Welcome back, everyone! We’re kicking off week 2 of our blog series Writing Craft: Reading to Write. Today’s topic is all about finding your purpose with each new writing project. Just a quick reminder that if you didn’t read last week’s post, “Writing Craft: Reading to Write — What is Writing Craft?” then go ahead and read that before we begin because each post in the month of June is a part of our blog series, and each new post will build on the one before.
What is a writer’s purpose? Simply, a writer’s purpose is why they’re writing. Are they writing to persuade? To entertain? To share their experiences? To build community? One step further, a writer’s purpose is why they’re writing, what they’re writing, and how. When sitting at your desk trying to figure out why you’re writing, you’re also having a discussion on what your main narrative thread is and what themes you’re using to support the narrative that derives from your purpose (the why).
Why is it important to find your purpose?
It’s important as a writer to find your purpose not only for yourself, but also for your reader. You need to know why you’re writing to inform how you write. In other words, you need a goal (purpose), so you can plan out (narrative + themes) how to reach that goal. For your reader, you need to give them structure—something to read (reach) towards. You’re taking them on a journey towards a destination, and if by the end there isn’t a clear or emerging purpose, then the reader will wonder why they are reading in the first place. In another sense, having a purpose helps the reader to understand what they are getting out of reading your work.
Delving Deeper into Purpose: Before a writer even begins writing the first draft, two things need to be crafted or, at the very least, brainstormed: the theme and the main narrative thread. Beneath plots and subplots and beneath characters and their descriptions is the story’s heart, or what your story is really about. Is the story about love conquering all, a relationship between two characters, a hero’s journey, good vs. evil, or a political message? It is possible that your story will have more than one theme, but there should be one that rises above the rest.
Next, the main narrative thread should be whittled down to one succinct sentence that identifies what the story is about. Identifying the main narrative thread will give you something to keep you grounded and undistracted by subplots, secondary characters, and long exposition. Once you have the theme and the main narrative thread identified, figure out how your characters and plot connect to them. Ask yourself: Which scenes relate your theme through your main character’s interactions? How do your description and settings bolster the theme? If something in your narrative thread doesn’t connect to your theme, ask yourself if it’s serving the theme and overall purpose, and, if not, perhaps it shouldn’t be there.
Building Your Purpose: Once you’ve identified your theme and main narrative thread, the next step is to build that theme. Three tools to use are characterization, motifs, and symbols. Characters usually represent the theme itself. Their discussions, thoughts, and behaviors should all be working towards the theme. Motifs are recurring structures or literary devices that inform your theme. Symbols are images, characters, objects, and figures who represent what’s going on beneath the surface of the story relating to the theme. There’s something interesting that happens when we start building the theme. You may find characters doing or saying things you didn’t plan on. Or, you may even find yourself when you look inside characters. Stories can take surprising paths away from the writer’s original purpose or directly to the writer’s own heart and soul. The point is that your purpose can evolve, and that’s okay.
Evolving with Your Purpose: Sometimes a writer has a character in mind before a theme, or the writer sees a plot developing before understanding the deeper meaning of it. Sometimes the theme remains elusive until you’re several drafts in. That is perfectly okay. If obsessing over the theme means neglecting good storytelling, then, by all means, go forth and write without a theme in mind. Keeping writing, but through each draft keep digging to find the heart of the story. Finding the theme that supports your overall purpose is a continual excavation and with each draft you can refine the theme until it’s clear. Above all, be intentional about the process.
Seeing the Purpose in Literature: Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy
*If you haven’t read the Divergent trilogy, know that there are spoilers in this section.
Like many other fans of Veronica Roth’s debut novel Divergent, I was shocked, angry, confused, and more when I got to the end of the third and final book Allegiant because our beloved protagonist Tris Prior dies. After a period of dismay and emotional turmoil at Tris’ death, I realized that I should have seen it coming. And, if I get real with myself, it kind of makes sense. Even further, I can see how Roth used the narrative and themes to fulfill her overall purpose for the writing.
Entertainment Weekly’s Erin Strecker writes on Roth’s blog post explaining the controversial ending. Strecker explains that the main narrative of the books is “Tris’ journey figuring out where she belongs — a specific faction, a factionless society, or just with the people she loves.” Strecker quotes Roth as writing: ‘‘It’s just before her mother gives up her life [at the end of the first book] that Tris figures out how those identities fit together, combining selflessness and bravery and love for her family and love for her faction all together under one umbrella: Divergent…” In the second book Insurgent, we see Tris struggling with her mother’s death and with the guilt of killing a friend who unwittingly was trying to kill her after the Erudite faction overthrows the other factions. Later in the novel, Tris is given the option of surrendering herself to Erudite or let others die. Tris surrenders seemingly to assuage her guilt. She’s later rescued, but her “sacrifice” is another plug at Tris’ journey to understanding sacrifice and selflessness.
By the third book, Tris continues to struggle with these beliefs, but by the end, Strecker writes, “When Tris dies in the Weapon lab, it’s because her journey is complete and she’s making a sacrifice for the right reasons — as opposed to Caleb [her brother], or as opposed to her younger self in Insurgent.” Strecker quotes Roth again: “At the end, she had a conversation with David [the antagonist] where she told him her beliefs about sacrifice, that it should come from love, strength, and necessity. That was a Tris who knew what she believed about selflessness. Who knew who she was. Who knew what she wanted to do.” In an interview with People, Roth explains that her purpose for writing began with the idea of combatting anxiety and doing so through a character who “who faces fears head-on…[Tris is] someone I admire in certain ways because of her willingness to take bold action when it feels like the right decision.”
In summary, Roth began her books knowing the reason why. She had a purpose. Roth crafted her main narrative (Tris finding her faction Dauntless and fighting the tyrannical Erudite faction) and the themes (sacrifice, selflessness, courage, fear, and anxiety) to work together through each book to fulfill her purpose by the end. Yes, it’s sad that Tris dies, but she does so selflessly. She combats her fear and, finally, understands what it means to be selfless.
Challenge: My challenge to you this week is to find your purpose for writing. If you’re starting a new project, why are you writing? What are you trying to accomplish? What narrative and themes will you use to support your purpose? If you’re in the revision process, ask yourself: is my writing living up to my initial purpose? Has my purpose evolved? Is my narrative supporting my purpose? Are my themes supporting my purpose? If the answer is “no” to all of these questions, perhaps you don’t have a clear purpose. If you need some help getting started, perhaps take a look at your favorite books to see the author’s purpose and how they used the narrative and themes to fulfill that purpose.
Well, that’s a wrap for this week’s blog. I hope you found it helpful as you begin your next project or revising your project. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, and please feel free to share your experience in finding your purpose. Don’t forget to come back next week as we move into week 3 of our writing craft series on finding your voice. As always, happy reading and happy writing!
A few sections in this blog post were adapted from Matt Grant’s, “How Great Writers Develop The Theme of a Story” Freewrite