Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Theme-Worldbuilding Integration Part 1

Last week I gave you a list of previous posts involving THEME. 


Here is a list of links to some of my posts on Worldbuilding

And after I compiled that list, I did another Worldbuilding series.  This one, Part 7, posted here August 14, 2012 has links to previous ones in that series:


So in these writing craft posts, I've been breaking the mental processes of a professional commercial fiction writer down into individuals bits that a person who has nothing more than ambition can study, practice, encompass, and master.

In the posts with INTEGRATION in the title -- I'm tackling walking-and-chewing-gum exercises where you combine these individual skills two or more at a time.

Remember writing is a performing art, just like any stagecraft, and the only way to practice is one skill at a time, then two at a time, then three at a time, over and over until you can do it smoothly.

The new writer's objective is not to produce one salable piece any more than a new acting student's objective is to play Captain Ahab in the remake of Moby Dick in 3-d at the first acting class.

The objective is to learn to write, not to turn out a perfect piece, and not to rewrite and rewrite a flawed piece trying to fix it so you can sell it.  Ideas are cheap and plentiful.  Throw out the one you started with, and start from scratch with a new theme and a new world that can be integrated into that theme.   

As Alma Hill taught me, writing is a performing art.  I keep repeating that because you must not forget it. 

Here our objective is to parse out, slice and dice a single craft skill and practice it over and over until you can do the moves without thinking.  This process produces that famous "million words for the garbage can."  It's a pianists scales and a ballet dancer's "positions."  You don't do this stuff "on stage" -- but what you do on stage will never be worth an audience paying for if you refrain from doing these exercises. 

So since we've been looking at theme and at worldbuilding somewhat separately, now we're going to combine these two skills, integrate them, do them both at the same time.

ONE MORE THING as Colombo was wont to say:  plant this firmly in your mind and never forget it.  The objective here is not to get you to think WHAT I think -- the objective is to get you to think HOW I think.  It is the process of creating strange places with strange sounding names, and even stranger characters to fall in love with.  But above all, it is a process not a thought. 

Where Do You Find A Theme?

You can't just make up some crazy theme from some twisted philosophy you read about somewhere and expect it to work up into a splendid Alien Romance story.  You need to know all that weird stuff, true, but it won't work in a novel unless your target reader is already engaged in something related to the weird stuff. 

So first, you search out a theme that your target readership is worried about, worrying at, immersed in, or best of all has never questioned. 

You find those themes by looking around you in your own real world.  Usually the best material comes flying out of the TV screen during commercials, or during some story the news has gotten stuck on because it's become popular.

The TV news channels pay thousands of dollars a month for survey companies to figure out audience share, and to monitor as people click through a channel or click away to see what topics people are interested in.

They use focus groups, and all kinds of fancy statistical measuring devices, and they pay big bucks for them, all to find out what's popular -- and you can have all that at your writerly fingertips for FREE if you just open your eyes and ears and reverse engineer what comes off your TV screen.  Read newspapers, and online news sites and scan blog comments, too. 

Watch TV News, commercials, and cruise through some TV shows, just flip through and watch a few scenes out of context -- take notes and you'll have all the material you need to find a theme for your next Romance story -- alien and otherwise.

After you've found a subject that's got a huge audience tied into philosophical knots, then you apply what you've learned of weird philosophies, dissect and divide the subject into opposing philosophies, then figure out characters who would espouse those opposing philosophies.

Practice this process repeatedly, maybe hundreds of times, to program your subconscious mind to think like this (true, some people are just born doing this, some have to train for it, just like piano playing).  Just do it as a pianist does scales, over and over, mindlessly. 

Eventually, characters will just POP into your mind all fired up over their personal philosophical boondoggles, and you can toss them into a world and let them fight it out until Love Conquers All.  The "fight it out" part is the plot.  The melding of two opposing philosophies into Love is the story.  Plot and Story must become integrated to be a readable novel.  If you use characters who POP into your head before you've done this kind of practice, the end product will very likely be unpublishable and un-fixable because the flaw lies at the theme-worldbuilding interface.  It's easier and more economical to take a new idea and write something new. 

To integrate Plot and Story, use worldbuilding the surroundings to show-don't-tell how a philosophical vice clamping down on a couple, forces them closer and closer together as they resist. 

PRINCIPLE: What is most like you, psychologically, is what repels you most until you learn to love yourself by loving the Other.  (that's a philosophy)  This principle is the core plot-driver of many Romances because it's true in real life.  Just don't assume your reader understands that principle.

Where Do You Find A World?

As with finding a theme, you find the world you must build by looking around yourself.

Your readers live in the same world you do -- only it doesn't look the same to them as to you.

Each individual has a different perspective, just as each character you invent looks at the world you put around them from a unique, personal point of view.

For example: If you put two characters in a dark room lit by a neon sign across the street, flickering regularly, one will SEE threat/danger/sleaze and the other will SEE home/comfort/familiarity.  The threatened one will see the gun on the bedside table gleaming in the red light that highlights the tattered, stained chenille bedspread, the anti-thief bars on the window.  The other will see the fuzzy slippers under the bed, the little coffee pot primed for the next morning, the Kindle peeking from under the pillow lit with a music video. 

Both characters are looking at the same room, but living in different worlds.

The writer builds the character's world from INSIDE the character.

This gives a story a verisimilitude it could have no other way -- because we, in our everyday reality, build our own worlds in exactly that way.

Our mood and expectations etch each detail we notice in high relief.  We selectively notice details that underscore our mood and validate our personal philosophy.  Glass half-full/ Half-empty is a case in point.

You find your character's world in your own world which you share with your reader.  That helps the reader step into the world of the novel. 

How do you integrate Theme and Worldbuilding?

The details of the World you bring into high relief to showcase your characters are the details that sift through the filter of your theme:  do you see the gun on the table or the fuzzy slippers under the bed?

The only details you include in a story are the specific ones which state and illustrate your theme.

Everything else may be there, (and in a science fiction or fantasy work, must be there) but is not mentioned.

The details that are not mentioned are the ones that speak loudest about the world you have built.

You, as writer, must know all those unmentioned details.  They can not be random.  All the working parts of the world you build must go together, creating a picture more coherent than our real world.

Your world must make sense to your readers even when it does not make sense to your characters.

In our real world, our normal lives very often make no sense.  We struggle and flounder amidst uncertainty, shocks, surprises, and calamities.  We're so busy surviving, we can't see the pattern and often forget our objectives and act counter to our best interests.

We harbor conflicting philosophies learned from different teachers, and follow leaders who sell us on a piece of a philosophy that sounds good, but in truth that leader has no clue where they are going, or why! 

People read novels to get away from that kind of confusion, to find a world where things make sense.

And readers remember novels where the world in the novel not only makes sense in and of itself, but makes sense of the reader's real world, too.

The secret of casting that illusion of a sensible world for your reader is in the way you handle theme, and the way you generate your created "world" from the internal conflict of the point-of-view character then filter out details leaving only the details that form a clear, clean pattern the reader can understand better than the character does.

Does the character see the slippers or the gun first?  Choose that first image by using the theme.  Is the theme "home is where the heart is" -- or is the theme "poverty breeds violence" -- choose the theme, and the choice of worldbuilding image becomes inescapable. 

A character with an internal conflict about poverty and violence sees the gun first, maybe never notices the slippers.

A character with an internal conflict about yearning for the comfort and safety of home, however simple, will see the slippers first, and the gun will be marginally incidental. 

In Theme-Worldbuilding Integration Part 2: The Use of Misnomers  we'll look at the artistic use of confusion to create verisimilitude.  Clarity vs. Confusion makes for artistic contrast. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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