Friday, May 10, 2013

Humor Me and Pretend You're Back in High School English...

So today is kind of a big day in movies, I guess. Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, comes out today! My husband has been wanting to see it, so he can talk about it with his dad (both of them are big Great Gatsby fans). What he didn't realize until we talked the other day is that LOTS of people are looking forward to this movie. When I told him that, he was super surprised. I guess he thought only hard core literature nerds would care. BUT that's not the case. Plenty of people are intrigued by the story, and I know why that is. As a fellow writer, you probably know too, or you would if you sat and thought about it for awhile.

Let me put on my former-English-teacher hat for just a second okay? Because I can't resist. =)

The reason people are going to run to theaters tomorrow to see a movie based on a book written decades ago is that it has a universal theme. People are people, and humanity's main characteristics and struggles know no boundaries in time. What people wanted in the 1920s is what they want today. Sure, buzzwords change, people like to pretend we're "original," but really we haven't.

Think about any of the classics you've read. They've stayed popular for a reason. Here are a few of my favorites (disclaimer: some of the language/other things in these books are less than stellar at times)

Pride and Prejudice
This Side of Paradise
The Scarlet Letter
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The House of Mirth
Heart of Darkness

If you've read any of those (or if you've read other classics that I haven't listed), think about the themes. We'll take The Scarlet Letter, since lots of people have read that. One of the main themes is hypocrisy. People who aren't who they say they are. Respected church leaders with dark secrets. Do we still deal with this today? Absolutely! Do we still judge people based on their sins and label them? Yes! Does Hawthorne think we should?

Even if it's not your #1 pick for a beach read (and let's be honest, I was an English teacher and it's not mine), you can see how this book impacts people because it has a theme we understand. Something we deal with, something we can relate too.

Gatsby's like that too. It has some universal themes about love (lust?) that people today relate to. THAT's why people are going to flock to that movie, in my personal opinion.

Think about what you're writing. What's the theme? Maybe you don't know yet. Most of my stories I have no idea what the theme is, what truth I'm trying to get across, until I'm part of the way into the story. But you probably have a theme. It's not necessarily something the reader will realize as soon as they read your book, which is good. We read fiction for entertainment. The gift we've been given as writers is the opportunity to weave themes into our stories that people absorb into their minds, whether they realize they're doing that or not.

So think of your story. What are you saying? What do you want to say? How can you work that into the plot, into the characters, in a way that's natural? How can you make your book something that will speak to people across geography, across age difference even?

I love theme stuff. I'm such an English nerd. =)

Comments: What are y'all's thoughts? Can you pick out the theme of the story you're working on? Maybe if you're feeling ambitious, also pick what you think is a theme from a current novel you've read lately and one from a favorite classic? Being able to do this with other people's stories will help you learn to make a theme shine through in yours.


  1. Good points! I wish we lived closer, we could talk writer stuff. :)

  2. I enjoyed this. As a former middle school teacher, I remember how every single kid I taught enjoyed The Outsiders. My students included mostly poor kids in gangs, kids on drugs or selling them, but also kids from stable homes. They all loved it. It's a special book that reaches all types of people for decades.
    Great post. It really got me thinking!

    1. I LOVE The Outsiders!!! I was looking at my bookshelf for ideas when I wrote that list, which is why I forgot that book (I think I loaned my copy to someone--what was I thinking?). I bet teaching that to such a different group of kids was fun!

  3. This is exactly what I'm struggling with at the moment in my current mansucript - what am I really trying to say? It's is a bit lighter than my first story, so I feel like I'm floating around looking for what the underlying theme really is...looking for stability. haha.