I know there are several ways to write a novel. Tolkien just ran with it. GRRM already knows who sits on the Iron Throne. Each of us have likely at least started a story where we planned it out or which we just sat down and started writing, making up characters and settings as the whims struck. With Nanowrimo so close, however, I’m going to give a little guide that may (or may not) help you with your literary challenge come November.
There is an entity which is oft ignored by authors. Theme and mood are ultimately the driving, intangible, overarching feel and lesson of the story at hand. Sure it may shift a little in a few scenes, but at the end of the book what should the reader come away with? This paints everything else you write.
Mood is fairly simple. Is it up beat? Is it dour? When the reader finishes should they feel like a piece of their soul just died because their beloved king died? And then his son? And the mother? And by the end you’re left wondering what’s the point of life? (You know what I’m talking about) This can change quickly scene to scene, but still there will be an overarching feel the reader has fairly consistently.
Theme is where life gets complicated. What does theme even mean? I get breathy when I think of it, it exhausts me so. The theme could be the overall lesson, an image that shows up often, a culture which you pulled information from, or any other very prevalent thing. That’s right, theme is so wide as to get described using the word thing.
Theme as culture
I try to make sure all my worlds have a real world basis. I don’t always keep very true to it, and sometimes it’s a grouping, but I find it gives it far more reality. I recently worked on a world which borrowed heavily from Norse society. The gods were a little different, the basic world was slightly different, but at the end of the day they were my inspiration. However, remember the society doesn’t have a monopoly on their culture, especially in this day and age. Sure they are the primary source and should be used, but the Norse culture has been rehashed a dozen times. When getting into the mindset I read the Edda Pros, sure, but I also played the snot out of Skyrim. I no longer simply read about the gods and the way of life. I was able to live an interpretation of it. And it got people off my back for playing Skyrim. Remember, research can be fun.
Theme as what the reader should perceive
Once upon a time there was a bear who sat down at his tablet and chiseled a story halfheartedly without any central theme for the reader. In the end all the cubs thought he wanted them to maul humans. That’s why bears eat us. Don’t promote bears eating humans: have a central theme.
In school this was that annoying thing called a thesis. The harder part now is you don’t have a the last sentence in your first paragraph telling us what your theme is, you have a hundred or more pages inferring it. Come up with the purpose of your story. Perhaps write down two or three ideas. When you write, this is your north star. It’s to keep your message consistent. Martin is telling us the common people suffer when there’s war. Tolkien is telling us great things can come from small packages and go on an adventure. If you read the books you really like, chances are there is some underlying theme that you follow throughout the book.
Now your theme can also end up like your thesis for your college papers likely ended up: you finished writing, read what you put down, and then wrote your thesis. To have a theme now is just to help guide you. You understand what struggles should be apparent and what type of settings you might desire.
Theme as items
You remember in high school when they told you “This color is used throughout the book because…” and then you started yawning and wondering if you’d get that date over the weekend? Me neither. There was no date. However, writers often use symbolism of some sort to indicate more than the color of the drapes. Figure out which symbols match your feeling and include them. Just jot them off on the side and when you decide to use your theme in the future, check that list to see what you can incorporate. I’m writing a story with gods of life and death. When death was near I would either show the god of death or the goddess of life in disrepair.
The key to all of this is to remember it’s malleable. You’re not writing it in stone, but giving yourself some direction. This will help to set up in the future. It helps give you an idea of what you want to do. Take these as guides which can be removed or replaced at a whim. I’ve just found it helps a great deal to start my novel by first writing down the mood and theme. I also do it for individual scenes, but I’ll touch on that later.
Until then, what is a mood you would like writing about? What is a theme for your readers to take from it and how will you show that throughout your book?