Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.

This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?

Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.)  or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.

Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.

How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.

In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:

Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?

Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.

Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.

If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.

Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what plucks your eyebrows.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Flash Fiction: The Girl & The Car

You know what? Sometimes, it’s murder coming up with a good title for your story. I wrote this little flash-fic ages ago, and although I don’t think it’s the best story I’ve ever written, I wanted to at least share it on the blog but… I just haven’t been able to come up with a decent title for it to this day; and believe me, it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. Still, it’s been sitting on my computer doing nothing for too long so for better or worse, here it is. Feel free to suggest better titles in the comments.

As always what follows is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether in print or online, nor do I expect or permit it to be. And so without further ado, I give you:

The Girl & The Car

by A. Ferguson

 

The car was mine. I found it, so it was mine.

I don’t know how it got there. I was just playing in the bushes at the bottom of the hill one day and there it was, in the clearing. It didn’t have any glass in the windows and two of the doors were missing. Also the steering wheel came off if you turned it too hard.

I couldn’t have been happier. My own car. A real one. I let Michael and Paul use it too, and sometimes I even let them drive it because it’s no fun on your own. That was okay because they knew it was mine because I found it. I didn’t tell Mum and Dad about it and I told Paul and Michael not to tell their mums and dads either. Adults have funny ideas about things like that. I knew they wouldn’t let me keep the car, even though I found it fair and square and it didn’t really go.

It was Sunday. Me and Michael were playing Batman in the car while we waited for Paul. His family went to a different church from me and Michael so we always met him after lunch. I was Batman (obviously, because it was my car) but it was Robin’s turn to drive.

When Paul arrived, he had a girl with him.

‘Girls aren’t allowed in the car!’ Michael objected. ‘Why’d you even bring her here? This is private property.’

‘Aw, c’mon Mikey, she’s my cousin!’ Paul whined. ‘Mum said I had to. It’s just for today. I swear I tried not to but they said I had to or I couldn’t come out. I swear I tried!’

‘Well, she’ll have to sit in the back!’ I decreed, thinking myself generous. I don’t know how old she was but she was younger than us. Too young. And a girl.

‘I want to drive!’ She cried with glee. ‘Please please please please, pretty, pretty please!’

‘No.’ I said. Enough was enough.

‘How not?’

‘Cause. It’s my car. Girls aren’t allowed.’

‘Come on, Haitch, let her have a go.’ Paul said. ‘It’s only for today.’

‘He’s siding with her!’ Michael jeered, gripping the wheel even though it had fallen off again.

‘I’m not! It’s just Mum said I had to or I couldn’t come out. It’s only for today. Come on!’

‘Your mum only said she had to come with you. She’s with you.’ I ruled. ‘She doesn’t even know about the car so that doesn’t count.’

‘Henry!’ Michael hissed, grabbing my arm. ‘What if she tells?’

‘I’m telling!’ The girl taunted us. ‘I’m telling, I’m telling!’

‘That was your fault!’ I said, punching Michael in the arm.

‘How’s it my fault? Paul brought her!’ He hit me back, though not hard. I guess he knew it was his fault.

‘I’m telling, I’m telling!’ The girl sang in words that didn’t rhyme. ‘Let me drive or I’m telling!’

‘Henry, just let her drive!’ Paul pleaded. ‘What’s the big deal? It’s only for one day.’

‘She’s a girl!’ I exploded. ‘And she’s too wee, she’ll tell!’

‘I’ll not tell if you let me have a go.’ She promised. I was about to argue but–

‘Alright.’ Michael said, opening the imaginary door and climbing out. ‘You can have a go, just a quick one mind! But you’d better not tell!’

Treachery!

‘That’s not how it works!’ I said, clambering across to the driver’s seat and grabbing the wheel. ‘It’s mine!’ I said, pointing to the place on the dash where I had scratched ‘HBS’ into the dashboard. That’s my initials: Henry Barrington-Smyth. ‘I found it, so it’s mine!’

‘Fine!’ The girl shouted. ‘It’s a stupid car anyway! I’ve got a better one at my bit, with proper doors and windows and everything! And it drives for real! And you’re not getting a go!’

Then she went away. Paul went after her.

‘Just let her go!’ I shouted after him. He turned to face us but kept walking backwards slowly.

‘I can’t! My mum, she said…’ He trailed off. Then he turned and ran after her.

‘Paul! Paul! Just let her go, Paul!’

He ignored me. Michael ran after him, leaving me alone in the car. I couldn’t move. It felt important to hold my ground in the car. The car was mine as long as my bottom was on the seat and my hands were on the wheel. Ahead, at the edge of the clearing, I saw Michael grab Paul by the arm to pull him back. Paul shrugged him off and shouted something at him. I don’t know what it was but his face was livid. He stormed off through the bushes, out of the clearing. Michael followed him, shouting after him but was back a few moments later. He came back to the car.

‘Henry, what if she tells?’ Michael asked again. His voice was quivering and his face was ashen.

‘She won’t tell.’ I said, fighting to ignore a hollow sensation in my stomach. ‘Paul won’t let her. She won’t tell. She was just saying that.’

* * *

Well, she told. Ten minutes later, Michael’s mum came down into our clearing where our car was parked. We were still sitting there, forcing ourselves to be Batman and Robin. Michael got such a blazing row off his mum that I didn’t know where to look. She gave me a good tongue lashing as well, then I went home and got more of the same from my own mum. I wasn’t surprised by that. Once one adult knows something, they all know it.

We never saw Paul again for weeks. He didn’t go to the same school as me and Michael and whenever we went in for him, we were told he couldn’t come out. I felt sick. What if he wasn’t talking to us any more, all because of some stupid burnt out car? Michael and me never spoke about it but I think he felt the same. Then one day Paul came in for me. Turned out his parents had just grounded him and never told us, not even when we went in for him.

We never saw the car again. In some ways, it was a relief. We went back to the clearing a while later (and I mean a long while later) but the car was gone. I don’t know where. We didn’t dare ask. It didn’t matter that it had my initials on it or that I found it. It wasn’t mine any more. I don’t think it ever had been.

THE END


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what crashes your car.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Until next time!

Gleaning Ideas from Other Stories

Every story, good or bad, starts with an idea. Before you can have a plot, characters or any of that other wonderful stuff, you must have an idea. This we know. We also know that plot bunnies can sometimes pop up at the darnedest times and provide you with a wealth of truly original material with which to create your masterpiece.

But what do you do when the Idea Tree stops putting out its juicy fruit?

Easy.

Glean ideas from someone else’s story.

No, don’t look at me like that! I’m not for one second advocating plagiarism. That’s illegal and rightly so. But reading other people’s books and watching other people’s films can be a great place to find ideas. In fact, you’ll never read/watch/listen to a story of any kind that doesn’t contain at least a few ideas. Even really bad stories still have ideas embedded within their pages which can be used, reused and used again without any risk of plagiarism, so it’s worthwhile learning how to find them and make them work for you.

It’s also worth being clear on what you absolutely shouldn’t do. It’s all very well watching Star Trek and deciding you want to write a novel about space exploration, but it is not okay to write a story about a pointy eared, emotionless man from the planet Vulcan’t who explores the galaxy on the Confederate Starship USS Business. CBS would have every right to hunt you down and pinch your neck sue your face off if you try that. Moreover, it’s okay to read a Batman comic and decide you want to write about a masked vigilante, but I would think twice about making it a millionaire who operates from a secret cave and wears black rubber and a cape. The line between originally and plagiarism can sometimes be fuzzy, so the best advice I can give is to stay far, far away from this kind of obvious idea stealing. Remember, the goal is to get inspired, not to copy. And there’s an art to it.

Think about the last story you read/saw/heard, whether good or bad. For me, it was the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Most Toys’. Not my favourite episode by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to break it down and squeeze it for every last juicy idea droplets we can and turn those into something good and original. Begin deconstructing the story by asking yourself some basic questions about the plot, characters and themes. Simple stuff like:

Q: Who are some of the key characters?
A: Data, an emotionless android Starfleet officer; Fajo, a cruel and irreverent collector of rare items; Varria, Fajo’s long-suffering slave-come-mistress.

Q: What was the basic plot?
A: Data is kidnapped by Fajo and forced to perform as his latest museum piece. Data refuses to perform and, recognising how Varria has come to loathe Fajo, enlists her help in escaping his captor.

Q: What are some of the key themes?
A: Greed, pacifism, physical and psychological violence against women/domestic abuse, deceitfulness

Q: Any other interesting facts about this story?
A: The title comes from the expression ‘he who dies with the most toys, wins’. This expression emphasises the ultimate futility of humanity’s obsession with accumulating things in the face of our inevitable mortality.

And that’s just for starters. I haven’t even begun to consider settings, minor characters, motives/goals/conflicts or some of the more subtle themes buried throughout the story but I used the questions above just as a demonstration. Your aim here is to deconstruct the story to the nth degree, thus drawing out as much raw material as you can.

Don’t worry about whether or not the themes or character motives are “really” in the story or not. All that matters is that you amass as much raw material as you can and take a note of it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find it helpful to pool all this material together into one place (in my case, a Scrivener project in which I dump all my loose bits of idea).

Now all you need to do is take some of those individual idea bits and try to turn them into something new. Do a bit of zero drafting or free writing based on what you’ve come up with. For example, the material I gleaned from The Most Toys’ could inspire me to write a story about:

  • A slave trying to escape his owner who sees him only as property.
  • A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship.
  • A woman who, perhaps fearing for her own life, murders her abusive partner.
  • A robot trying to establish his rights as a sentient being.
  • Capital punishment. Is it ever morally justifiable to kill?
  • A robot judge in a criminal court.
  • A museum where the exhibitions include living people (perhaps from a particular culture or race which that particular society views as inferior?), forced to perform for paying clientele.

Furthermore, by pooling these ideas together with ideas you have extracted from other places, you can mix and match ideas to come up with even more original and interesting stories. Ultimately, no idea is truly original. When you break them down, you’ll find common themes and recurring motifs in almost every story you ever come across. So be sure to pick up all the gleanings from every story you come across. Before long, you’ll have an endless supply of raw material that you can work into something original.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what steals your android.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Daydreaming: An Essential Exercise for Writers

One of the main things I remember my school teachers complaining about in my report cards was that I spent too much time daydreaming. I guess they thought I should’ve been doing something more important like figuring out maths problems or some other such nonsense. I don’t know.

In any event, I found that as I got older, daydreaming came a lot less naturally. I don’t know if it’s because adult life puts too many demands on our time or if it’s because I had one too many report cards telling me to stop daydreaming, but for whatever reason, daydreaming is a habit I’ve had to make a conscious effort to get back into.

Yes boys and girls, you heard me right. Daydreaming is a habit you should definitely get back into, especially if you plan on being a story-writer. After all, stories begin in the imagination and the imagination is just like a muscle, which needs to be exercised on a regular basis to keep it strong. Fortunately, you don’t need to pump irons to keep this muscle strong. You need to daydream.

Now before I go any further, I just want to clarify exactly what I mean by daydreaming. I don’t mean staring vacantly into space. I mean tapping back into that wealth of creativity that as children we used in imaginative play which allowed us to spontaneously imagine ourselves to be anyone, anywhere, anytime doing anything. For children, it’s effortless (almost unavoidable in fact). The rest of us, alas, need to work at it.

Make Time For It

I don’t think my teachers objected to me daydreaming per se. I suspect their real problem was with when I did it. It’s really not polite to daydream while someone is trying to teach you about something “important” like mathematics. Children don’t understand this, of course, and they just daydream whenever they feel like it. They also have buckets of time specifically set aside for imaginative play. As adults, however, we have constant demands on our time, none of which are imaginative play time: jobs, family, marriage, divorce, births, deaths, dishes, mortgages, cooking, driving, social events, hospital visits, court summons, insurance claims, driving, dating, washing, buying furniture, grocery shopping, taxes, hoovering and a myriad of other “important” things.

To be sure, some of these things are important. But if you want to tell stories of your own invention, you need imagination as active and as vibrant as that of a child. So be sure to set aside time in your busy schedule to daydream.

Be Proactive

True daydreaming, where the mind simply wanders into the realms of fantasy without stopping to plan, edit or revise, is not easy to do on demand. As adults, we tend to over-complicate things and so when we come to our daydreaming time, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of sitting there simply thinking ‘Right, I must try and come up with some flight of fancy now. Let me think, what shall I dream about? Hmmm, no, that wouldn’t work. I’m thinking, thinking…. Gagh, I feel silly just sitting here doing nothing. This is hard. I can’t do it. I have no imagination. I’m a failure’. Worse still, we might end up just thinking about all the “more important” things we have to do.

tip1So what’s the solution? Simple. Consider again what children do. They don’t just sit there daydreaming all day. They draw, they role play, sometimes they even write. In short, they express all that raw imagination soup in their head by giving it some kind of form. Why not try it yourself? Try free-writing, or buy yourself a cheap drawing pad to doodle in. Get some of your friends together for some imaginative role play. Play with finger puppets if you have to! Whatever it takes to really exercise that imagination.

Anything Goes

This isn’t writing. It isn’t even planning. It is simply exercising that part of your brain which spontaneously generates possibilities, however bizarre they might be. Therefore there is absolutely no need to edit. Plot holes, structure, and even plagiarism count for nothing in your daydreams.

Daydream about being Batman if you like. It’s not plagiarism if all you’re doing is fantasising, so allow yourself to wonder what it might be like driving a batmobile, fighting crime in Gotham’s seedy underbelly or changing your clothes while simultaneously sliding down a fireman’s pole. Try and put into words, if you can, how it feels to drive the batmobile. What does Gotham’s seedy underbelly smell like? Does that fireman’s pole chafe on the way down?

And what would happen if Batman encountered the villain from your story? How would Batman handle that? Yes, I know it’s silly. So what? Have fun with it. No one is going to edit, mark or even see your daydreams so let your imagination do whatever it wants. All that matters is that you imagine widely and imagine often, so that when you do come to work on creating proper works of fiction, you’ve got a strong enough imagination to do it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what builds your sandcastle.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.