How can you improve and deepen your basic story idea? Besides plot and characterization, how can themes, both major and minor, enrich a work of fiction?
Think about the stories you read as a child. We were taught to draw the “moral of the story” in almost every case. Think about the American Literature classics you’ve read. For example, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. In addition to their stories of war, greed, love and hardship, the great universal themes of literature were imbedded, either consciously or subconsciously by the authors. Their primary objective, no doubt, was to write a compelling story that many—even millions of readers—might enjoy. However, secondary to their objective was the expression of their outlook or philosophy of life. A truth about the human condition.
There are several important themes in For Whom the Bell Tolls: The harsh reality of war and how it kills the individual; That a special love can still survive the horrors of war; That courage and grace under immense stress and danger are the ideals of the average man. Hemingway was a proponent of SHOW, DON’T TELL. He was one of the first American novelists to reveal his characters through mainly action and dialogue. Since his dialogue was sparse, revelations via action was his stock in trade.
His main character, an American journalist who volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, is a reflective man whose survival in the war depends more on his ability to run, shoot and hide than his ability to write. While aware of the deep significance of what’s going on around him, he knows in the circumstances of the war, his individuality is lost. If he is to survive, he must act like a soldier, one of many, rather than an individual. After all, the “bell tolls for thee.” Death is sudden and random. So he acts and speaks, runs, shoots, makes love—when he can—and shows us through his actions how resigned he is to his fate.
The way I plan and plot my books are neither as a plotser or pantser, in the current writers’ colloquialism. It’s simply the way I think creatively. Rather than begin with characters or setting or a conflict idea, I begin with a dominant theme. The conflicts and characters grow from that thematic starting point.
Before I began to write my first book, OPERATION FAMILIA, I knew what my themes were: Family is important and helps to determine one’s identity and self-worth; Know thyself; To thine ownself be true (to paraphrase the old Bard). My main character, Dina Salazar struggles in her quest to find herself—even changes her name—but ultimately, by risking her very life, proves to herself that the search is all important. Moreover, she proves to her family that she’s not a “desgraciada” but a woman of true worth. Which bears out another theme of the book: Only through tests of character is one’s true identity revealed. Dina’s forbearance, patience and compassion are tested in addition to her courage throughout the story, and the climax of the book—when she enters a Mexican drug cartel’s lair--is the final test. Rescuing her Mexican cousins becomes for Dina a true test of her self-worth and her identity.
In my romantic thriller, A BODYGUARD OF LIES, I began with the basic theme of retribution and justice. Though justice is blind, she has a long memory. So FBI analyst Jake Bernstein believes as he is called to go undercover and investigate a naturalized American grandmother suspected of war crimes during World War II. That he is Jewish-American is part of his identity, and losing all of his grandfather’s German family during the Holocaust adds to his deep need for ultimate justice. However, he is a 21sst Century American male, first and foremost, a former Navy SEAL, a conservative male with a condo and stock portfolio. Balance and objectivity are his mottos in life. His undercover assignment becomes an unexpected test of those very mottos. Can he remain objective when the target’s lovely granddaughter has captured his heart, or at least his libido? Does justice really matter after sixty-five years? He has a difficult time believing that old, wrinkled and frail Mary McCoy Snider was really a ruthless Nazi spy, code named Hummingbird. That she conspired to murder the real Mary McCoy and take her place in Churchill’s War Office seems ludicrous to him. The reader knows differently, though.
Ultimately, Jake must decide whether justice prevails or whether the passage of time and the change of circumstance rule over human nature. He faces a crisis of conscience that shocks him, for he’s always viewed himself as a black-and-white kind of man with a righteous zeal.
For me as an author, these universal themes are my guiding lights, the beacons that direct me as I write and develop the characters and conflicts. Everything in the story generates from those themes. This is where the story begins for me.
Whatever works is the general rule of thumb. For me this is what works.
Donna Del Oro spent her childhood in two places, Silicon Valley, CA and the countryside of East Texas, as her father tried several job opportunities. Finally settling in Silicon Valley, she grew up in a bilingual, bicultural world--Spanish on her mother's side and English on her father's. Comfortable in both worlds, she decided upon retiring from teaching to write about her Hispanic side. Four women's fiction books resulted and a series about professional singers, their careers and love lives. Retired and devoting much of her abundant free time to exercise, writing, singing and her grandson, Donna has finally reached a point in life that totally satisfies her. Life is good and she has no complaints, just a lot of gratitude for her many blessings.
The major handed Jake a secure mobile phone, which he tucked into his jacket’s inside pocket. Acknowledging the older man’s military background and bearing, Jake gave a quick half-salute, biting back the sarcastic retort that sprang to mind. I’m thirty-two, Major, not thirteen.
“Will do, Major,” he said and grabbed the handle of his suitcase. “Where the hell is this motor coach going, anyway? Besides the Republic of Ireland?” Major Temple’s bushy gray eyebrows arched. “No, didn’t have a chance to read the itinerary. Too busy with the files.”
Temple chomped on his pipe, one side of his mouth upturned in another wry smile. Jake sensed the man was holding something back.
“Southwest England, Wales, Republic of Ireland, a bit of Scotland. Two weeks’ worth.”
“And if I conclude this investigation in less time?”
“Then we debrief and back home you go. We’ll handle the filing of charges and arrest warrants if needed. Extradition, if necessary, for Mrs. Snider. Well then, good luck, ol’ man.”
Jake nodded and took his leave. Outside, he hailed the guide, a friendly, outgoing sort who introduced himself as Robert Morse. The man quickly turned the suitcase over to the driver, who stowed it in the storage bin at the side of the motor coach. As soon as Robert checked him in and indicated that he could take on board his carryon, Jake moved to the coach’s front door. He suddenly stepped aside as a young, very pretty blonde climbed down, spun around and helped an elderly woman descend.
“Sorry, Robert, my grandmother has to visit the restroom.”
The blonde glanced over at Jake, grinned in greeting, then took her grandmother’s arm and followed the direction of Robert’s sweeping arm. The two women entered the glass-fronted hotel lobby and walked slowly around the corner of the lobby’s counter. Jake’s gaze clung to them.
So there they were. Mary McCoy Snider and her granddaughter, Meghan Larsen. What a hottie!
“Quite a looker, that one,” Robert murmured them, his eyes following their progress as well.
An understatement, Jake thought as he nodded to the man in agreement. The granddaughter was lovely—had the face and figure of a Hollywood starlet. She had a wholesome but sexy look about her. The red lipstick she wore accentuated her full, sensual mouth; her deep-set blue eyes were large and luminous. A boxy navy-blue pea jacket concealed some of her curves, but the overall effect of a beautiful, symmetrical face, a tanned complexion, long blonde waves partly covered with a large, black beret, and graceful motion was powerful. Like a slap of warm sunshine in this cold, damp country. Seduc—er, schmoozing that girl was going to be a perk, not a chore.
Already, he was warming to this assignment.
The grandmother, bulky in a long wooly coat, looked attractive despite her purported eighty-five years of age. The elderly woman was well preserved, he decided, and must have been quite a beauty in her youth. Like her granddaughter, she would’ve turned men’s heads and carried her power over them like a Hollywood pinup girl.
“Would you care to board, Mr. Schoenberger?”offered Robert, the tour guide, interrupting his reverie.
“Call me Jake. I’ll wait until the women return.”
The tour guide tossed him a knowing smirk.
A few minutes later, Jake was helping the elderly woman up to the steep first step. Mary McCoy Snider paused on the steps, holding onto the railing on the coach’s door, and looked back at Jake, her dark blue eyes sharp with intelligence.
“Thank you, young man. What’s your name?” she asked, a slight Texas drawl softening her naturally strong, clear voice.
“Jake. Jake Schoenberger from Virginia.” He smiled up at the elderly grandmother, who then nodded and moved up into the coach. He slid his gaze down to the granddaughter, who’d paused at the coach’s door. The top of her head came to his jawline.
“Thanks for helping, Jake,” she said, blinking up at him before climbing the steps herself. Her long honey-blonde hair brushed his shoulder when she moved past him. There was a self-conscious shyness in her manner. Which Jake found odd, for such a beautiful woman. Wow. His pulse revved up.
Dude, you’re on duty.
Wasn’t that why they chose him? Get close, peel off the layers of distrust...
He proceeded up after Meghan Larsen, appreciating the rear view. Too bad, he thought, when the two women took seats near the front of the packed coach. The one vacant double-seat was in the rear of the coach. He nodded a friendly greeting to all of the passengers as he passed them on his way to the back. They were mostly couples but another single man, an older guy in his fifties, sat alone at the halfway point in the coach. Two women of about the man’s same age—maybe mid-forties—were behind him. They perked up as he walked by, shot him wide smiles beaming with anticipation.
He knew that look.
After stowing his carry-on underneath the empty seat next to him, Jake sat down. His long legs brushed against the seat in front. Damn, like traveling in coach. Two weeks in this freakin’ bus—how was he going to stand it?
He leaned over. From his vantage point, he could see the blonde’s wavy locks falling about her shoulders. She was sitting on the opposite side of the coach in the aisle seat, her grandmother in the window seat. Damn, he’d have to find a way of sitting closer to them. Maybe their seats on the coach weren’t fixed ...or he could feign motion sickness and ask Robert to place him further forward.
As he was plotting a way to chat up Mary Snider and her granddaughter, the blonde swiveled her upper body and looked down the aisle. Their eyes locked together briefly and she smiled. Despite a night without sleep and heavy with jet lag, his pulse kicked up. Something lurched in his chest. His groin clenched. Jake returned the smile.
Good, he thought, she noticed me. Contact with targets made.