Tag: setting

Two Honors Classes Prove the Truth about Theme

Two classes of fifteen juniors in high school read the same story and come up with completely different themes for the story. What truth about theme could this possibly prove?

Read on if you haven’t already guesses the answer. (Or scroll to the end if you’re THAT person.)

As an author, I think about theme. I don’t generally think about theme when I’m first drafting a story. At least not in the concrete way English teachers try to teach it.

Since I prefer reading plot driven stories, those are the kind I generally write. Of course, they involve interesting and relatable (I hope) characters who will change, learn and/or grow by the time the plot culminates.

During my rewriting phase is when I ask myself, “What do I want readers to take away from this story?” For me, that is the essence of theme. In the language arts classroom, theme was said to be “the central idea or meaning of a story.”

Doesn’t my definition sound like something a person would actually say? (Could be because I said it.)

On this particular Wednesday, I read the short story “Love in LA” by Dagoberto Gilb (an award winning short story author) to (or with) two different classes of 11th-grade students (mostly girls, by the way).

Jake rear-ends a cute, young babe with his ‘58 Buick. Her brand new (‘93) Toyota doesn’t fare so well. You might think this is a story about these two hitting it off and ending up in love, but this is “Love in L(os) A(ngeles)” so that’s not what happens at all. Instead, she tries to get the information she needs to get her car fixed while Jake tries to get her phone number.

First Period

The lesson for the day was a Socratic Seminar around this story. As the substitute teacher, I was the facilitator, and I had to insert a few more ideas during this class period. It was before 9am, so most teenagers lack full cognitive functioning.

I read the first paragraph (the longest one in the story) and one of the students read the rest. She had a difficult time keeping her eye rolls at bay in some areas. Jake fancies himself to be quite the charmer, but even his target realizes he’s more of a con man.

The first and last paragraphs refer to freedom in contrast to the sticky situation in Los Angeles at that moment, a traffic jam.

After more than 40 minutes of discussing Gilb’s methods of characterization and what the title had to do with the story, the students were asked to write what they believed the theme was. It was like pulling teeth to get someone to have the courage to share theirs.

                    “Freedom doesn’t come without a price.”

Examples from the text supported this idea. Since the first and last paragraphs reiterated the pursuit of freedom as Jake’s main goal, it seemed like a good bet that could have been the “central idea or meaning of the story.”

Fourth Period

This group of all girls came in, energized from the lunch break they’d just had. They were chatty, but not disrespectful and happy to discuss the literature at hand.

After I read the story to them, that is.

This class judged Jake to me having a mid-life crisis (while first period thought he couldn’t have been older than 35). They saw his reliable, old classic car as a symbol for his “old life” as a younger man. His flirtations with a girl they felt was maybe 22 were really his attempt to return to “the good old days.”

In fact, the word freedom was never mentioned until, at the end of class bell, when I told the class what theme first period came up with. And I could hardly contain my grin.

“Sometimes dreams are beyond reach.”

“Sometimes it’s too late to go back to what once was.”

“If you want to reach a goal, you need to do more than dream about it.”

All of these were themes the students tossed around toward the end of our discussion. Furthermore, the evidence they cited in the text supported these as the central idea of the story.

The Truth about Theme

Theme in literature might not be subjective (since the text must prove it) but it is open to interpretation.


At the end of that second great discussion, I wished for Gilb’s phone number or email address. I wanted to ask him if one (or all) of these themes where indeed the meaning he intended to convey with this short story.

Not that it matters. The students had already proven what I’ve always know to be true:
Theme is the meaning the reader gleans from the story.

Yep, it’s not about the author’s intentions at all. Sometimes, readers might discover the truth an author buried in plain sight within a text. Other times, their personal experiences and worldview might glean unintended ideas and meanings.

The long introduction to theme in the lesson plans said, “Although readers may differ in their interpretations of a story that does not mean that any interpretation is valid.” They support this by saying that the statement of theme “should be responsive to the details of the story.” Meaning a reader’s experiences can’t outweigh the actual statements of the text.

One of the girls in the second class said, “Well, that line shoots down my idea.” This when I read one sentence from the text which stated the opposite of what she was sure the author intended to say.

Which of these themes was the one Gilb intended? Or did he have an entirely different meaning behind the writing?

Truthfully, themes are an amazing way to concentrate analysis on a text. However, even in a short tale, there is the possibility that readers will have a takeaway that the writer never intended. Conversely, they might not “get” the point the author hoped to convey.

Is it true that theme is open to interpretation (and thus subject to misinterpretation)?

What You Should Be Reading this Weekend

Weekends are the perfect time for cuddling up in front of a fire with a good book. It’s even better if you can get a bite-sized story that fills the one or two free hours perfectly. And I have a recommendation that fits both bills: ONE SNOWY NIGHT.

This is a new collection of four short stories released by Roane Publishing only a few days ago. Because it’s my publisher, I read the advanced copy several weeks ago. And boy did it get me in the mood for snowy nights cuddled up with my honey.

I’m not going to give you the summary. You can click over to my blog earlier in the week to read the blurbs for all the stories.

My Review

You’ll enjoy four- and five-star reads in this collection. It includes stories with traditional tropes but all of them have a twist. That’s exactly the way I enjoy my tropes.

Melissa J. Crispin takes the “I lost my memory” trope and throws it into an interesting situation. What if you forgot you were divorced? What if you woke up after an accident expecting to see your husband? Asking these questions worked for the author because the husband under consideration hadn’t wanted the divorce in the first place.

These characters weren’t especially relatable as far as careers go, but their emotions were universally understood. Although I thought the story shifted too suddenly in some areas, it was still a powerful, feel-good read that made me tear up.

Four stars.

If you haven’t read anything by T.E. Hodden, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. I’ve read several of his stories, and this one has the most “feels” of any I’ve read. Again, he uses a common trope–friends to lovers–and freshens it up with incredible stakes.

He employs two devices I’m usually NOT impressed with. The first is that most of the story is a flashback. The reason this doesn’t really work for me is because I know where the story’s going and that takes away the tension in the progression.

That didn’t happen here. In fact, I kept turning pages wondering, “Well, how did this happen?” And although I figured out the big misunderstanding fairly early, I still wanted to keep reading.

The other thing is the use of first AND second person. I especially dislike second person because I never feel the “you.” In this case, the author pulled off this strange point of view. It came across as the narrator telling the story to the love interest (the “you” of the story). Some skilled writing went into this.

Five stars.

If you like the friends to lovers trope when it’s separated by a time lapse, you’ll like Laurie Treacy‘s story. While I felt like it told us the individual stories of Danielle and Quinn rather than truly building their romance, I still enjoyed it. Part of that could have been the hometown setting, which is one I generally adore.

The characters were well-developed and I could relate to their struggles. The plot progressed very much as expected in a romance, but I never felt the budding (or revisited?) relationship was in peril, so it didn’t have the sort of tension I need to fully engage with a romance-only story.

Four stars.

The final story I read in the collection was by Charlotte Snead. “One Snowy Day” took the trope of surrogate mother to wife and twisted it by giving an incredibly unique situation as the setup. It didn’t have the same “winter afternoon” feeling as the other stories, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable and engaging.

I never connected with these characters the way I did in the other stories. The only one who had my empathy was the little girl, Molly. I wanted the aunt and dad to get together so Molly would finally have a happy home.

Four stars.

My Recommendation

If you enjoy sweet romance, you’ll want to pick up this collection. Each story offers enough familiarity to pull you right in and enough originality to keep you reading.

These aren’t holiday stories. Yes, most of them center on events that happen in the winter, but many of them span several months or years.

Once you sample these authors, you’ll be back to Roane Publishing to read more from them. And that’s a perfect way to throw support to a small indie publisher.

Don’t forget the Giveaway for a $10 gift card.

What are you reading this weekend? I hope you’ll consider adding One Snowy Night to your pile.