I feel passionate about because theme is the heart of your story.

If you would like to check out my handout and read my thoughts on the importance of theme, please CLICK HERE for a link.

I will also be talking about The Heroine’s Journey on Sunday morning at 11am and will be posting a link to that handout on Sunday morning.

Happy Conference, everyone.

When Words Collide – Adrienne Kerr

I’m literally just back in the door after attending my first When Words Collide workshop of the conference. Although WWC ‘proper’ doesn’t kick off until Friday, they’re offering several pre-conference workshops today and Thursday.  I wanted to hear Adrienne Kerr, Acquisitions Editor for Penguin Canada, speak about the Author/Editor Relationship.

Wow! Her workshop was so – very – much more than the title suggested.

First off, Adrienne Kerr was a great speaker; funny, knowledgable, personable, thoughtful, perceptive, informative – my brain is literally buzzing as it processes all I learned today. (And I’m not trying to butter her up just because I’m an aspiring author and she’s an editor.) The hours sped by as she offered fascinating insights into the current state of the publishing industry (not just in Canada but also in the US and UK), the history and trials of its recent past and the challenges it faces in the future.

Other topics included:
The Value and Capital Publishers Bring to the Business – and what they can offer an author.
The Economic Challenges Facing Large Publishers.
An Examination of Contracts from the Publisher and Author’s POV.
The Role of the Agent.
The Author/Editor Relationship.
The Differences Between The US Publishing Industry and The Canadian.

It’s a challenging time to be a writer or a publisher. Publishing is a business and like all businesses, the bottom line rules.

Listening to her description of the industry, my mood swung from despair to excitement, settling down around cautious optimism. And that’s probably the best – and most realistic – place to be.

If you’re attending When Words Collide and haven’t yet decided which panels/workshops to attend, I highly recommend you check out those where Adrienne is speaking.

Blog Hop

Many thanks to Gary Bonn for tagging me in this blog hop and posing the following four questions:

What am I working on?

Sitting here at my desk today, I have to; catch up with my blog as I’ve ignored it while on holiday, write an article for a writing group newsletter, prepare a presentation for a writer’s workshop on Saturday on Raising the Stakes, try to complete my list of tasks for a writer’s group board meeting plus update the group’s website and Facebook pages, read and edit chapters for an online critique group meeting tonight and remember to turn on Skype at 7pm for same meeting.

If I can squeeze any actual writing time today, I want to edit the first chapter of the current novel I’m working on – Sing Inside The Thunder.  I didn’t do any writing when I was on holiday – just got back last night so I’m pretty jet-lagged and have mounds of laundry to get through – but I got in some very valuable thinking time and have lots of ideas to strengthen/deepen the story I’m currently working on.

How does my work differ from other works in the same genre?

That’s a difficult question because I write in a few genres – romance, women’s fiction and children’s – and like every other writer out there, my aim is to craft ‘a good story well told’. So how is my work different? My voice, tone and personal outlook on life, I hope.

Why do I write what I write?

My stories all come from the heart with characters and situations I feel passionate about. However, I have noticed a common theme which frequently creeps in – the idea what we get second chances in life. Interesting, given that my favourite book of all time is Persuasion by Jane Austen.

How does my writing process work?

Irregularly irregular.  Sometimes I write like a fiend for days, sometimes I just do a lot of planning or editing and rewriting. But I do try – when I’m not on holiday – to get in at least one hour every day of solid new writing.  (Sadly, won’t happen today. The pile of laundry seems to be growing!)

Tagging forward: Mahrie G. Reid, Victoria Smith and Vivien Martin