Word About Theme

Someone may ask you, "What is the theme of your story?" and chances are you won't know what to say.

"Come on," this person will persist, "every story has to have a theme."

Well, perhaps. It's true that in many effective stories the small, specific details of the characters, the setting, and the events that take place serve to illustrate some abstract concept or larger idea—the nature of justice, say, or the consequences of exploiting the environment, or the difference between romantic and parental love.

Sometimes the desire to explore a certain theme provides your initial idea, your story goal. But it may be that you will complete several drafts before you realize what the theme is. In fact, you can write a story that a reader will find compelling, insightful, and moving without being consciously aware of its theme at all. The theme emerges quietly as you pay attention to all the other details of your writing art and craft.

HOW LONG IS SHORT?

Ideally, a short story should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and no longer or shorter. In other words, use the number of words you need to tell the story in the most effective way.

Still, there are conventions. Once you get past 20,000 words or so, you are edging past the boundary of the short story into the realm of the novelette. Most magazines and anthologies prefer stories that have 5,000 words or fewer. Some publishers request short-short stories; what they mean by this term varies, but it tends to refer to narratives of no longer than 2,000 words.

In novels, word counts of 75,000 to 100,000 are typical and greater lengths are not uncommon; you have latitude to ramble, to take side roads and detours, to reminisce or digress or offer philosophical observations. You can span decades, even epochs as James Michener did in novels like Chesapeake and Hawaii. You can roam worldwide.

But precisely because they are short, short stories require a tighter focus. The illumination they offer is less like an overhead light and more like a flashlight's beam. Rather than recount its main character's life history, the short story usually concentrates on a single relationship, a significant incident, or a defining moment.

Finding a Story to Write

To begin writing a story you need an idea. That simple requirement stops many aspiring writers before they start.

Where do you get your ideas? This question has a reputation for being the one writers are most often asked, and the one some of them are most tired of hearing. I heard one writer huff: "It's as if people expect me to name a catalog where they can order up ideas—guaranteed to generate a good story or your money back."

But the question is worth pondering, all the more so because there are no pat answers. The idea is the spark that ignites the creative process, one of the most mysterious and fascinating of human endeavors.

Experienced writers have ideas all the time, which is why they may find the question perplexing and occasionally tedious. Coming up with ideas is easy; the problem is finding time to sit down and write.

The fact is, ideas are everywhere. The trick is to recognize them and grab them as they go by.

The problem, I think, is that people misunderstand the relationship between an idea and a story. An idea is anything that kick-starts your imagination with enough power to begin the story creation process. It's whatever catches hold of your mind long enough for you to think: "Hmmm. I wonder if there's a story in there someplace."

That's all a story idea is. One thing that blocks would-be writers is that they expect their initial idea to be larger than that, to give them more of the answers than it will. They believe the following analogy to be true:

An idea is to a writer as a seed is to a gardener.

In other words, they think that once a writer finds an idea, the story inevitably follows. The gardening analogy suggests that the idea, like a seed, holds a genetic blueprint for the story that predetermines the nature of its characters, plot, and setting, in the same way that a bulb contains the tulip or an acorn contains the future oak tree. Stick the idea in soil, sprinkle on a little water, and the story will spring up and blossom almost of its own accord.

That's a misperception. Here's a closer analogy: An idea is to a writer as flour is to a baker.

A story idea really functions more like the flour you use to make bread or pastry. It is the first ingredient, and an essential one. But you need to choose various other ingredients, blend them in, and bake them all together before you have a treat that's ready to serve.

A story is an aggregation of many ideas, large and small. Each idea contributes to and yet changes the final result, like ingredients combined in a recipe. As with baking, when you write a story a sort of chemical reaction takes place. The final product is something more than the sum of its ingredients. It becomes something entirely new, and the individual ingredients can no longer be separated out.

Your initial inspiration can lead you to any number of stories. What you add to the flour idea determines whether you end up creating chocolate cake or apple pie, sugar cookies or sourdough rolls.

SOURCES OF IDEAS

The flour idea for your story can be anything—a character, a situation or incident, an intriguing place, a theme you want to explore. When you're lucky, story ideas just pop into your head. These are little gifts from your subconscious, and we all have more of them than we realize. Usually they come while we are thinking about something else entirely or about nothing at all. For me they are often associated with water—ideas float into my mind when I'm swimming or taking a shower. It's a little game my subconscious mind plays with me, giving me ideas when I have no paper and pencil handy to write them down.

The flour idea for my short story Identity Crisis was this kind of brainflash: a single line of dialogue. In my mind's ear I heard a young woman ask another: "Do I look like a corpse to you?" All I had to do was figure out who the women were, what prompted the question, and what they were going to do about the answer. Writer Chris Rogers was nodding off to sleep one night when a dreamlike image drifted by: a shiny Jaguar in a used car lot filled with old junkers. What's that doing there, she wondered, and the story creation process began.

But you don't have to wait for your subconscious mind to feel generous. Conduct an active search for ideas—your everyday life is full of them. You can find them in the people you encounter, the places you go, the events you take part in or witness, the things that you read. A story might be sparked by the argument you have with a coworker, the memory of that embarrassing moment at your senior prom, your mother's recollection of her eccentric Uncle Harry, a snatch of conversation you overhear from the next booth in the coffee shop, a magazine article that makes you wonder, "Why would people behave like that?"

We are not all writers, but most of us are storytellers. We relate stories constantly: the funny thing that happened at school today, the time when we went camping and got lost in the mountains. Listen to the incidents you hear yourself describing over and over, the episodes that have become part of your history, the ones that leave your friends rolling their eyes and saying, "Oh no, not this story again." If a tale engages you so much that you repeat it to all your new acquaintances, then there might well be a good short story there.

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