Tagged with "theme"
Where to Begin Tags: writing fiction character-driven plot-driven theme

Where to Begin

I’m currently doing the free Start Writing Fiction course with Future Learn. You can still join but you’ll have some catching up to do. For me, it’s the second time around. The course might be for beginners but I’m aware of my shortcomings. One of them is where to start. Character-driven stories and the use of a notebook highlight this course. The suggestions and on-hand exercises are helpful and motivating, especially if you’re muse is on holiday.

Most of us have probably gone out on the street or sat in a café, noting small details of people around us: their clothing, gestures, physical features, the way they move or communicate with others. I like to pick out anything unusual and exaggerate it or give it a twist. A fictional character starts evolving. Pictures in magazines and newspapers can inspire too.  I’m off to a film festival this week so shall be on the look-out for how character is portrayed by actions, facial expressions and dialogue.

As part of my character-building study, I walked around my local market today where the usual fruit and veg, clothing, household bargains and ‘craftwork’ – usually mass-produced in China – are sold. It’s the sort of place you’ll find a cross-section of society, intent on browsing, thus easy to watch undisturbed. Many are more interesting than the goods.

An impatient husband frowned and fidgeted as his wife fingered every dress on show. This struck me as a bit of a stereotype so I moved on. At the next stall, a young couple rifled through a rack of linen dresses. The man pulled out a crimson one to suggest to his partner. This was more interesting. I listened to snippets of their whispered conversation, whilst I hid being a row of jackets and noted the young man’s charm, his engagement with her, his swarthy skin, bohemian clothes. I later built on this description to use in an exercise in my Future Learn course. Something about him triggered my imagination and a character started to form. What was their relationship? Was there a possible story here?

Recently, I visited the International Photojournalist Exhibition in Perpignan and was inspired by the words and photographs telling the story of an Afghan refugee. I won’t be using this for a novel – he should – but I plan on editing a flash piece I already began, which was inspired by both character and theme. Hopefully, a fascinating character leads to a strong plot. Admittedly, more important in a longer piece.

So where do your story ideas come from? Do you start with character, theme or plot? Or are you clever enough to have all three in place from the word go?

Focusing on Theme Tags: writing fiction poetry non-fiction theme

Focusing on Theme

Since inspiration and fresh ideas seem to have flown off on holiday together – hopefully, only for a short break – I’ve been digging into the archives of my short stories. Some of them are unfinished, or finished but unpolished. Others have been unsuccessful in competitions. Rather too many! Reading over them, what struck me most was their lack of a clear theme. 

As a reader, when a story grabs me it’s because it leaves me pondering afterwards. I may have learned something that I hadn’t thought much about before, or at least can relate to. A strong theme is what makes the story memorable. I think I’m safe in saying poetry depends on theme too – poets will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong. Even non-fiction, in some cases, has a theme. In a novel, more than one theme is possible, and just as important. For me, anyway.

So what’s the best way to go about it as a writer? Let’s fast forward, as I’ve taken the easy way out via my best friend Google to find out what other writers thought.

Some thought it best to start with characters and plot and a theme would emerge organically. Lucky them. Preconceived themes often seem contrived. Stephen King apparently agrees. Certainly looking at one story I wrote, I saw that by choosing the theme first I had made it sound a bit preachy. Others say that theme has become a lost art in fiction, sometimes considered old-fashioned.

Other writers didn’t care about theme at all, preferring to just stick to plot-driven action. Of course, all our tastes are different. Thankfully. I can understand that the world-building qualities of science fiction might be as satisfying as theme, but I’ll leave opinion to the experts in that genre (you know who you are!)  

An Australian academic site suggested a theme was of great importance, but that it shoud be 'underlying’ and ‘subtle’ and then went on to explain how to develop this. As you’d expect, showing not telling came into play. At the same time, it did suggest beginning with a theme, although perhaps this was aimed more at novel writing.

Personally, I think a theme is important. What do you think? And how do you approach it?


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