Friday, February 25, 2011

DEVELOPING THEME: Touch Blue (Post #3)

Dear Allyson,
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?”

Thematic Question
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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

SUBPLOTS: Touch Blue (post #2)

Hi Heather!

I loved your post on BIG scenes. While I’ve found them challenging to write, I’ve never considered them as something requiring their own special attention. Thanks for the enlightenment!

And speaking of enlightenment, I attended a terrific lecture last week at the Seattle SCBWI monthly lecture series that changed the way I think about subplots. The lecture, titled WHILE THE CENTRAL PLOT SIMMERS: SUBPLOTS AND SECONDARY/SUPPORTING CHARACTERS, was delivered by Wayne Ude, author, and MFA program director for the Whidbey Island Writers Association. Using Pride and Prejudice as his example, Wayne pointed out the ways that subplots complement the main plot, serving as a mirror to the primary action and theme.

Curious to find out more I looked at what Elizabeth George had to say about subplots in her book Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. Interestingly enough, George also mentions Pride and Prejudice, pointing out that while Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship is the main plot of the novel, the other three significant relationships (Jane and Bingley, Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Lydia and Wickham) are, “winkles on the same blanket.”

George summarizes the use of subplots with these words:

Subplots generally rise out of a novel’s theme. As you create your character analyses, you’ll begin to make connections between characters. You’ll discover the similarities in what they’re going through or have gone through. You’ll see a common element that you wish to write about, and this will be your theme. Your subplots will mirror that theme.

Now to tie this subplot discussion into this month’s featured book, Touch Blue.

In an online interview with teenreads Cynthia Lord was asked the questions:

What message do you hope readers will take away after they turn the last page of Touch Blue?

And Lord replied:

Kids today live in all different kinds of families. As Tess says to Aaron, "You can belong in more than one place." I want readers to end Touch Blue with a sense of hope that no matter where you lay your head at night, you always belong to all the people you love and all the people who love you.

Belonging and not belonging is a recurrent theme in Lord’s novel. The main plot is Tess’s story. She very much belongs in her tight knit island community, but may lose that connection if her family is forced to move. Aaron’s successful integration into the community is key to Tess achieving her desire—staying put.

Aaron’s quest to leave the island is a subplot that mirrors the main plot. He wants to leave Bethsaida and return to his mother. His reason for wishing to leave, the theme of his subplot, is the same as Tess’s reason for wishing to stay on the island—they are each trying desperately to be in the place where they feel they belong.

Elizabeth George says about subplots, “If they don’t mirror the theme, they will not fit easily into the world of the novel and they will go clunk each time you’re writing them till you finally decide to cut them out altogether.” (63)

The take away for writers is this: If you find that your subplots feel false, consider whether or not they mirror the book’s main theme. And if you find that you have a terrific plot but no subplots, make them up! But start by asking yourself what situations you could put your secondary characters into that mirror the main characters greatest desire.

StorySleuths Tip #99: When writing subplots avoid clunkers by allowing the theme of the subplot to mirror that of the story’s main plot.

Friday, February 4, 2011

BIG SCENES: Touch Blue (Post #1)

Dear Allyson,
I’m so happy to be back to StorySleuths after our hiatus this fall. I hope your writing has been going well.

This month, we’re reading Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, which starts when Tess Brooks and her family bring a foster child named Aaron into their home on the island of Bethsaida, Maine. This is a story about belonging, family, community, and luck.

Speaking of luck, the timing for me to dig into this month’s book couldn’t be more perfect. Touch Blue features several “big scenes” similar to the scene I’m currently writing in my novel.

What is a big scene? Sandra Scofield, author of The Scene Book, describes big scenes as “scenes that have many characters.” These would include parties, weddings, holidays, and other gatherings.

These scenes are difficult to write, even for masters. Here, Scofield shares a snippet from a letter by Gustave Flaubert describing his challenge in creating a scene in Madame Bovary:
“Never in my life have I written anything more difficult than what I am doing now—trivial dialogue. I have to portray, simultaneously and in the same conversation, five or six characters who speak, several others who are spoken about, the scene, and the whole town… and in the midst of all that, I have to show a man and a woman who are beginning… to fall in love with each other…” (Scofield, p. 156). 
A lot to accomplish!

Scofield says that big scenes take as much planning as “the preparation of a huge Christmas dinner, a school play, or any other event that has many components.” Who is there? Where are they? Why have they gathered? What are they doing?

Chapter Two of Touch Blue, Aaron’s arrival on the island, is an ambitious big scene. Let’s step through the scene beat by beat to see how Lord introduces the reader to the characters, the situation, and the island.

1.     Libby and Tess arrive at the crowded wharf.
a.     In a broad stroke, Lord shows us that the entire town is waiting.
b.     Reaction: Tess is annoyed that Eben Calder is there. We get a quick introduction to the antagonist.
2.     While Tess looks through the crowd, she hears snippets of conversation.
a.     We get details about the boat (setting).
b.     The unattributed conversation snippets give the impression of the crowd, plus they provide details about what is happening.
c.     Reaction: Tess reflects on the Hamiltons’ move and its implications.
d.     Her reflection leads her into a flashback that reveals background information about the plan to bring foster children to the island.
3.     Jenna Ross says hi to Tess and they talk.
a.     We meet a potential new friend for Tess.
b.     The conversation reveals more details about the foster children.
c.     Reaction: Tess doesn’t really like Jenna. (Introduction of a story layer)
4.     The passengers disembark. Tess waits. She sees Aaron at last.
a.     Great sensory and setting details emerge from the descriptions of the ferry and passengers (p. 12-13).
b.     We get a first glimpse of Aaron through Tess.
c.     Reaction: Tess is disappointed that Aaron has red hair (unlucky) and looks weak.
d.     Mrs. Coombs’ also comments about Aaron’s appearance.
5.     Dad introduces Aaron to Tess and Libby.
a.     Libby throws herself at Aaron, a direct contrast to Tess’s more restrained approach.
b.     Aaron’s response reveals his own hesitations.
c.     Reaction: Tess is worried that this won’t work out.
d.     More setting details come as the family leaves the wharf, passing a lot full of beater cars.
e.     The scene ends with another wish from Tess—connection to the theme of luck.

The tension in the scene comes from Tess as she moves from a state of excited anticipation to disappointment and worry at Aaron’s appearance. The reader finishes the chapter wondering whether the living arrangements will work out for Aaron and the Brooks.

Chapter Two of Touch Blue is a great example of how much a big scene can accomplish. This chapter is nine pages long, and it provides introductions to all the major characters, establishes the setting, connects to several thematic lines (belonging, community, luck), introduces a story layer (Tess becoming friends with Jenna), establishes stakes, and builds tension.

While the scene is complicated, Lord keeps it highly focused, never letting us lose sight of Tess’s actions and reactions. Nothing in the scene is superfluous. Everything works together.

StorySleuths Tip #98: Sandra Scofield suggests breaking down a big scene into the same elements of a story: beginning-middle-end, with growing tension, a setting, and a shift at the end. Use beats to break the scene down into parts. Make sure that every element contributes something.