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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Theme Trials

   
Author Topic: Theme Trials
extrinsic
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I'm working on a project for the main intent of developing a working facility with theme and its attributes. Despite every comment from my writing mentors admonishing me against using theme to access the literal and figurative meanings of a project, and not a few others from my writing community, I see theme's appreciable significance for planning, drafting, and reworking a project. Theme in Gustav Freytag's lexicon is law, the connective tissue, the glue that brings disparate aspects into cohesion.

I'm aware here at Hatrack of many writers preferring intuitive writing, at least for drafting. Whether planned or intuitive writing prevails is not my question. My questions are how cognizant are you of theme when you live your everyday existence? When you read? Or do you consider theme after finishing your day? Or after reading? Or are you oblivious and indifferent to theme in the main? How about for writing; during planning, drafting, or reworking?

[ August 05, 2012, 04:19 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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I'll be glad to respond to your question, but first I think you should give a one or two sentence definition of what you mean by "theme" so we don't end up talking past each other.
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extrinsic
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Theme in a literal connotation "is a subject or topic of a discourse or artistic representation" (Webster's). According to Ayn Rand's Lexicon, theme is the summation of a narrative's abstract meaning (or a figurative connotation), though Rand says "novel" instead of "narrative." For me, particularly regarding an expression sense, theme is the accessible underpinnings of a group of circumstances that ties its parts into parcels.

For example, a party where Mexican food, beverages, decorations, music, and apparel motifs are in attendance, the overall theme might be celebrating Cinco de Mayo. That's a literal meaning. For a figurative meaning, perhaps the theme is also related to an attitude toward Mexican culture: approving or disapproving or neutral. Other motifs would signal which, like the prevalent culture's overlapping biases regarding Mexican culture.

In the end, the party might just be an excuse for a social event, which itself potentially has a figurative meaning. At the drop of a hat, for any occasion, the host throws a party. Maybe the host has an ulterior motive or subconsious need for social connections, and so on.

[ August 05, 2012, 04:37 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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skadder
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Wouldn't the theme depend on the pov of the person experiencing the party (real-life)? I usually look at the theme of a story after writing it, and see what has developed and then strengthen it--often re-working the ending to fit.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by skadder:
Wouldn't the theme depend on the pov of the person experiencing the party (real-life)?

Viewpoint certainly, attitude certainly. Narrative point of view as I understand it has broader ramifications. An observer, an object persona, perhaps a narrator or a character participating in the action, might project attitude onto the actions of subject characters. Influence characters can be object as well as subject characters. Exquisite when an object persona plays at times by turns subject and influence character roles.

In other words, there are many narrative point of view and viewpoint roles which may thematically anchor a narrative. Who is the object persona often goes strongly toward revealing theme from holding the strongest attitude. Is a piñata motif portrayed negatively or positively by an object persona? for example. Maybe a subject character perceives the piñata as one or the other or neutral and doing so leads to a clash with an influence character. In that case, the stronger attitude holder might be either the influence character or subject character instead of the object persona. From viewpoint and attitude motifs, perhaps from symbolism, imagery, or diction, or combinations or all at once, a theme emerges.

[ August 05, 2012, 05:04 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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History
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Nearly always.
A story without theme is without soul.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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MattLeo
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Well, now I'm ready to tackle your questions:

quote:
how cognizant are you of theme when you live your everyday existence?
Dr. Bob will tell you that in Jewish law a man cannot be convicted of a capital crime by an unanimous sanhedrin. There must be at least one vote to acquit. The reason is that real evidence is never so perfect it will convince *everyone*. If you can't get at least one Jew (out of twenty-three) to disagree, something's rotten. I try to apply this wisdom to generalizations I make about human nature in general or individual character in particular.

Truth is much harder to prize from the details of everyday life than it is to simulate on the printed page. Our knowledge of real circumstances is never so complete or incontrovertible as our knowledge of a fictional world we've created. When we ignore that, then what we think are ideas about the real world are really just fiction. The things we are most sure of are those we should have the most distrust of, at least when those ideas have the potential to do harm.

quote:
When you read?
In my opinion, no story can make a good case of an idea unless that story is worth reading more than once. Therefore I read a story the first time through to get the maximum possible pleasure. I hold the critical reading for the second pass through. That said, I'm not a total blockhead, so after my first hedonistic pass through a story I'll usually have some idea of some themes it might entail. Each kind of reading -- just plain fun reading and critical reading -- has its pleasures.

quote:
How about for writing; during planning, drafting, or reworking?
I think starting from an intended theme is a bad idea, unless you are a writer of uncommon honesty and diligence. It's important to be honest in writing fiction, which I define this way: honest fiction is as internally consistent as the author can make it, and doesn't hide things from readers that they ought to know. This last bit is the failing of most polemic fiction.

Suppose I decided to write a story whose theme was "fascists are idiots". Nothing would be easier, but the problem is my story would inevitably make a weak case. I've only demonsrated that fascists are idiots in my fictional world *which I've conceived precisely to make that point*. Furthermore I'd inevitably have given short shrift to information that does my thesis no good, e.g. individual fascists who were competent and intelligent in areas of their life other than political thinking.

So I start with story ideas; particularly situations or conflicts that seem to promise ironic humor. As I try to craft an honest story, themes emerge -- they have to if you try to be honest. What is more, writing this way is thinking. It doesn't just regurgitate old ideas, it leads you to ones you haven't had yet.

For example the idea for my story *The Wonderful Instrument* was to tell a Ruritanian romance set in the 1930s. The 1930s were the golden era of political humbug; when men like Mussolini and Stalin were taken seriously as benefactors of mankind. As I worked on the story a fascism related theme emerged: *fascists are romantics*.

Does my story *prove* that fascists are romantics? Of course not. No fictional story can prove anything. What it does is it raises a possibility worth considering, which can be tested with *historical* data, which is the only way to test the truth of a historical idea.

[ August 05, 2012, 08:41 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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extrinsic
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If starting from an intended theme is bad, why then do a significant fraction of narratives open with a thematic recital? Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions to name a couple widely-known novels with theme emphasis openings. Jerome Stern, a poetics writer I respect, places theme openings as a useful way to access meaning and intent both during all phases of writing and for readers.

Sure, theme openings are a smaller fraction than plot, character, setting, or event emphasis openings, perhaps about equal to discourse emphasis openings. Maybe more writers start from a theme but discard a theme opening as pump priming or scaffolding used to access the main action's structure and aesthetics. Maybe that's why summary recital or explanation backstory prologues have lost favor. Mismanaged mischief.

But at some point, I strongly believe a theme approach is essential, if not for planning or drafting, certainly for reworking

What about everyday life? The general theme of my day today has been different than I wished, but on par for what I have to do. I don't get to rework my day, so some preplanning is necessary. My life theme, as my life progresses, I do come across opportunities to rework. A reworking phase is in progress at the moments of this span of a few years.

As far as reading is concerned, studying literature has given me a facility for interpreting themes as I move through most narratives. In some cases, I'm delighted; in some cases, I'm disappointed. Rarely am I inspired anymore. Narratives that do inspire me, exquisite. Theme is all the difference. I'll reread an especially rich narrative multiple times to test out my understanding and to dig deeper into thematic techniques used to express meaning. Connecting every motif up to a central theme gives me confidence I've validly interpreted a narrative.

Odd common idioms that've bothered me for years finally fell to determined thematic approach processes. For example, "Salao" from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, from literature. "Pale face" and "speaks with forked tongue" from cinema. "Four-eyes" from school yard bullies. "A picture is worth a thousand words," from many walks of life, "Cut to the chase," "Out of sorts," "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Net value/cost benefit increases. Reading is a far richer experience anymore, only reading for quantity and quality don't hold up. I don't read a novel or more per day anymore, which I did for twenty-one years. I'm on track this year for about a hundred books, fiction and creative nonfiction, and countless shorter works at varying stages of development.

Theme, as History noted, is the soul of expression, and its underrealized development is an all too common shortcoming.

[ August 06, 2012, 10:51 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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wetwilly
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I think the reasons for the common idea among writers that writing with a theme in mind is bad is, first, Stephen King said it, and he's sold 400 Billion books, and secondly, because when we are focused on trying to communicate the theme, we often lose focus on things like plot, pacing, characterization, and consistency. In other words, we focus less on telling a good story that people will enjoy, and more on preaching our theme.

My guess is (and it is only a guess, since I was not present for the writing of any of the books you mentioned) that the author did not start writing with the goal of communicating their themes. Just because it's the beginning of the finished novel doesn't mean it was the beginning of the writing process. Perhaps they got through their first drafts and realized they had a particular theme emerging, and decided to write an opening that emphasized that theme.

I don't think theme is, by any means, a bad thing in a novel. In fact, if theme is basically defined as "what the author is really talking about," then every story probably has one, even if the author specifically tries not to, because every author some fundamental world views and opinions about how things work in the universe, and those are going to be reflected in the story. I think, for most authors, concentrating on theme during an early draft is probably a bad idea because plot, character, etc. are likely to suffer in service of the all-important theme. Once I have the story part of the story nailed down, then I may look at what themes are emerging and look at how I can emphasize them, make them clearer, make them appear more often, etc. Or, I may take more conscious control over my story and think about what theme I want the story to have that may not be emerging after my early drafts, and revise to add my desired theme in.

On the other hand, great books have been written that clearly had a specific theme as the goal from the beginning. A Christmas Carol (or really anything by Dickens) clearly has a theme that supersedes any other aspect of the book in importance, and is the entire point of the book being written. Or Grapes of Wrath. Or To Kill a Mockingbird. All of these are, in my opinion, great books, and all of them elevate theme to the highest level of importance in the story.

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extrinsic
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What about writers who explore a theme to uncover personal meaning? An individual and society, alienation, for example, is a central theme of The Old Man and the Sea. Other central themes include an individual and nature, though the nature on the literal surface is at a remove from the figurative depths, and spiritual and other cultural themes, and Hemingway's recurring theme of manhood cult rituals.

Whether Hemingway planned the final thematic unity is open to interpretation. I think the way all the motifs connect leaves little doubt he planned the result. I also believe he uncovered the meaning of his life at the age he was at the time.

[ August 06, 2012, 10:37 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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wetwilly
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Although I would argue that is one where the story suffered at the hands of the heavy-handed theme.

But I'm not a fan of Hemigway in general.

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Robert Nowall
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My notion is that I can put the theme of the story into a single sentence...though usually that doesn't come until sometime in the plotting and writing.

I say "can" when I shoulc say I "oughtta be able to"---there's usually some flaw between theory and execution...

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by wetwilly:
Although I would argue that is one where the story suffered at the hands of the heavy-handed theme.

But I'm not a fan of Hemigway in general.

Maybe Hemingway is less up-to-date and less relevant than he once was. Anyway, part of the challenge of reading Hemingway is he wrote material accessible by narrow audience niches. The Old Man and the Sea is decidely late adult, though partly accessible by younger audiences when they find rapport with an old fisherman swinging for the fence. I first read the novella when I was eleven. One of my nephews read it in seventh grade on his own because of his fascination with deep sea fishing and a ready rapport with his grandfather who takes him deep sea fishing.

[ August 06, 2012, 10:23 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MAP
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Every book has a theme, some are more shallow than others. I do enjoy a book that makes me stop and think, that shows me a different perspective on life. Those books can be very powerful.

But I do enjoy books with more simplistic themes too. They are more fun and require less thinking but are easy fun reads. There is nothing wrong with that either, IMO. It sounds like these types of books don't appeal to you. To each their own.

In writing, I don't think I have a big important book in me. I just don't think I have a philosophy or world view that is unique enough. So I don't try to work in a deep meaningful theme into my stories. There are these stories that I want to tell, and I'm sure that there is a theme somewhere in there, but the theme isn't my main goal, so I don't worry about it.

I think Stephen King's advice of not worrying about theme in the first draft is good advice in general. I think few writers have the skill needed to focus on theme from the begining and not have it come off as heavy handed. I think it is best for most writers to let their subconcious work through the theme, and maybe bring it more to the front in revisions if the story calls for it.

But every writer is different, and I'm sure some writers start with theme and do a brilliant job at it. So if theme is what is most important to you, I think you should start with it and see what happenes. Take whatever you are most passionate about the story and start there.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
If starting from an intended theme is bad, why then do a significant fraction of narratives open with a thematic recital?

Because the opening of a story tells you nothing about how a story germinated in the writer's mind. That opening recital might well have been the very last thing written.

In any case, I said that setting out to build a story around a theme is a bad idea *for most writers*. I just don't think most writers can manage both storytelling and disquisition simultaneously without producing dull, polemical gibberish. I will make an exception for Jane Austen, although we probably don't know enough about her writing process to cite her one way or the other on this.

By the way, I don't agree that the theme as you define it [note 1] of Pride and Predjudice is stated in the opening: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." The narrator is in fact being rather condescending to the presumably shallow and meddlesome people who think that way. The theme of Pride and Prejudice might well be stated as: "Don't trust first impressions."

quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Maybe more writers start from a theme but discard a theme opening as pump priming or scaffolding used to access the main action's structure and aesthetics.

If you set out to illustrate a theme and achieve a compelling result, good for you. If you set out to illustrate a theme then opportunistically abandon it in favor of another theme, then good for you too. If you set out to illustrate a theme and produce a catechism that would only appeal to the more fervent believers in the choir, you haven't accomplished much.

quote:
Maybe that's why summary recital or explanation backstory prologues have lost favor. Mismanaged mischief.


I think that what happened was a move in taste away from the Victorian mania for heavy-handed moral instruction in literature. Lewis Carroll mocked that with *You Are Old, Father William* and *How Doth the Busy Crocodile*, both spoofs of poems that were sentimental favorites in 1865 but are now almost entirely forgotten.

quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
But at some point, I strongly believe a theme approach is essential, if not for planning or drafting, certainly for reworking

I mainly agree, only I wouldn't be so categorical in stating that any particular approach is *essential*. What is essential is to provide something of value to the reader, and within that scope I include sheer entertainment.

I also think that talking about a "theme approach" incorrectly presumes there's only one way to develop or treat themes. For example a work does not have to argue *for* a theme to treat that theme. You can argue for a theme and it's negation *at the same time* -- in effect posing a question for the reader to ponder. This is often worth doing when you notice a potential reading that you didn't intend. You can either try to undermine that reading, or amplify it, or (as I am suggesting) undermine and amplify it at the same time.


Note 1: What you are calling "theme" is what I call "thesis" -- what the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines as "the abstract doctrinal content; the proposition for which it [a literary work] argues." When I say "theme" I mean an idea that may arise in the work any number of times, like a motif only abstract. A worm in a rose is a motif that suggests the theme of spoiled innocence in love. This might be intended to support a thesis, like "girls are wonderful, but women are stinkers."

I'd say that a thesis is a *kind of* theme; one that is the doctrinal point to which the entire work is intended to lead the reader. I think stories need themes, but they don't necessarily need theses.

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MartinV
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I must confess theme is something I don't explicitly think about. Plot, setting yes, but not theme.
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mayflower988
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I've heard that you should tell the story first, and then later on in the writing process the theme will naturally make itself apparent. I like the idea of just focusing on the story you want to tell, to begin with. The theme is more of an effect of the story.
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extrinsic
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Thesis, claim, argumentation, declamation, hypothesis, theory, inquiry, deliberation, or eideictic discourse, structurally, all follow several basic and similar organizing principles, and, more importantly, serve a single, identical purpose, persuading others' responses to a discourse: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, vocational, or recreational responses. Theme's place among the various discourses speaks from expression and motif, to message, and perhaps to moral.

One significant difference between the discourse varieties, depending on composition metagenre, is whether a literal discourse's proof is required for persuading a response, whether a literal discourse's persuasive argument causes a response, or whether a figurative discourse's abstract persuasion causes a response. The former two are appropos of persuasive argumentation: scientific, social, vocational, academic, political, and scholarly discourses, where theme speaks to organization as well as personalizing an otherwise impersonal discourse. The latter of creative discourses, where theme speaks to organization as well as deep personalization of personal discourses.

Theme's central place among the latter, besides unifying, which is common to all discourse, is within that ever elusive message purpose. Meanwhile, as much as humanly possible, avoiding projecting a message which preaches to, lectures to, or imposes an unnecessarily disruptive burden on an audience.

Anyway, this discourse thus far has been remarkably open-minded. Delightful. My appreciation for theme's place in the scheme of discourse has grown as a consequence. Talking it out and think-tank brainstorming it has given me a glimpse into a path forward for the project, and projects, before me. Notably, how to approach those projects with a narrowed theme in mind, yet open to reworking as influential circumstances arise.

Thanks, all right, and junk, you know.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by History:
Nearly always.
A story without theme is without soul.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

If living a life is a story, and living is certainly a discourse, a primary or first discourse, and writing about a life in whatever manner a writer chooses is a secondary discourse; that, above, is a deeply meaningful and profound truth.
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wise
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Great thread idea, extrinsic!

I like to simplify the definition of a theme as the "big picture" idea. It's the purpose for writing what I write. If I don't have a message, then why am I writing (and why would someone care about what I wrote)? Although I appreciate fine characterizations, descriptive settings, and plot twists, these are just the means to the end - communicating my theme(s).

My novel has definite themes. I began with an idea, but then quickly had to develop my themes, or else how could I develop my plot? I had to know what lesson I wanted my story to tell before I could tell it. As I write my novel I ask myself if the scene I just wrote supports my theme(s). If not, I rework it. My job as an author is to lead my reader down a path (hopefully done artfully and subtly). If I don't know where that path leads, I'm not going to get the reader to the final destination.

Novels should always have big themes, but short stories can sometimes "get away" with just a surprise or a laugh or a scary moment. The longer the story, the more developed the theme should be.

As to everyday life, I love to assign themes to news events. I'm a "big picture" person. I like to make connections between events to try to make sense of them. I like to read letters to the editors in magazines and newspapers to get a sense of the themes other people have garnered from an event or situation.

I also love to establish themes when I read. My favorite theme is "one individual can make a difference". So some of my favorite books are great examples of this, like "This Perfect Day" by Ira Levin. You can imagine that a book like "1984" by George Orwell frustrates the heck out of me because the individual made absolutely no difference at all in that world.

Theme is big for me. An author has to pay close attention to it, in my opinion.

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extrinsic
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Great, wise, a fellow thematist.

Theme, yes, is as much about motif and message as an oceania is about archipelagos and seas.

I'm curious, though, is meaningfully connecting with an audience as crucial for you as spreading a message? That "one person can make a difference" theme and that Nineteen Eight-four is fraught with message veiled by drama suggests to me audience rapport and discourse is important to you.

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wise
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"...is meaningfully connecting with an audience as crucial for you as spreading a message?"

Yes.

The message is important, but when I read fiction I also expect to be entertained. I don't read nonfiction much because the theme is so pre-established and overt that I'd rather not bother with the details unless it's a topic that particularly interests me. Fiction, on the other hand, is also a form of entertainment, so I do enjoy a well-crafted tale. And though I may be uncomfortable with a certain theme (as in 1984), I still appreciate the journey if the author is talented. I only hope that I can accomplish this myself. Time will tell!

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MattLeo
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quote:
Meanwhile, as much as humanly possible, avoiding projecting a message which preaches to, lectures to, or imposes an unnecessarily disruptive burden on an audience.
You hit the problem nail right on the head here. Whether or not you recite the theme, it's not possible to force an idea on a reader. You have to lead it to him so it feels like his own.

I'd just add that if you write honestly, if you really work a story so everything makes sense to you without cutting corners, an overarching thematic idea almost has to emerge. You can then rework the manuscript to enhance the theme, but you're a long way down the road to demonstrating that theme persuasively. This approach also leads you to new ideas.

If you can start from theme and work it out persuasively, that's good too, but it requires a rare gift for self-critique to notice when your argument is weak.

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extrinsic
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"Cutting corners" I've been thinking about that. Shorthand writing, shortcut writing is a common shortcoming arising from drafting's rush and not fully realizing a scene or a narrative whole's dramatic intents.

Related to willing suspension of disbelief, secondary or proxy-reality settings, and participation mystique meaning spaces, fully realizing a scene, etc.'s, dramatic import is often handicapped by shorthand, shortcut recitals.

One of prose style's principles is on point: Spell it out. Spell the scene out.

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wetwilly
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I have abandoned stories (well, a story) because I decided I hated where the theme was going ("extreme violence is fun and cathartic"). I'd hate that to be my breakthrough novel, and then I achieve my writing career goals by making the world a worse place because I put that book in it. It's a shame, because I was really having fun with the character and the plot, but that's probably just another reason why it was best to abandon that one.
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