1/22/03: Thoughts on politics and theme

I just finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and in it he points out that the most memorable novels emerge from the author’s strong convictions. “I feel it is beneficial to work in advance on the moral forces moving underneath your story, but I do feel that such work generally involves strengthening what the people in the story believe rather than what you, the author, may feel. … To avoid a preachy tone, it may be helpful… not to grapple with theme on a global scale, but rather first to examine individual scenes for ways in which they each can be made sharper and more impassioned.” Maas recommends an exercise: write down a character’s internal motivations for doing something in a particular scene, in order of priority. You will probably find that the most immediate motives (physical/emotional requirements) are at the top of that list, with higher motives (search for truth, thirst for justice, whatever) further down. Now try rewriting the scene with the priorities reversed: higher motives at the top, immediate motives at the bottom. “Motivating your characters according to higher values… adds passion to action.” But don’t overplay it. “Understatement and restraint are the watchwords.” How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey also suggests that you should have a theme, or mission statement, for your book. Several other writers about writing have said the same thing. Right now I’m thinking about how to incorporate my feelings about the impending Gulf War II into my novel-in- progress, without having it be “about” the war. I have in mind a theme along the lines of “don’t let yourself be railroaded by the mob” or “control of information is control of reality”. This is not a Message to be stuck into the book… it is a tool to help focus my attention as I outline and draft.

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