I’m about to confess to a horrible crime (at least in some people’s minds), but first let me say I’m doing a bit of a Dance of Joy because while driving to pick up bird and wildlife food, the theme of my NaNoWriMo project finally came to me today .
For me, theme is like my destination in a cross-country trip. If I don’t know my theme, I don’t know where I’m going. Now I know some of you are saying, “Carolyn, you ignorant slug! (to paraphrase SNL) You’re climax is where you’re going.”
Sure, my climax is my ultimate destination, but if I don’t know my theme, I don’t know my route. I don’t know How I’m going to get to my climax because I don’t know Why I’m taking this trip.
I’ve been to the Grand Canyon several times, alone and with different people. The Grand Canyon is the destination, but how we get there depends upon the reason for going. Is it a must-see stop on the way to a tech conference in Vegas? Or is it the first vacation getaway in 5 years? In the first situation, I’m plotting the fastest, shortest route that leaves as much of my limited time as possible to explore the Grand Canyon before heading on to the conference. In the second event, I’ve got time to meander through some of the other great side trips in the area.
Some folks like to make a beeline to the destination, others like to meander and explore options. I’ve tried both methods of novel plot development — and failed
I’ve come to realize after 3 NaNoWriMo efforts and several other novels-in-progress that if I don’t know my theme, I tend to get lost in the plot and wind up at a dead end. Or worse, I force the plot and wind up fighting dead characters until I accept that no Code Blue plot shock will revive them.
Which brings me to the other thing I need in my novel writing journey — character motivation. Character motivation is my guide to all the sights and side trips I will take.
Don’t you hate it when a character does something totally out of character just to advance the plot? If I’m not clear on my theme, my characters seem to mumble, “But, like, what’s my motivation in this scene?” The dialogue and action may be fine, but it just lies there with all the appeal of a celebutant’s acting debut.
Without understanding my theme, my character development is just a bunch of quirks and tricks that aren’t convincing. Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow worked perfectly in the first Pirates of the Caribbean because his character motivation was entirely clear — he’s wants his ship, the Black Pearl, back! But he’s not a total blackguard, so he tries to get it back without cold-bloodedly killing everyone who got in his way. Compare this to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh character in No Country for Old Men. Both Sparrow and Chigurh are motivated by a single-minded pursuit of their goal, but the character development is entirely different because the theme of each story is entirely different.
My character development and motivation comes from knowing my theme.
Here’s Where I Confess My Crime
While conservative participants consider it a NaNoWriMo crime (if not a mortal sin) to write anything before November 1st, I’ve got about 16,000 words of dialogue & first draft on some scenes that I’ve been using to get a handle on my character development and plot. This year I’ve come to realize that I do this pre-NaNoWriMo writing to uncover the true theme to my story so I can establish stronger character development and motivation and build a stronger plot based on how each character will act — and react — in various situations.
Will I be using these 16,000 words when I start my NaNoWriMo project on Nov. 1?
Parts of it will definitely be worked into the project, especially some of the dialogue. Some folks can simply think about their NaNoWriMo project and work everything out in their heads. Others can talk it out with friends or family. I envy them. I, however, work it out on the page.
But I’m also determined to have the complete first draft of my novel done which will be more than 50,000 words and I know that I’ll be re-writing from scratch on Nov. 1. This time, however, I’ll know my destination, my fully-developed characters and their motivations and well-structured plot development because I know my purpose.
Throughout November, I will be posting how things are going, and I’ll be sharing some resources, exercises and tools I’m trying out this year.
And if you find any of this useful (or entertaining), please Comment below, Like it, Tweet it, share it — especially the downloads.