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Theme: How I Understand It

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I have been struggling with theme for a time now. I research and research, and it seems that theme slips from my grasp with every knew opinion and idea about it that exists.

But, I think I may have finally had that epiphany that you get when having a shower. That aha moment when you finally get it.

So I am going to explain to you my idea of theme. How I see it. How I plan to implement it. How I believe it can be integrated into story.


So first off: Every story has theme. 

That part is true. At least every good story has theme. Any story I have read, heard, or watched had theme.

You can have multiple themes:

Every story has theme. Some will have one major theme that sticks out. But if you look, you can find other smaller themes. Some themes are directly related to certain characters, or certain plot lines. Some themes cover the whole story. You can weave this as you want.

Every scene relates to the theme:

This one was hard for me. It felt very restrictive. How could I relate every scene to the theme? But then this was part of that epiphany moment. You can have more then one theme. Also, you don’t want to yell your theme into the faces of the reader. You don’t want to be preachy. So this is also when you can add in the theme like a little salt and pepper. You can be obscure, but not so obscure the reader can’t find it if looking.

You can also be blunt. But not all the time. Maybe a few scenes in the book slaps the reader around and says, “this is what I’m trying to say Jack. Right here. Listen to me.” If you do that to much, though, the reader may put the book down.

Theme is a statement:

Theme isn’t a question, or a motif. Theme doesn’t dance around the message. Theme says “You will die a lonely and sad death if you don’t get along with people.” It tells you directly, without dancing around the bush.

Theme picks a side:

The different plots taught in English class: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, etc. Okay all fine and dandy. Your theme will pick a side of that vs. The side that proves the theme correct.

How To Implement Theme

This is the tough part. This is were it gets hard. I found that first you have to pick your tricks of the trade. The tricks that will help you show theme. I’m sure they all have their own English Class names. But I’m using my own descriptions for these tricks. So bite me.

The Reverse

This is when you show something in the scene that is opposite the theme. Say you have a theme for a specific character that says: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” You can then show a scene of the character enjoying the soft side of love. Little does anybody know you have the prickly side waiting for him a few pages down. haha. Your evil.


We will stick with the above theme: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” So maybe while your character is enjoying the soft side of love, he is making love to his girl and they are outside, and they roll into a thorn bush. Blunt/Subtle. The readers don’t know the wording of your theme. Only you do. They may just think it is funny that the character has an ass full of thorns. But it is theme. It is there. Anybody that wants to look will see it. Especially later when things get rough and theme comes out bluntly.


Theme can come out in dialogue. In conversation. There are different methods to this. You can be blunt and have somebody even repeat the words of your theme. What fun is that? I mean in some instances it probably works. But I want a word count here. Lets stretch it out. Lets show the theme through a conversation without actually saying it. Maybe the character is talking to his buddy about what a bitch his girlfriend is. His friend has experience and says love is rough. You get cut. You bleed inside.


A sound can help show theme. Maybe the rattling noise of a dry thorn bush nearby disrupts the lovers during a pick nick in the woods.


Action is sometimes the best way to show theme. A fight ensues between the two lovers. Maybe the character is trying to think about the right thing to say as to avoid making things worse: He is trying to avoid the prickly situation.


Your plot is the story. You will have smaller subplots, and then the larger one. And they all relate to the overall goal of the story. Your story overall plot is best reserved for that big thematic message. But maybe, since we are talking about a character theme, we will stick to the plot of this relationship. The overall plot, and all that goes into it, will, in the end, show the theme. Because theme is a statement and will be proven correct, the fact that love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt, the plot has to prove this. So in the end, the character  will get hurt from his love with the girl. The whole plot leads to that. But just to not confuse people, that doesn’t mean that is the end of the relationship. A new plot can start and they can prove the theme wrong by having a new theme that states love will win over all, or something along those mushy lines. You can, of course, be evil and just leave the character hurt.  ha ha.

Motifs and Symbols

Motifs are identified as symbols, mistakenly.

Symbols: images, ideas, sounds or words, represent something else. They help the reader understand an idea or a thing.

Motifs: images, ideas, sounds or words, help explain the central idea of a story, like theme.

Another major difference. A symbol may appear once or twice. Motif appears throughout the story as a recurring element.

People get confused and think Motif is theme. It isn’t. Motif is an element to help carry theme. Example theme: “have hope and the day will come through”. The motif may be the word “hope” from the lips of a crazy lady throughout the story. Or it may be the sunrise every morning. Imagery, Dialogue, Action, and Sounds, all tools of theme themselves can also be motifs, if you decide to use that same element throughout the story.

Symbols, not directly used to show theme, may be used to show an idea or thing that helps show theme. Very subtle indeed. “Have hope and the day will come through” The idea of hope creating hope helps show this theme. Maybe the idea, of a person in a bad situation, to help another, in hopes that person will help others as well, symbolizes hope creating hope, which leads to the theme “have hope and the day will come through”. Very subtle indeed.

Using this all together

These are all independent tools to help incorporate theme. The best use is to use them all together, quite often in a complex weaving of each other. Have a scene with dialogue, action, sound and imagery. In that imagery show symbols of an idea that supports the theme, and through action show a motif that appears throughout the plot. What a powerful scene that will be. And the best part, the part that makes you a writer, is you show all these elements and still move the story forward in its goals and plot.

Have fun.


Written by Cali

October 29th, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Heinlein’s Rules And How To Not Rewrite

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So my previous post on Heinlein’s Rules I talked about how I plan to follow the rules and some details on what I can and can not do, based on my reading.

I wanted to go further into it as I have now done some 2nd draft spell checking and punctuation checks. During the process I found some things that could be considered 2nd draft editing. As grammar, spell checking, and punctuation are vital to a professional story, and won’t take away from the creative side of the brain by correcting, I have also found other elements that should be fixed without going into critical mind.

These include:




Plot Clashes

I’ll elaborate on each so you’ll see more on what I’m talking about. I believe each of these are as vital as the spell checking, punctuation, and grammar. I believe that fixing these issues won’t delve into critical voice.


You decide to write a story in past, present, or future tense. Your writing should stay in the tense you have chosen. As you read through your story, watch for tense changes.


Style includes things like how you write out a word that has multiple ways of spelling. Or you decide that a word should be capitalized in certain uses, and not capitalized in other uses. Maybe you have a foreign language and the words that make it into the story are italicized.  Maybe the punctuation rules are flexible, and multiple uses are considered correct. You need to make sure you choose one way and stick to it. These are style and if you start zigzagging on how something is used, it is unprofessional looking.


You have built a world, or researched a subject that plays a major role in your story. You want to make sure the facts are straight. Maybe in a pass, between two mountains, it is always storming. But you have your characters waltzing through on a sunny and nice day. That’s getting your facts wrong. Maybe your story is set in a country you had to research about, and you found in your writing that your character pets a sacred donkey in front of the locals and they didn’t blink an eye, when doing so is the death sentence. That’s a fact that is wrong and needs fixing.

I don’t consider this critical mind. I consider this creative, because by fixing something such as this, you need to be creative. Petting the sacred donkey changes your story. Instead of moving on unhindered, your character now must escape from the angry mob of locales, while still achieving his goal. Creativity will play a big part.

A small example: I was going through the 2nd draft of a story about a fairy society. The main character buys a mantis leg from a man to eat. But that is wrong. The main character didn’t buy a mantis leg from a man. The main character bought a mantis leg from a fairy man. That’s a big difference.

Plot Clashes

I don’t call this plot holes because plot holes is part of this category. You’re reading and notice that a big hole in the plot invalidates the whole story. Now you need to get creative to fix this. You can’t publish a story with a large plot hole. I mean, you can, it won’t hurt, it just won’t be a story people want to read. It also won’t help your writing career. By fixing the plot hole, you will make the story better and people may want to read it. I don’t believe this is critical mind because your not changing an already existing plot, your just completing the plot you already set out to write. You are being creative and adding to it.

Another type of plot clash is time clash. Your character is found to be in two spots that he could not possible be in with the amount of time that is passed, or your character is in the same spot at the same time. You need to fix this.

Other Creative Mind Fixes

I may have missed something. As your work on your second draft, you’ll find things that are creative mind fixes. Fill free to add to the list.

What You Don’t Want To Do

You don’t want to go through your manuscript adding in or reducing description, rewriting sentences, cutting out paragraphs, rewriting sections, swapping scenes, changing words, reworking dialogue, and trying to fix what you already wrote. What you wrote the first time is your creative mind. Going through trying to change what you wrote is critical mind and your writing will become stilted.  Stick to the creative mind fixes, give to your first reader, and then publish.

Don’t change the plot around, don’t try to improve the characterization, don’t change the elements of the story. If you notice something about the story you don’t like, take a note, and work on that in the next story.


The Summary

First Draft: Write the story

Second Draft: Spell check, check punctuation and grammar. Check tense, style, facts, plot clashes, and other creative mind possible fixes.

Give to a first reader, or wait a month then read with a fresh mind.

Third Draft: If your first reader finds problems, or you find problems on your fresh read, fix.  This is a touch up. Creative mind issues missed on second draft.



The Fantasy Novel Checklist

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This are the steps to take when writing a fantasy novel. Well the steps I’m taking when writing a fantasy novel. I hope it helps anybody else who wants to give it a shot.

Fantasy Novel Checklist

___ Draw A Map.Include Interesting Places of Note that Could Possibly Be Used in Story

___ Draw Inhabitants Of People or Races on Map

___ Develop Creatures and Eco System for World, Record in World Building Notebook

___ Place Creatures of Importance on Map, Indicate Rest in World Building Notebook

___ Develop Language For Each Race as Needed in Current Book, Record in Culture Notebook

___ Develop Culture For Each Race as Needed in Current Book, Record in Culture Notebook

___ Develop the History of the Interesting Places of Note. Record in World Building Notebook

___ Develop Characters as Needed in Current Book, Record in Character Notebook

___ Develop Plot, Using Ideas From Past Check Points, Record in Plot Notebook and Cards

___ Begin Writing Book

___ Go Back to Any Check Point and Add Details as they are Needed While Writing Book

There is a lot more to each check point. Like in culture, you have to develop home life, community, religion, government. Each one of those will have different things related like architecture, clothing, magic, science, folk lore, music.

Characters are going to have many questions aside from physical attributes and habits. You need to go into past life, future plans, present problems. What do they need now, and how are they getting it. What are the things they have done they don’t want others to know about. How will they react if people do know, etc.

There is a lot to this list, but I break it down in an order that will help me move ahead and get the book finished. I placed it in a certain order for a reason.

I find that if I don’t have a map, I don’t have a place to start. I then find I need to place people on the maps, and creatures and other important places of note. I don’t know anything about the people or the creatures, or the places, but I know I will know when I start researching the languages of the people, and the culture, and developing the ecosystem, and the creatures. I have to do it in order.

Once that is done, I can then go and create characters based on their culture. Once I learn about the people I will then work on my plot. Usually if I’m not sure what I need for a plot, it will start developing as I learn about the characters.

If I have a plot already, I can work the people to fit into it. But usually, so far anyways, the plot comes after I develop the people.

Now you write.

While your writing, you will find there are things you need to know about. So then go back and research it as you write. Don’t try to research everything at once, because half of it you won’t even use. If you try to research everything, you will never get to writing. Just research enough to get the book started. Then research as you need the info.

Hopes this helps.

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