Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Dilemmas

If you believe Alan Watts, author of The 90-Day Novel, dilemma is the driving force of any story. But what does that actually mean?

Dilemma is a rhetorical device (the use of language to create effect or meaning) in which the character has to choose between two options, both equally as feasible, with one positioned as the ‘right’ or ‘positive’ choice and the other as the ‘wrong’ or ‘negative’ choice. It’s often the choice between what the character wants and what the character believes (wrongly) to be true.

An example might be:

I want to be true to myself, but I don’t want to disappoint my family.

The desire here is to be true to one’s self, the false belief is that, by being true to yourself, you’ll disappoint your family or lose their love.

Another example:

I want to travel the world, but I don’t want to miss out on what’s happening at home.

Again, the desire is the ‘I want…” statement and the false belief is the ‘But…’ statement.

Elfo and Luci represent Bean’s dilemma between good and evil

For the two novels I’m currently working on, my protagonists’s dilemmas were (for Maggie) “I want to honour my own needs, but I don’t want to let my family down’ and (for Stuart) “I want to be invulnerable so I can’t be hurt” (the desire is to be invulnerable/strong and the false belief is that being vulnerable leads only to pain).

A key point that Watts makes is that a dilemma can’t be solved (unlike a problem). The dilemma is resolved, it’s brought to a conclusion over the course of the story, but there are multiple ways in which the character can achieve this, and it might not be in the way they initially wanted. Thinking in terms of dilemmas brings depth to your work, because there is no clear right or wrong and what one character decides is right for them, another character might never even have considered (which is pretty true of life).

Let’s look at a recent (ish) movie, Disney’s Moana.

Moana’s problem is clear – her world is being killed by the Darkness and it must be stopped. But her dilemma is more complicated and interesting. She wants to follow her heart and leave her island, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her father and abandon her duties to her people. (Desire – to follow her heart, False Belief – that she must be an obedient daughter in order to serve her people) Ultimately, Moana resolves this dilemma by following her heart and bringing a new age of exploration and prosperity to her people.

The idea of a dilemma in literature isn’t new, but, although I haven’t read his book, I like the way Watt explains it.

I feel that thinking in terms of dilemma is adding a new depth to my work, and a different way of framing my work, outside of a problem that must be solved. What do you think? Have thought about your characters’s dilemma before? Is it useful in your work?

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

No is an Important Word

My brother once lent me a great book, a non-fiction account of a man who decided to stop saying no. After I read it he asked me what I thought and I said it was interesting but, “…my problem isn’t so much saying yes, it’s saying no.”

I’m not good at saying no to people. It’s actually one of the reasons I ended up in teaching. Teaching is a great job and teachers genuinely have the power to change lives, but I NEVER wanted to be a teacher. I loved the kids I taught and I enjoyed working with passionate, knowledgeable people, but I got into teaching because *checks over shoulder and whispers* my mum really pushed it. Don’t tell.

I’m still not good at saying no and in many ways it’s worse now, because now essentially I’m self-employed. Every time I say ‘yes’, I’m saying ‘no’ to writing time. And so are you.

Given that I’m SO bad at saying no, what can I offer you on the topic. Well, I can at least share what I’ve learnt so far and what I’m working on. And hey, maybe you could give me some tips in return? Deal?

Say no to house work (and other chores)

Now, bare with me. We all have chores. You may think that once you’re an adult you’ll have more freedom over your chores but, if you live with someone else, there’s always outside pressure to do things around or for your household. What I’m saying really is, set aside time to write and then say no to chores. If you write between nine and ten thirty, don’t stop to hang out the washing. It will wait. The muse may not.

Say no to fun

Do you want to go to a movie? No. Do you want to grab a coffee? No. Do you want to go fishing? No. Not unless you’ve met your word-count/writing time/deadline. If you struggle with this, think of it as rescheduling, rather than refusing – “Sorry, I’m flat out this week, but how about we grab a drink next Friday night?”

Say no to being a martyr

They say the thing you dislike most in others, is the thing you dislike in yourself. I dislike martyrdom – I’m also a guilty of it. I will take on more than I can handle or jobs I don’t want to take on, then complain and agonise over it. Yeah, it’s a personality flaw. Don’t be like me.

Only you know what you can and cannot do, or what you want or do not want to do. If someone asks you to do something and you agree, you only have yourself to blame. If you didn’t finish your manuscript because you agreed to walk your neighbors’ dog every morning, don’t bitch to them (or about them), it’s on you.

Do as I say, not as I do

God, I wish I could say I was all over this but I’m not (particularly the third point). But saying no, setting boundaries, putting your writing first is important. It allows you to take your writing from a hobby, to a career. If that’s what you want to do, then you (and I) need to get comfortable with no.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Themes

Theme is the underlying idea behind your story.

When I had my first crack at writing a novel, I had no idea about theme (in fact, I had no idea about a lot of things – both writing related and other). When I started on my second novel, I still had no idea about theme but certain constants were starting to show. My third novel – now I actually knew what theme was but I didn’t know why it was important. Novel number four and I was finally getting a grasp of theme, and for novel number five (which is waiting for me to reread it) I had theme in mind right at the beginning.

Good for you. What is theme?

Theme is the underlying, invisible driving force of a story. It’s what your English and Lit teachers use to construct essay questions. It’s the central, universal, question that you’re hoping to tackle through your story.

Let’s look at the themes of a few well known stories.

Sing – The theme is being true to your authentic self. We see this in how the significant characters, but particularly Buster Moon, change over the course of the movie. In the beginning Buster is focused on getting enough money to save his theater and he is willing to do anything to do this. In the end Buster has rediscovered his love theater, finding the magic in the performance and not the financial gain.

Cinderella – The theme is good things come to good people. Cinderella is good, patient and kind-hearted, despite the treatment of her step-family. Because of this she is helped by her fairy godmother and ultimately marries the prince and lives happily ever after (not a moral for modern times but remember that this story is hundreds of years old).

Harry Potter – The theme is love is more powerful than hate. Harry is the embodiment of love – literally saved by his mother powerful maternal love – and Voldemort is the embodiment of hate – a fascist who uses fear to incite hatred and hatred to incite violence.

So, why is theme important?

Theme is invisible but that doesn’t make it unimportant. The foundations of a building are also invisible, but you wouldn’t want to live in a house without them (unless you’re Steve and live in Minecraft – in which case it seems to be fine). Theme is what makes your story resonate with the reader long after the book has been put down. It’s the ‘so what?’ that makes your story worth reading.

If Harry Potter was just about a boy who finds out he was a wizard, it would still be an interesting read but I’d like to argue it wouldn’t be the worldwide success it has been. It’s that underlying theme of the struggle between love and hate and good and evil that makes it resonate with people, young and old, male and female, world-wide.

What makes a good theme?

A good theme is universal. It should resonate with you but not so specifically that it doesn’t resonate with others.

Bad theme: Why does my boyfriend not want to get married?

Good theme: Is it possible for a relationship to last, if both people want different things?

You should be able to convey the theme of your story in a sentence or two.

Theme: There will always be a struggle between good and evil. (Star Wars)

A theme is not dependent on the characters or plot. The same theme can apply to many different stories, across genres.

Theme: We are stronger together than apart – A Bug’s Life, Cars, Lord of the Rings, Little Women.

How do you know what your theme is?

For me, theme is what drew me to write the story in the first place. The theme of the book I’m currently working on, about Maggie and her sister with anorexia, is is there any limit to how much we can, or should, sacrifice for the people we love. The inspiration for the book came from an article I read about a family in which the youngest child had been diagnosed with anorexia (she was about seven). To find treatment for her, the mother and daughter had to go to Sydney and the mother was away from her teenage son for several weeks. I wondered about what else this boy would be expected sacrifice, and was there a point where a line would have be drawn.

Some other authors say that they don’t know the theme of their story until much later, even several drafts in. Others say it’s the first thing they know. If you don’t think you know the theme of your current work, read through it again. What ideas are coming up again and again? Do they resonate with you? And, would they resonate with others.

At some point you will want to know the theme of your work because everything else, your characters, their goals and motivations, will have to reflect the theme in some way.

What’s your take on theme? Have you thought about it much? When do you feel you’ve got the theme of your story worked out?