If you’re new to “YA on Saturday,” click here to read the first post, or here to read the second post. The first step of “Summer’s Ultimate Novel” (SUN) was to get a five-subject notebook and start listing ideas. The second step involved choosing the right idea for your novel.
Hopefully you had a productive week of brainstorming and now have an idea to work with! Today I’ll discuss the third step of SUN—deciding on a theme.
What is a theme? In the book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, Donald Maass says, “Themes can be motifs, recurring patterns, outlooks, messages, morals—any number of deliberate elements that make your manuscript more than just a story.”
I won’t get very technical about themes; I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for I’d do a terrible job of explaining. Let’s try to approach this as simply as possible. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. What is my story about?
2. What is the point of my story (the reason I’m writing it)?
3. What moral or message do I want readers to get from my story?
Need examples? Okay, I’ll pretend to be J. K. Rowling (oh, I like this daydream). My story is about an eleven-year-old boy who finds out he’s a wizard. I’m writing this story so children can strive toward their own destinies and hope to someday make a difference. The moral is that love conquers all.
Obviously I’m just guessing at these answers; but you get my drift, right? You may know what your story is about … but can you also answer questions two and three? Why is your story important? What do you hope to convey to your audience? Romances, mysteries, and fantasies make good stories—but what’s the underlying message that makes your story great?
We all have opinions and ideals about the world, things we believe in. I care about religion and conserving nature, and those themes tend to pop up in my stories. That doesn’t mean I preach to my readers or beat them over the head with my beliefs (at least, I hope not!). Themes in a story should be subtle, not spelled out. Think of a parable—the story is the obvious part we hear, but we can find a moral if we search for it. Maass advises, “To keep your theme from feeling heavy-handed and obvious, allow it to emerge not from your own heart but from your protagonist’s problems.”
If you already know your theme, congratulations! If not, don’t panic—you have all week to think about it. By the way, all this is subject to change later on! You may think you have a theme now; but while writing, a different theme may occur to you. That’s perfectly okay. You just need some type of theme in mind by the time you finish the book. After all, writing a novel is too hard not to have a goal or purpose to work toward. The best novels are the ones that challenge the way we think … and maybe change our lives forever.
Okay, we need to work on one more thing today: a one-line plot synopsis. Tell me in one sentence what your novel is about. Sound impossible? It’s not, I promise. Difficult? Sometimes.
You may wonder, “If I could tell my story in one sentence, why would I spend countless hours writing thousands of words?” Good question. But the hard truth is—you need to boil the essence of your novel down to one line. Once people know you wrote a book, they’ll forever ask you, “What’s your book about?” And you’ll need a short, concise answer. People’s attention spans get shorter all the time, so you have to hook them immediately. If you ever meet an agent in an elevator, you’ll use this one-liner to pitch your story idea. If the agent is intrigued, he/she will ask to read a partial or full manuscript. The one-line hook markets your book and sells it.
Need examples of a one-line synopsis? Check out the blurbs used for the New York Times bestseller lists. I especially like the one for Suzanne Collin’s THE HUNGER GAMES: In a dystopian future, a girl fights for survival on live TV. How cool is that?! If I hadn’t already read it, I’d be hooked!
Notice how short that blurb is, and yet it dives right to the heart of the book. It’s also very vague, which is necessary to keep it short. Do not use character names, town names, or other such details. The blurb has to combine the big picture (reality TV in dystopian future) with the personal picture (girl fights for survival). We have to know what is at stake for the main character. What does she want to win … and what might she lose? From the blurb, we know that if the girl doesn’t win the TV show, she’ll lose her life. Wow, those are high stakes.
Don’t worry if your blurb lacks a life or death situation. Each book is different! Just show what’s at stake for your character. Maybe your favorite part of THE HUNGER GAMES wasn’t the fight for survival; maybe you enjoyed the love triangle the most. But a one-liner has no room for secondary plots—choose the most important plot thread and emphasize it.
You’ll probably rewrite this hook many times before and after finishing the book, and that’s fine. But I want you to write a one-line plot synopsis this week. Why? It forces you to look at the big picture for your novel—which ties in to your theme and the reason you’re writing this book in the first place. It’s all about motivation!
Anyone brave enough to share their one-liners?? I’d LOVE to read some. I offer praise and constructive criticism in equal measures. Leave me a comment or send me an email, and I’ll give you my honest opinion!
In summary, think about your theme and one-line plot synopsis this week. Next Saturday, we’ll take that one line and stretch it into a paragraph representing the three acts of your novel. Let me know if you have questions! Have a great week—hopefully the last week of school for most of you? 🙂