When readers discuss the themes or metaphors in a novel, I feel confused and uneasy.
Is something wrong with me if, as I write fiction, I never think about themes or metaphors?
Maybe other writers do. I do not. I have no idea how I would work themes and metaphors into a novel. Instead I am taxed completely with creating characters and then telling a story through a series of scenes, just as is done in a play or film.
Each scene needs a beginning, middle, and end and must advance the narrative line; each scene needs characters in conflict and/or dealing with an obstacle or problem; each scene needs a location, a time of day, a day of the week and month.
I chose to set Always Gardenia in Seattle because I could easily research scene locales (in a future blog post I’ll share my thoughts on veracity in fiction). Included are a university campus, several characters’ homes, an Indian restaurant, two coffee shops (of course!), a dog park, the Green Lake walking path, a small theater, even a women’s lingerie department.
All of the scene settings were syntheses of my real observations and experiences and my imagination, but as I wrote, I saw them as clearly as I do the spaces in my own home. I could sketch you a detailed layout of Frieda’s Hamm’s apartment or Hans Pitkin’s townhouse. I know exactly how the tables are set up in the Cafe Venezia. I could draw you a map of Arnold Wiggens’s walk to the swimming pool.
Once I had a list of settings, I wrote a brief running plot line for each scene, including what each character’s issues and conflicts would be. I created a “hook” to draw the reader into the scene and a “cliff” to make him/her keep reading and wondering what would happen next.
I also made up something for the characters to do in each scene — making a salad, drinking tea (of course!), wiping off a kitchen counter, cutting into a cake, lugging a box of thrift store items up and down a staircase, chewing on a chocolate truffle. Mystery writer Elizabeth George calls these THAD (“Talking Head Avoidance Devices”), activities that keep a scene from being just back-and-forth dialog and that can reveal something about the characters.
I adored some scenes I’d written, but a good editor let me know which ones moved the story line and which didn’t, which details worked and which were just too much lavish description. I made cuts, and I even deleted two complete chapters. And I decided to add two scenes (to what I’d thought was the final draft) because I needed more about Gardenia’s relationship with her friend Sylvie and with her son Hans and his family.
I am probably admitting to my failings as a fiction writer, but not once, while working on Always Gardenia — through many iterations — did I think about how to add themes or metaphors. Instead I wrote and rewrote scenes.
NEXT FRIDAY: THE RIGHT TO SILENCE