Rustic gate opening to a wildflower field with text: Our Reading Habits: Do You Believe in Fate?

Last time we talked about how our literary education can affect our reading habits later in life. One interesting result of that conversation revealed—once again—just how subjective reading for enjoyment can be. The stories some of us hated, others loved.

Personally, I have no interest in non-genre stories. As I’ve said before, this is not a sign of my inability to think deeply, but rather a personal preference.

At the Desert Dreams conference a week ago, something the delightful Mary Buckham mentioned in her character workshop struck me, and I wondered if her idea could be related to this genre vs. literary preference. Let’s compare notes and find out. *smile*

Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction

Before we dig into the question, I first want to share what Mary Buckham said in her Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters workshop. My note-taking skills aren’t quite what they used to be, so these definitions are paraphrased from her descriptions.

Literary Fiction

The point of the story is for the character(s) to understand themselves better. This is achieved through episodic events that force understanding. However, characters aren’t forced to internally change or to change their situations.

Commercial Fiction

The point of the story is to focus on how people change. This is achieved through external events that trigger choices and force internal changes in the character(s), both of which lead to external changes in their situations.

Obviously, those are simplified definitions, but I think there’s a lot of validity to Mary’s perspective. More importantly for my question, those different approaches create even more diverse themes.

Themes in Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction

Mary then compared what each style has to say about life and fate (again, this is paraphrased):

Literary Fiction

The lack of internal change in literary fiction creates the impression that things just happen and that there’s not a lot we can do about it. Whether intended or not, this subtext develops a theme that applies to most literary fiction stories: “Life sucks and then you die.”

Commercial Fiction

In contrast, commercial fiction often shows characters facing choices, and how they decide greatly affects the rest of the story (for good or bad). In other words, in genre stories, things happen and there is something we can do about it. This subtext creates a theme that applies to most commercial fiction stories: “Write your own fate.”

Story Themes and Our Worldview

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed how our favorite stories often have themes in common with each other and with our worldview. I mentioned how our reading preferences—from themes to types of characters—might be driven by our worldview.

I also suspect our worldview affects our preferences for literary vs. genre fiction. After all, we’re more likely to read stories that resonate deeply with within us, and the subtext of literary vs. genre is often very different.

As I’ve said about romance novels:

“Most modern romances contain the subtext of celebrating people who are empowered, those who are willing to fight for what they want and take responsibility for creating their own happiness.”

Empowered. Fight for what they want. Take responsibility for creating their own happiness. That certainly qualifies for the “write our own fate” theme of genre fiction.

Personally, I believe that we can change our future through our choices and that we do write our own fate. I believe all that because I have changed my own fate several times in my life. I’ve rewritten my future more times than I can count (and in hugely significant ways) by making choice A rather than B and by changing internally.

So really, is it any surprise that I prefer genre stories? Is it any surprise that stories where the characters don’t end up in a significantly different place from where they started (often because they never learn, never change, and keep making the same mistakes) irritate the hell out of me?

To me, drama and angst is pointless without a takeaway message shown through a character changing and learning. Without that, those characters deserve a “Too Stupid To Live” label. In the most frustrating “nothing changes” literary stories, I start wishing for a good ol’ genre attack (aliens, zombies, whatever) to take them all out and save me from their misery. *grin*

Obviously, that’s just my personal opinion. I’m not “right” and others aren’t “wrong.”

Plenty of people love the literary fiction books recommended by the Oprahs of the world. And I suspect that difference in preference has to do with our worldviews.

How Might Our Worldview Affect Our Reading Habits?

Some people might believe we can change our fate, but that change is too difficult for most people or often results in more problems. Others might believe only the privileged can change their fate. Others might believe the best human intentions will eventually succumb to the entropy of bad habits. Etc., etc.

Again, there’s no wrong answer. But if those are our beliefs, we’re more likely to enjoy stories that reflect our thoughts:

  • If we think change is possible but extremely difficult for most, we might be more accepting of stories where characters try to change but fail.
  • If we believe change causes more problems, we might gravitate to tragedies where characters’ choices make their lives worse.
  • If we think only the privileged can change their fate, we might be drawn to the trials of the underprivileged.
  • If we believe “life sucks and then you die,” we’d feel at home with stories that focus on unresolvable struggles.
  • And so on…

Of course we can encounter exceptions. Maybe we don’t relate to the worldview posed in a story, but we love the protagonist. Or we grew up in the same setting and read for the nostalgia. Or we’re in a similar situation and want to feel as though someone understands what we’re going through.

We can also read and enjoy different types of stories depending on our mood. Maybe some days we’re more optimistic than others. Or maybe some days we’re more irritated with people than others. *snicker*

More importantly, this theory of worldview and reading preferences should bury for eternity the idea that literary stories are somehow “better” than genre stories. As I’ve said before, genre stories can have the same well-developed characters, lovely turns of phrase, etc. as literary stories.

The difference isn’t in quality but in worldview. It’s not “better” or “superior” to believe that people can’t change or that fate can’t be avoided. And the idea that choices and changes can affect our future isn’t contemptible. It’s simply a different point of view.

As for me, the Oprahs of the world can keep their tales of woe. I won’t put down their perspective—or feel guilty for my own. I’ll just continue to embrace my Pollyanna worldview and enjoy my genre stories.  *smile*

Do you agree or disagree with Mary’s take on the point, theme, and subtext of literary vs. genre stories? What type of fiction do you prefer? Does this preference match with some of your worldviews? How so? If you like stories opposite your worldviews, what makes them enjoyable to you?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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Rediscovering Our Love of Reading

by Jami Gold on April 10, 2014

in Random Musings

Woman reading on a beach with text: The Importance of Reading for Pleasure

I read one of those “sad but true” posts the other day. Over at Writer Unboxed, Keith Cronin wrote about how to make someone hate reading. His theory? Send them to an American high school.

As I stated last week, schools too often do a poor job of teaching fiction. They rarely teach fiction writing, and when they do mention fiction, it’s usually as part of a literary analysis unit. Worse, that analysis focuses on nebulous concepts like theme and symbolism.

Heaven forbid we talk about what makes a story enjoyable. Or why we like or don’t like a character. Or whether or not the story grabbed us.

No… We can’t possibly encourage kids to like reading and see stories as something to enjoy—for fun. We have to turn reading into analyzing “classic” stories with subjective questions about whether the wall color in a scene reflects the character’s mood or whether the dusty kitchen table foreshadows the ending.

Too many kids who were voracious readers earlier in their life learn to hate reading during their teenage years in high school and college. According to Keith’s post, one third of high school graduates won’t read another book—for the rest of their lives.

For too many, reading becomes a means to an end. Absorbing knowledge. Period. And reading for pleasure now seems like a faraway dream. Maybe even an immature activity.

That’s not to say all teenagers will fall victim to the school system’s perspective, but far too many do. I know. I was one of them.

My Confession about Reading

I’ve mentioned before how much J.K. Rowling has influenced my life. Her Harry Potter books inspired me to write a fan fiction story, my first foray into fiction writing. What I haven’t mentioned before—what I actually misrepresented the truth about—was how those books inspired me to once again read.

In my previous post about her influence, I said:

“Starting with the fourth book, I bought the books in hardcover. However, as I’ve mentioned here before, my to-be-read pile is scary-huge, so I didn’t actually read any of them until after the fifth book was released.”

That wasn’t quite true. While I read constantly as a child, once I was done with college, I bought books only rarely, and I would reread one of my childhood favorites, like the Chronicles of Narnia, about once a year. But I didn’t read any new fiction books.

In my previous post, I made it sound like I’d always had the TBR pile I now have (which is scary-huge) because the fact that for a time I’d stopped exploring new fiction worlds seemed like sacrilege for someone wanting to become an author.

Shouldn’t authors be so secure in their love of books that even awful literary classes wouldn’t come between them and their love? How much could I really love books if a dozen term papers got in my way? I was ashamed of my past as a “fallen” reader.

But Keith’s post helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault. That my experience was, in fact, all too common.

Rediscovering Reading for Enjoyment

What I’d stated before about buying all the Harry Potter books in hardcover was true. Also true was how I started reading them after the fifth book was released. A coworker of mine convinced me to buy them, and after the fifth book, I decided I should actually read these things if I was going to spend hardcover money on them. *smile*

But I didn’t just read them. I inhaled them. I think I read all five in a week or two. And I wondered why I’d ever stopped reading for enjoyment.

It all comes back to being forced to read books I had no interest in. Even worse, I then had to write long analyses and participate in discussion groups about these tear-my-hair-out books.

(I’m shamefully proud that I learned to analyze the story by listening to the first five minutes of discussion and then fake my knowledge of the story well enough to fully participate in group discussions without ever reading some of the books—or the Cliff Notes. Maybe this is how I first developed my understanding of story structure, tropes, and plot flow. *grin*)

I’m happy to say that I’m back to my previous love of books, and I wish I had more hours in the day to make a dent in my to-be-read pile. (Current stats: 291 on Kindle, and about 100 more in other ebook formats, as well as about 250 print books on my desk and in my bedroom.)

Is It Possible to Teach Literary Analysis in a Way Students Won’t Hate?

(Maybe I should add a disclaimer and say “Students Might Hate Less.” *smile*)

My point with this post isn’t to say that students should never analyze stories for theme, structure, symbolism, etc. Far from it.

Learning to see the depth in fiction is a fantastic way of getting people to value fiction more. Non-fiction is easy to value. If it teaches us what we want to know, it’s valuable. Fiction is harder to value and appreciate.

However, it does no good to try to get people to value a book they hate. In fact, that approach is likely to make people value fiction less.

Instead, I say we should let students analyze stories they already enjoy. Some teachers in a school system here have assigned their students to read all of the next grade’s Literature books (about 8-10 books) over the summer before the school year starts.

The teachers don’t care if the students skim read the ones they ones they don’t like, as long as they get the gist of the story. The point is to provide opportunities for the students to read books they might not usually choose. Exposure, not torture. *grin*

When the school year starts, the students each choose their favorite four books. Those are the books they’ll analyze during the year in small discussion groups with other students who chose the same ones.

This approach would still teach literary analysis and get students to think of all those theme and symbolism aspects. But it would also encourage students to discover more ways to value the stories they do enjoy. Win-win.

Themes, Schmemes…

While I’m ranting at windmills, let me propose that teachers not insist there’s only one correct theme to take away from a story. As we discussed last week, a story can have many themes—based on the story arc, character arcs, etc.—and themes often grow out of a lesson learned. In other words, any lesson a reader takes away from a story can lead to a valid theme.

As authors, we should be conscious and intentional about as much of our writing as possible. (If nothing else, we want to make sure we’re creating the right impression for our readers.) However, our subconscious has a mind of its own and reading is extremely subjective. So teachers do students a great disservice if they act as though there’s only one way to interpret a story.

I could go on ranting about how many of these issues are driven by the structure of the school system in general and not teachers’ fault, but I’ll stop here. My point is that while the current approach is more convenient for teachers—only one book to cover at a time, fewer lessons to develop, etc.—any approach that kills the love of fiction for so many is broken and should be changed.

I know. I was there. When I think of how much I loved reading as a child—complete with library visits, bringing a book to baseball games (they go so slow!), and sneaking a flashlight under the covers—I weep at how much time I lost to forgetting that it is possible to read for fun.

It’s a tragedy I hope we can avoid in the future. Again, if the goal of literary analysis is to teach kids to find the deeper meanings within fiction, we need to find an approach that meets that goal and encourages a sense of the value of fiction, or all our efforts are for naught. Who’s with me? *smile*

P.S. This might have something to do with why I’m a genre girl now. *grin*

P.P.S. None of this is meant to bash teachers, who often have too little to work with and too much to do. Rather, I hope this inspires new thoughts for an approach to teaching that respects the kids and the goal of valuing fiction.

P.P.S. Feel free to share this rant with your kids’ teachers. The green sharing button at the bottom-right below allows you to email this post to anyone. Teachers might listen to us as authors, and maybe we can make a difference. *pumps fist*

Did you struggle with Literature classes? If you didn’t, what made it work for you? Did you go through a post-formal-schooling fiction-reading drought? What turned you into a reader again? Do you have other insights into how we could improve the current approach to literary analysis?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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5 Insights from Bestselling Authors

by Jami Gold on April 8, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Close up of a dandelion at seed with text: 5 Insights from a Writing Conference

After nearly two years of sticking with only online writing conferences, I broke down and attended my fourth in-person conference this past weekend, where I presented my “Twitter for Introverts” workshop. I’m happy to say my class went well and I survived my pre-conference panic attack.

In fact, I had a great time at the Desert Dreams Writing Conference, which always exceeds my expectations. Desert Dreams is considered a “regional” conference, with bigger names and more workshops and events. Lucky for me, it’s local.

However, not all of us are so lucky to have easy access to quality writing conferences, so I wanted to share my top takeaways from the conference. I hope you find these ideas as insightful or inspiring as I do. *smile*

#1: Rejections Are Not a “Sign”

Christie Craig, New York Times bestselling author, was the Keynote Speaker for the Desert Dreams conference. Her speech was so inspiring I don’t want to spoil the punch line, but let’s just say that it had to do with the avalanche of rejections she’s received over her writing life.

Sometimes we might look at X number of rejections and take it as a sign. Maybe we’re not meant to be a writer. Maybe we can’t cut it. Maybe we should give up.

She persevered through countless (and I do mean countless—she brought a big box-load of proof) rejections. Not giving up is how she reached where she is today.

If rejections come with a message, it’s simply “not now.” With determination, we can later turn that “not now” into a “yes.”

#2: Be a Storyteller First

Christie also shared why she didn’t give up. Partly it was stubbornness, but a bigger part was knowing that she could tell stories. If we can tell stories, we’ll succeed if we keep at it, because writing can be learned.

Even in the worst-case scenario, where we’re receiving rejections because we’re not yet “good enough,” we can study writing craft and change our fate.

As Mary Buckham pointed out in a workshop, that “changing fate through our choices” perspective powers most commercial and genre fiction. We can absorb that mindset for our own future too.

Christie is a dyslexic high-school dropout. She didn’t have writing skills when she started. But she could tell stories, and that’s what really matters. Everything else can be learned.

By studying, we can change our fate. How cool is that?

#3: Make Settings Earn Their Word Count

USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham was the featured presenter. She gave an intensive workshop on “Active Settings for All Fiction Genres.”

We often try to minimize our setting descriptions because they’re dry and boring. (She entered the living room and passed the couch to sit on the chair. *yawn*) Mary’s workshop shared techniques for making our setting descriptions work harder.

When we use deep point of view, our descriptions can show characterization, emotion, foreshadowing, backstory, etc. (Her mother’s living room beckoned, as it always did. The comfortably worn-in tweed couch whispered its memories of cushion forts and awkward teenage groping. She headed to the chair instead, just in case her mom hadn’t cleaned the sofa’s fabric since that drinking-night debacle with her brother Billy.)

If our setting descriptions are doing double or triple duty (establishing setting and backstory and characterization, or whatever combination works for the scene), we can use as many words as we need. Mary’s going to join us for a guest post soon (Yay!), but until then, we can learn from her Writing Active Setting book, where she shares tons of examples on how to empower our settings.

#4: Every Character Trait Can Be Good and Bad

Mary presented a second workshop as well: Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters. She started by having everyone complete an Enneagram type quiz.

Surprisingly, I turned out to have nearly equal strengths in several traits: perfectionist and achiever (which I think means that I accomplish things despite my perfectionism *whew*), analyzer, nurturer, leader, and peacemaker. Apparently I’m an overachiever in Enneagram quizzes too. *smile*

Her point was for us to learn more about ourselves so we can ensure that we’re not just creating clones of ourselves for our characters. She then shared several techniques for developing unique characters.

One technique was to think of how our characters’ positive traits could be negative, like we discussed last year (where I covered Enneagram Types too). Specifically, she recommended thinking of ways every positive trait has a cost.

For example, if a character is a nurturer, what potential “costs” might that character pay for their trait? Maybe they forget to take care of themselves. Or maybe they’re a busybody who tries to force people to take their advice.

Mary suggested that we ask friends and family to help us brainstorm these “at what cost?” opposite traits. Especially if we just give them a list of traits (without knowing the character at all), we might gain new insights into our character by seeing their list of potential opposite traits.

#5: The “Duh” Insight: Writers Are Awesome

Finally, every author I met was fantastic. Several multi-published, bestselling authors let me pick their brains and shared great advice (including Christie, Mary, Calista Fox, Erin Quinn, Morgan Kearns, and Jennifer Ashley).

The lesson I took away was that no matter our situation, we can connect with other writers and grow our knowledge and our circle of friends. These bestsellers didn’t hoard their expertise. Instead they shared their insights with someone who has a blue streak in her hair. *grin*

I experienced embarrassment (Ack! Spotlight on the introvert!) and thankfulness when many authors stopped me to say how much my blog, beat sheets, and workshops have helped them. (Aww, warm fuzzies.) And I met a great group of women among the attendees (Lisa, Mary, Andrea, Carol, Christine, and a bonus dinner with Ann) and reconnected with a friend from the last Desert Dreams (Rose!).

In short, although the workshops and keynote were wonderful, what really makes conferences special are the people. The interactions with those willing to connect with us often stay in our memory far longer than any one workshop tip or speech insight, especially when we see authors take the time to help each other.

It’s those same connections that make online interactions with writers so special too. Thank you to all of you who read my blog, share your insights and advice, or reach out to me on social media. You. Are. Awesome. *smile*

Which of these was your favorite insight (or the one you want to hear more about)? Have you ever wondered if you should see rejections as a “sign”? Do you agree that storytelling comes first because writing craft can be learned? Do you struggle to make setting descriptions interesting or to create unique characters? If you’ve been to a writing conference, what’s been your favorite part?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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Building a Theme through Character Arcs

by Jami Gold on April 3, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Chalkboard with text: Theme: What Lesson Have You Learned?

Several interesting conversations grew out of my post on themes and how they relate to our worldview. So many of us have struggled with themes on some level that I wanted to share more about how we can develop them through our characters.

Last time we discussed how it’s difficult for us to write stories with themes opposite our core beliefs. We’re more likely to create stories where the point—the theme—is in line with our worldview.

On the other hand, our characters often hold opposite beliefs. That’s not surprising when it comes to our villains. After all, we call them the “bad guy” for a reason.

However, our protagonists might have beliefs opposite to ours as well. At least at the start. And their story journey is often where our theme lies.

(Note: I hope I can keep this blog post quick. This weekend, I’m going to my first in-person writing conference in almost two years, and I need to allow time for my inevitable panic attack. Wish me luck—on both counts. *grin*)

A Character’s Journey Starts with a False Belief

I’ve written before about how our characters’ inner journeys take them from (as Michael Hauge says) “living in fear to living courageously.” That emotional journey—where they overcome the false belief behind their fear—is their character arc.

As I stated in that post:

“Readers will pick up on these false beliefs primarily through characters’ point of view/worldview…”

Did you catch that? Our characters’ worldviews often include what we would consider false beliefs.

Maybe they believe all women are cheaters or all men are liars. Maybe they believe love isn’t possible. Maybe they believe an ethnic group is inferior. Obviously if we, as the author, label that as a false belief, that strongly implies our worldview is opposite.

A Character’s Journey includes a Lesson

The characters’ arc is about them learning their belief isn’t true. (In other words, they learn that their author is right. *smile*) By the story’s climax, they reject their former belief, often stating how much they now know better.

In some stories, this lesson might be minor or very specific. (“This person is good, but I still don’t trust anyone else.”) But in other stories, the characters learn something major enough that their worldview changes. When that happens, unless we’re the type who can write themes opposite our worldview, the characters’ worldview will align closer to ours.

For example, in my stories, characters who don’t believe in the potential of love will likely change to believe in love by the end of the story (sometimes this even happens with the villains). That’s where our theme lies.

The Lesson Is a Theme

The emotional journey—specifically where a character’s arc ends—affects story themes. What characters learn is often one of the main things (if not the main thing) we want readers to take away from our story.

Our theme is essentially trying to convince readers to consider another view of the world: what to value, what to believe, what to aim for, etc. And we make our case by presenting a character who learns the lesson for them.

So if we’re ever not sure what themes our story includes, we can usually find at least one of them by asking ourselves:

What does the character learn by the end of the story?

If we show a character who’s miserable when they believe people are awful and they learn that others can help them become happy and fulfilled, the reader learns right along with the character. The theme would be the lesson: Humanity has the potential to be helpful (and good).

Tip: Strengthen the Theme by Strengthening the Lesson

This technique for discovering our story’s theme through the lesson also hints at two ways we can strengthen that theme.

  • We can use the antagonist to create more “evidence” related to the new belief. Sometimes the antagonist is the antagonist simply because they don’t learn the lesson, and their failure can demonstrate the perils of the false belief. Other times the villain can find redemption by learning the lesson too, which bolsters the protagonist’s experience. Either possibility reinforces the theme.
  • We can be clear about our characters’ motivations at the end of the story to show how they’ve changed after learning the lesson.

To expand on that second bullet point, we could have our character do abc because they’ve learned xyz (something that ties in to the theme). That “because” is the trick.

“Because” ties the actions of their new self to the lessons of the theme with a clear motivation. We’ll often see this motivation in the character’s conscious thoughts or words spoken aloud (many times as they’re disputing the antagonist’s point of view). Those character thoughts and words show that the character learned their lesson, and they directly express the theme.

Whether we’re using the antagonist or stating the protagonist’s motivations clearly, we can emphasize the lesson of the theme. These techniques strengthen the sense of the character arc and give additional “evidence” for the new belief. Ta-da! A stronger theme inserted into the mind of the reader. *smile*

Do your characters sometimes start with beliefs opposite to yours? If so, do they end up closer to your worldview? Do you agree with this “the lesson equals the theme” idea? Can you think of exceptions? Can you think of other ways to strengthen theme by focusing on what the characters learn?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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Story Themes: What’s Your Worldview?

by Jami Gold on April 1, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Graphic of human looking up at space with text: Improve Story Themes with Our Core Beliefs

I don’t know how schools in other places teach writing, but around here, most composition lessons focus on non-fiction. Kids learn how to write research reports, persuasive essays, and journal entries. But rarely do schools (especially pre-high school) focus on writing fiction.

Usually when kids do study fiction, they’re in analytical mode. How did the point of view affect xyz? How did the author’s word choice affect the story’s mood? What was the theme of the story?

Some of us might have winced at the last question above, as kids (and adults!) often struggle with identifying a story’s theme. So when it comes to writing themes in our own stories, we might be at a loss for how to do so.

This past weekend, a writing workshop for preteens included lessons on how to write with themes. The processes the kids went through to discover how to incorporate themes in their stories might help us too. *smile*

Step 1: Understand Why Themes Repeat

In our stories, we try to come up with unique plots, characters, twists, etc. Yet we often repeat themes. Why?

It’s because certain ideas and beliefs resonate deep inside us. Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is so deeply a part of us that we might not consciously recognize it as a construct of our mind.

Despite us not always being consciously aware of those beliefs, more often than not, our stories will reflect that worldview. If we believe people are basically good at their core, we’re more likely to write stories that include elements of redemption or sacrifice. If we believe people are basically selfish at their core, we’re more likely to write stories that include elements of society breaking down in some way.

Our stories reflect our worldview. Our themes reflect our worldview. Therefore, unless we go through a massive psychological change that affects our worldview, our themes will repeat.

We might not even be able to write against our worldview. Above, I had a hard time putting myself into the shoes of the “people are selfish” believers to guess what elements their stories might reflect. A whole story would be even more difficult.

That’s not to say we can’t write characters with opposite beliefs (even with our protagonist), but on the story level—the overall message we want readers to take away—we might not be able to write a story with an opposite belief at the core. If we believe people are good, we’d probably be hard pressed to write a story where the point was to “prove” that people are selfish. That isn’t good or bad—it just is.

Step 2: Identify Our Core Beliefs

For the preteens in the workshop, many of them didn’t have enough life experience to guess at their core beliefs. But a simple technique helped them figure out what ideas and beliefs resonated with them.

  1. Think about what stories—especially the specific scenes, reveals, or turning points—have felt the most powerful to you. Really powerful, not because they were surprising, but because they “spoke” to you. Books, TV, movies, whatever, they all count.
  2. Now think about what those scenes have in common. Are they all about love, loyalty, betrayal, friendship, loss, etc.? Do they share a theme? Do they share a certain perspective? Do they share a type of twist?

The commonalities between elements that speak to us—that resonate deeply within us—can reveal our core beliefs. Our favorite stories will often have themes in common with each other and with our world view.

The first time I experienced one of those powerful scenes, I was younger than the kids in the workshop. I used to watch the old Lost in Space TV show reruns after school, and one scene blew my mind. I was probably about 8 or so, and yet I still remembered the gist of the scene enough to do a Google search for it yesterday.

In this episode, an alien spirit has possessed Professor Robinson (the dad) and he’s about to push Will Robinson (the son, of “Danger, Will Robinson!” fame) off a cliff. In a final goodbye, Will tells his dad he loves him. Ignore the cheesy acting and dialogue, and pretend you’re 8 years old. *smile*

Lost in Space on Hulu: Follow the Leader clip

When Will wonders how his dad was able to fight the mind control, his dad says, “Love, Will. In all the worlds and galaxies of this universe, there is nothing stronger.” *eight-year-old brain explodes*

Every story I’ve loved over my whole life includes variations on this “love is powerful” theme. Every scene that gets my chest to clench and tears to spring to my eyes reflects that idea, from a hero sacrificing for his true love in a romance novel to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow‘s reveal of Professor Snape and his statement of “Always.”

Step 3: Explore those Core Beliefs in Our Stories

Once we know our core beliefs, we’ll know what themes will feel the most powerful to us as we’re writing. And if the themes resonate with us, we might naturally write echoes of those ideas throughout the story.

My stories all explore that “love is powerful” idea in different ways. Some include redemption brought on by forgiving love. Some include sacrifice triggered by protective love. Most include overcoming obstacles because of the strength granted by love.

Whether between lovers, friends, or family, love is at the core of my stories. That’s who I am. That’s my worldview, and I couldn’t write a story from the opposite perspective.

Being aware of our core beliefs can help us write deeper themes and stronger stories by:

For the kids in the workshop, many of them had ideas for setting, characters, or premise, and by learning their core beliefs, they could pick one aspect they wanted their story to include as a theme. Then they came up with conflicts or situations that would expose that aspect.

Now we don’t have to be conscious of all this when we draft. I’m often only subconsciously aware of my themes during drafting, but I know my core beliefs will be in there somewhere. We don’t have to plan this in advance, especially because our stories can have more than one theme, but when it comes time for revisions, we should know what we want to say with our story.

Step 4: Trust Our Core Beliefs During Revisions

Ever get feedback from an editor or beta reader that feels like a gut punch? Like the suggestions would change the essence of your book?

Unfortunately, most of us have. It’s a bad feeling, and we wonder how we could be so off-base in getting our message across. How could they have misread the point of our story so badly?

Many times, no one is “wrong” in that situation. Their suggestions wouldn’t necessarily make the book better, they’d simply make the book different.

The reason some feedback is that far off is because they look at the premise and see how they’d explore that premise within their worldview. The feedback would change the story to match their worldview, not ours.

(Yeah, that’s not helping us improve the story we’re trying to tell, but just as we can’t help our worldview from coloring everything we experience, the same goes for them. These differences are yet another reason why reading is subjective. Our stories probably won’t resonate as much with people who have opposite worldviews.)

So when we’re faced with feedback that conflicts with how our story unfolds at its essence—especially when it feels like if we made the changes, our story wouldn’t be ours anymore—we can compare the suggestions with our core beliefs. If the suggestions conflict with our worldview, we know we shouldn’t make the changes.

Again, while the story would be different, the changes wouldn’t make it better. The changes would simply create a different story. We can’t compare apples and oranges.

Paying attention to our core beliefs when we’re revising might help us trust our gut reaction more. If changes conflict with our core beliefs, we don’t have to doubt ourselves when we ignore those suggestions. Remember: We’re the only one who can tell our story.

On the other hand, if a suggestion aligns with our worldview, we should definitely pay attention. In that case, it’s likely the changes would improve the story we are trying to tell. Our themes would likely be stronger and more powerful.

Knowing what we want to say can make all the difference. If we know what makes our story worth reading (the “so what?” factor), we’re more likely to be able to include those themes than if we hope a theme emerges from the collection of words. Just like our characters, we’re more likely to reach a goal if we have ideas for how to get there. *smile*

Do you repeat themes or core beliefs in your writing? Do you know what your worldview is? Can you think of favorite stories or scenes that reflect your core beliefs? Could you write a story from the opposite perspective? Have you received feedback that reflected a different worldview?

Join Jami in her Upcoming Workshops: Build a Website on 4/22, Learn Beat Sheets on 5/8, & Become an Expert in Story Planning with “Lost Your Pants?” on 5/13. Click here to learn more and save money!

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How to Organize Our Writing Research & Notes — Guest: Jenny Hansen

March 27, 2014 Writing Stuff
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Today’s post continues the “secret weapon” theme from Tuesday’s post, but this time we’re going to talk about issues related to our writing. And this time, the secret weapon is Microsoft’s OneNote. Researching character or location pictures? Use OneNote. Want to capture the most useful tips on a blog post? Use OneNote. Want to remember […]

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Fix Showing vs. Telling with Macros & Word Lists

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Many writers will search in MS Word for red flag words that indicate telling. But there are a lot of those words, and that would be a lot of searches. That’s where macros can help, and today we’ll learn how to build our own trouble-searching macros with a few secret weapons.

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Hiring a Developmental Editor — Guest: Stacy Jerger

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Those of us who haven’t been through the editing process with professionals don’t know what to expect. In the case of developmental editing, we might not even know what editors do. That’s not good. We need to understand what’s involved with the different stages of editing to judge whether an editor is right for us and will meet our needs.

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MS Word Trick: Using Macros to Edit and Polish

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We want to clean up our story the best we can because copy editors often charge a “messy manuscript” premium. Yet it can be difficult to self-edit at this “polish” stage. For one thing, this step can be tedious to the extreme. Even with MS Word’s “find and replace” functionality, there are many words to check, and it’s hard to remember them all.

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Finding Balance: Play Hooky

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When we were school-age, many of us recognized the need to blow off classes and responsibilities once in a while to play hooky. The exhilaration of “getting away with something” can recharge our burned-out batteries just as much as the trip to the shopping mall or whatever we did with our goof-off time. But as […]

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