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How Much Planning is Spent on Life Lessons and Themes

This week’s post comes from Cindy.

When planning a story, do you contemplate life lessons or do themes go naturally?

This week’s post is a tough question for me to answer. It involves a part of writing that is still a mystery. When I write, I am focused on my characters and the story I want to tell. But, most of the time I stumble into the “bigger picture” connections. So, let me try to attack this question in two parts…since I believe the answer involves both aspects.  

To address the first, I am drawn to a certain incident in college. I loved being an English major. In fact, the moment I chose this path, I came alive with novel discussions…that is until we started predicting what the author was “trying to say.” I hated this because I knew some things in writing just happen. Then, I stumbled across something that proved my point. Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is famous for repeating the last line: And miles to go before I sleep. Critics raved about the repeated stanza, debating Frost’s true intentions. What was he trying to say? The common speculation was that it highlighted death, transferring the meaning of the poem to another dimension. Frost refused to answer the question for many years, but finally caved and stated he simply needed another sentence. Sometimes things just happen in novels. I need to drive the course of the plot or I simply stumble onto a parallelism, but have no idea how events lined up for me to connect in the middle, but they do. There are other aspects readers have brought to me about my stories that I never intended, but am still overjoyed to realize exist in my work. Ultimately, I write for the reader’s interpretation. If they take something away from my work, whether intended or not, then I have done my job.

As I mentioned before, this question does have a second part. There are some things that I plan. This part comes from my studies on Joseph Campbell. I spend most of my effort examining the path of the Hero’s Journey. In fact, I highly recommend The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler for any writer (although a reader might enjoy it as well) wanting to learn the mythical plot structure. This book gives a very thorough outline for the changes a hero must face as well as the types of individuals they can encounter along the way. I don’t plan very extensively into this, although it is always in the back of my mind. Too much planning, in my opinion, stifles the story. What I ultimately outline is where I begin, where I am going, and what I want change I want to showcase. I often say when I write, I start with the ending, find a beginning and then write not knowing the full journey. I do begin an idea asking a question, which does lead to a theme. Most themes involve human strengths. In Lord of Nightmares, there was most definitely a moral question I wanted to ask. But I will also say there are vast other themes that just happened (some I recognized while writing and others readers have pointed out). But, even with this limited planning, I don’t think I do as much manipulation as my English classes would like to suggest. I would also be surprised if the majority of authors do.

Toni Morrison probably mapped out her symbols, allusions and themes. But, I would venture to guess the rest of us plan about half of what readers discover, which is how it should be. If I planned too much, then there would be no room for the reader to insert themselves into the novel. After all, their experience is part of what creates a great novel.

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