A theme is the essence and backbone of your story. Roughly speaking, the structure divides your story into the ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’. A plot comprises the elements of a story that go into making it better. Before you start writing your story, you must know what each of these means and how to use them. It will help you answer an important question.
Can you answer the question?
Each time I’ve had a new book published, one of the first questions people have asked me is, “What is your book about?” If I cannot tell you what my book is about, how can I expect anyone else to know what it’s about?’
As Laura Backes says, “I think with any story the key is to find the universal, timeless theme that will transcend culture. For example, sibling rivalry is something children of every country can relate to, and if the characters are appealing, and their conflicts are believable, the story will apply across the globe.”
A biography in three acts
Any story, however long, consists of three acts. In the previous article, Sara’s synopsis had three parts: the problem, the pivotal moment, and the resolution. In other words, the beginning, the middle, and the end. Similarly, your story should have these three acts to form a comprehensive plot.
The beginning introduces your story and creates the foundation upon which your story is built. In the case of a biography, this is where you’ll introduce the person who is the subject of the biography, set out the main event he is responsible for, explain what’s at stake and any conflicts (both internal and external) and establish the time period of your story.
The middle gives the reader a ‘breather’ and allows you to develop your theme. It could include expanding on the conflicts that the subject of the biography went through.
The end, of course, is the showdown and tying up loose ends in the story. If it’s a memoir you’re writing, the end is the perfect place to suggest that there could be more to this story and entice the reader to want to know more.
Losing the plot
There are several plots you can use to write your story. For instance, the most popular one is ‘the quest’. This means that the biographer finds that his world is turned upside down. He has to make things right, even though everyone is against him. In ‘the race’, there are several groups of rivals, but only one can win. This is usually the case when the book is about politicians. Similarly, in ‘the contest’, there is often a head-to-head confrontation between two powerful and equally matched opponents.
Once the theme, the three acts and the plot of your story are in place, you will have created a balanced story. This means that before you write the first word, you’ll have the confidence to know that it is already good enough. What you do from now on will only make it even better.
- Bell, James Scott. Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish) (Write Great Fiction). Writers Digest Books; 5th edition (October 6, 2004)
- Backes, Laura. Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read: 125 Books That Will Turn Any Child into a Lifelong Reader. Three Rivers Press (July 17, 2001)
Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
The theme that Sara chose was ‘Revenge’ and she was inspired by William Shakespeare’s words from ‘The Merchant of Venice’: ‘If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?’
How Do You Choose a Theme?
Choosing the theme for your story should never be something you rush. Take your time and consider the message you are trying to share with your readers. Try to make a personal connection with your reader by helping them to identify with your characters. Even if your tale has an unusual setting, there must be something in your story that makes it feel familiar. Here are some tips to help you choose a theme for your novel:
- Consider the keywords you’d like to use in your theme. They should be of emotional benefit to the kind of reader you’d like for your novel.
- Remember who your readers are. For instance, if you’re writing a story for children, using big words like ‘circumnavigate’ is likely to confuse them.
- Keep your theme as short as possible; it should be no more than 200 words long.
- Here are ten of the most common themes used in stories:
- Power corrupts even the most pure.
- There is light at the end of the tunnel.
- Opportunity seldom knocks twice.
- Love conquers all.
- No one is beyond redemption.
- Dreams always come true.
- Honesty is the best policy.
- Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
- When it rains, it pours.
- One man’s food is another man’s poison.
Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).