I’m so glad you brought up the connection between subplot and theme. I had the opportunity to hear Cynthia Lord speak about theme a few years ago at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference, and I have often referenced my notes from her session when I need to work on theme.
In her presentation, Lord differentiated between subject and theme by saying that theme is what you have to say about a subject. She often phrases theme as a statement or question. For example, one of the subjects of her Newbery-honor book Rules is disability, and the theme she explores is “What is normal?”
She also explained that while themes may arise in a first draft, she doesn’t focus on them until subsequent drafts. Then, she looks for ways to enhance theme, which ultimately enriches the reading experience.
What process does she use to develop theme?
First, she defines the subjects of her novel. Each story can have a variety of subjects. Some of the subjects of Touch Blue are friendship, belonging, luck, community, and family. These are the “big picture concerns” of the story, and in her SCBWI presentation, Lord urged writers to take the time to dig deep past the obvious possible subjects to unearth possibly more interesting subjects as well.
Aspects of Subject
Next, Lord spends time exploring different aspects and complexities of a given subject. As you noted, Allyson, belonging is a theme of Touch Blue. Here are some of the different aspects of belonging that I found in the book:
· Everyone knows you
· People say hi to you
· You know who to go to for help or assistance
· You know the history of the place or group
In fact, Aaron initially finds these first two aspects disturbing. On page 17, he says, “How come all these people already know about me?”
Once you have explored various aspects of a subject, Lord says, you can develop a thematic statement or question. Ideally this question should not be easily answered but rather something that you can spend an entire novel exploring. I don’t know what Lord had in mind for the subject of belonging, but one question she might have pondered is “What happens when a new person joins a tight-knit community?”
The Shadow Side
While exploring a theme, Lord also looks at that shadow side of a subject. This could be the opposite of the subject or its absence. In the case of belonging, shadow aspects might include:
· People don’t accept you (Eben is mean to Aaron)
· People judge you (Mrs. Coombs’ comments on Aaron’s appearance)
· They know all about your business
· They gossip about you
· You can never get away.
One prime example of the shadow side is when the postmaster ask Aaron where he’s from, and Aaron hesitates before answering, “You mean right before here?” (p. 37).
Connecting Theme to Character
In her SCBWI presentation, Lord described how writers embed theme not only in plot but in character as well. As you noted, Allyson, in your discussion of subplots, Tess is the insider and Aaron is the outsider. Their interactions and experiences play off each other, providing readers with multiple views of the issue of belonging.
Using Setting and Objects
The other way writers can deepen theme, according to Lord, is by using setting and objects. The island community of Bethsaida provides a perfect microcosm for exploring theme. There are tourists and year-round families, long-simmering rivalries and an influx of newcomers.
Music provides another example of belonging. Aaron experiences acceptance through his music. When he plays at the Fourth of July picnic, he connects with the islanders. Unfortunately, the cruel note (“Go home! Oops, you can’t. Right, orphan?”) that he finds inside his music book also reminds him that he doesn’t belong.
Theme truly deepens a reader’s experience with a book, but it often seems a bit daunting when starting on a project. I really appreciated learning Lord’s process for developing theme through the revision process. Touch Blue provides a great resource for exploring aspects of subject and theme.
StorySleuths Tip #100: In revision, develop theme by exploring a question about one of your books subjects. Don’t forget to consider the shadow side of your theme. Plot, character, setting, and objects all provide opportunities to deepen theme.