Dear Meg and Allyson,
When I wrote my previous posting on how Grace Lin develops Minli’s desire and motivation early in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I thought a lot about the connection between character yearning and theme.
Elizabeth Lyon, author of one of my favorite books on craft, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, says “Theme is your novel’s message.” She elaborates:
Less simply put, theme is the abstract equivalent of the protagonist’s universal need fashioned into a statement of what he or she has come to learn. The theme states the personal growth or character change that completes the inner story arc. It has not been separate from the plot but has entwined with it. (pp. 212-213)
Minli’s character growth and the lesson she learns as a result of her journey in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon illustrate Lyon’s point. Let’s look at how theme emerges in the novel.
Want vs. Need
Minli’s goal—what she wants—is to find the Old Man of the Moon to ask him how to change her family’s fortune. This desire drives Minli’s actions, and each step she takes on her journey moves her closer to accomplishing her goal. In other words, this desire is the external conflict that propels the plot forward.
However, as she travels, she also experiences emotional responses that, over time, reveal a conflicting internal need. As much as Minli wants to accomplish her goal, she also misses her parents back home. For example, one night, she can’t fall asleep:
With pangs of guilt, she thought about how Ba and Ma pushed her to go home early from the field, how her rice bowl was always the first filled, how every night when she went to sleep in her warm bed she knew they were there… (p. 159)
While she naturally misses the comforts of home and the security of her parents’ company, she also develops a new appreciation for them. Her encounters with the people she meets on her journey force her to think in new ways. The same night she thinks about her parents, she reflects on the orphaned buffalo boy she met in the City of Bright Moonlight.
The buffalo boy didn’t have [what Minli had]. Instead, he had a dirt floor, a pile of grass for his bed, a muddy buffalo, and a secretive friend. Yet her turned away her copper coin and laughed in the sun. Minli couldn’t quite understand it, and, somehow, felt ashamed. (p. 159)
Minli’s emotional reaction to the separation from her parents reveals what Elizabeth Lyon might call a “hole in the soul” (p. 207). And the encounter with the buffalo boy leaves Minli in a state of confusion, wondering how he can be so happy when he has even less than she does.
The internal need propels character growth. Minli’s confusion about the buffalo boy’s apparent happiness illustrates a step in her emotional change in the middle of her journey.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
In addition to using character growth to develop aspects of the theme, Lin also uses the cast of characters to build thematic echoes. For example, at the beginning of the book, Minli and Ma both suffer from discontentment and frustration with their life of poverty. Neither likes to work so hard all the time.
However, Ma’s discontentment is deep-rooted, and she is pessimistic that her fortune will ever change. Minli, on the other hand, is driven by curiosity as well as faith in the stories her father tells. Ma and Minli show two characters with the same problem but different outlooks.
Elizabeth Lyon says,
To produce unity and coherence, as well as one theme, don’t give each point of view character a yearning divergent with the protagonist’s yearning. Craft yearnings that are supportive and parallel, or opposite but related (p. 210).
The Moment of Epiphany
The theme becomes clear when Minli at last meets the Old Man of the Moon. She can ask just one question, and she must choose between her own question (how to change her family’s fortune) and Dragon’s question (why can’t he fly?). She catches sight of the word written on the borrowed line. It says, “Thankfulness.” That word tells her everything she needs to know. She poses the question about why Dragon cannot fly.
Ma reaches her moment of epiphany at the same time, as revealed in the story she tells in the very next chapter. Her realization is more explicit than Minli’s. Ma says, “For all the time that she had been longing for treasures, she had already the one most precious” (p. 254).
By showing two characters reaching the same conclusion, Lin allows readers first the opportunity to infer the book’s theme independently while then reinforcing it afterwards in a more explicit way.
Returning to Lyon’s explanation of theme earlier, where theme “states the personal growth or character change that completes the inner story arc,” we can see the change in Minli: she recognizes the fortune she always had in her own family, and that recognition leads to gratitude. Translated into a more abstract statement, the theme might be “Be grateful” or “The love of family is more valuable than material wealth.”
StorySleuths Tip #72: Theme emerges from character change or growth. Use emotional reactions, reflections, parallel stories, and secondary characters to build toward a moment of understanding or epiphany.