Donald Maass Weighs In On Theme

I’m still studying theme. If you’re bored, just remember that this is probably good for you. If you totally understand theme and can’t figure out why I’m struggling, give me a call and straighten me out. But until the phone rings, I’m forging ahead. I’ve already examined the lessons from Larry Brooks and James Scott Bell. Today, I’m in Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel.

Maass starts out with a humorous analogy. You’re at a party, trapped in a conversation with some who has nothing to say. You try to smoothly get away, but you can’t escape. You are trapped. 

When readers pick up a boring book that says nothing, they don’t worry about a smooth exit. They toss the book across the room and find something better to do. According to Maass, readers are opinionated. They seek out novels that hold closely to those opinions. Military guys read techno-thrillers. Scientists read sci-fi. Women read romance. (I know, that’s stereotypical. I’m a non-scientific, non-military woman, and I read sci-fi and techno-thrillers but won’t touch a romance. You get his meaning, though–stereotypes exist for a reason.)

“Readers want to have their values validated,” Maass continues. “They may not want to be converted, but they do want to be stretched. They want to feel that at the end of the book their views were right but that they were arrived at after a struggle… When conflicting ideals, values or morals are set against each other in a novel, it grips our imaginations because we ache to resolve that higher conflict.”

Maass and Bell agree: theme has to do with the character’s values, morals, and worldview. They also agree that theme isn’t “added to the story at the end, like cheese baked on top of a casserole in its final twenty minutes in the oven.” Theme is intrinsic to the story. It emerges from the hero’s actions, thoughts, and dialogue. Theme is the character’s higher motivations: “the search for truth, a thirst for justice, a need to hope, a longing for love.”

Giving your protagonist the inner fire of deep motivations results in powerful theme. Don’t get preachy: moderation, restraint, and understatement are crucial. But when these powerful motivators flow through the protagonist’s actions, thoughts, and dialogue, you will achieve Theme. 

Hallelujah! I understand! Give my heroine a strong worldview, set her up against someone with an opposite worldview, watch them interact, and a theme will emerge. I can do that. The hard part, for me, is identifying that theme. But I’m glad to know it’s there. 

In the next post, I’m delving into something even stickier: using symbols to enhance theme. 

-Sonja
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