Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today's Theme....

I'm currently writing an article for my writing group newsletter, and the topic is "theme". I took on the "assignment" because it's a subject I'm not really comfortable with--I don't feel that I have a good understanding of theme as it relates to my own writing, and I've never set out to write about a theme, or even to define whether or not I had one in any of my stories. So far it's been an interesting research journey. I haven't completed the article (it's past my deadline, but my editor is the forgiving sort--I hope!), and I'll probably share some of it here when I do, but in the meantime I'm going to share some of the quotes and concepts I've come across along with my reactions to them.

To begin, I went looking for a definition. The dictionary provided one, and I'll likely take it up in my article, but I was more interested in how other writers looked at the subject. I looked through a number of my reference books and was somewhat surprised to realize that only two addressed the subject directly. Rust Hills (Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular) talks about a writer's "special way of looking at things", and the concepts of world view (the way the world is) and sense of morality (the way the world ought to be). Mr. Hills notes that in writing we create a world based on those concepts and we are responsible for the coherence of that world so that a reader is willing to pay attention to "what he has to say" about how the world is our ought to be, i.e. the theme of the book. For Christopher Vogler (The Writer's Journey, 2nd Edition), the theme of a story is "What is the story really about?..... What single idea or quality...?"

When I put those two together and took a moment to think about it I realized that it reminded me of many of the things I've read about pitches and having one-liners ready for time with an editor/agent. Was theme it? As Mr. Vogler said, for the theme of a story "boil down its essence to a single word or phrase". Then I thought, not really. I a pitch, one-liner, etc. is closer to a premise as it is covered in an article by Patricia A Guthrie (www.authorsden.com in October 2008) who says that "According to the Wikepedia "The premise of a film or screenplay is the fundamental concept that drives the plot." In her take on premise, it's more a cause and effect statement whereas "theme is the message or messages the author wants to convey." She compares that to the Wikipedia definition of theme: In literature, a theme is a broad idea in a story.........usually about life, society or human nature........usually implied rather than explicitly stated. So I’m thinking that while the broad idea may be included in pitch, I think a one-liner has to be more story-specific.

A comment I found online by Scott W. Smith at www.screenwritingfromiowa.wordpress.com took me back to the reason I’m tackling this subject in the first place. He said "There are many ways to attack writing your story and if you read enough of how writers ply their trade you will find quality writers who come from all kinds of angles; plot, character, situation. Another angle is writing from theme. And even those who don’t start with theme have one emerge somewhere in the process." The idea that there's a theme in your writing whether you know it consciously or not is one I've read in several sources, and ties into what Mr. Hills said. Of course some people would have it that romances "boil down" to a single theme: love conquers all. I don't think it's that simple, and in fact some of the sources I've come across in my research indicate there can be multiple themes in a story, any story (in single words: love, betrayal, jealousy, revenge, friendship, etc.), but I'm still working on that article so if you have thoughts on it I'd love to hear them. As usual, I'll check in once I'm home from the "day job" and leave you all to "talk amongst yourselves" until then.


Kathye Quick said...

I think you're right. Whether we begin with a theme or not, we always seem to end up with one.

Now I have to figure out which it is for my WIP.

Great post

Danielle Thorne said...

This is a great piece and something we don't think about deeply enough in general. Being aware of theme in our reading and our writing can open our minds and help us get so much more out of the material. I look forward to reading your complete article on this.

Karyn Good said...

I agree that the theme might not necessarily be there at the beginning of a wip but it emerges by the end of the first draft. For me, having a theme helps with setting up the emotional conflict and seeing it through to the end (well, hopefully it does).

Suse said...

Hi Molli, I'm in the same boat as you when it comes to theme. I'm not quite sure what themes my writing portray or even if I have a theme. However, I don't think I'm the type of writer who says I'm going to write a novel about this "theme" and my next novel will be about that "theme." I think if I did that, I would lose track of why my characters are in the particular story I'm writing at the time. I would be afraid that my story would end up being preachy because I'm writing to the theme instead of to the characters' story. I'm okay with a theme emerging, but because I'm not comfortable with theme, I think I prefer not to think about it at all. Does that make sense?

Vince said...

Hi Molli:

Perhaps I can offer a few helpful ideas as this is in my area of interest.

The first order of business in analyzing a concept is to define the term as you will be using it in your paper. ‘Theme’ is too general a term to easily cover in a short article. For example: in the most expansive sense, ‘theme’ might be said to be the most general unifying concept that runs through a narrative or event.

The theme of the book might be said to be:
man against nature
good against evil
man against himself
the futility of trying to change things, etc.

The theme of his speech might be: he doesn’t like cops.
The theme of his sermon might be: predestination.
The theme of the prom might be: Cinderella in the 21st Century.
The theme of her wedding might be: Caribbean complete with steel drums.

There are also themes that don’t have to mean anything—such as a theme song without words.

There are themes that are only a few musical notes long. His musical piece was called “variations on a theme”.

A detective might say, “what theme runs through all this evidence?”

In romance there are many themes such as “marriage of convenience’, “hidden baby”, “runaway bride”, “baby on his doorstep”, and so on. I buy ‘themes’ more than I buy authors. An editor might have too many “stranded together’ themes and not want to see any more for a year or more. I think themes in romance are very important.

The teacher said that the problem with his theme paper was that it lacked a theme.

If you use different definitions for ‘theme,’ it’s possible for a story to have many themes at the same time. The term ‘theme’ is fuzzy enough to overlap with a ‘moral’, ‘premise’, ‘theory’, or ‘prĂ©cis’.

I see at least two basic ways to write a ‘theme’ article.

One is to define ‘theme’ in the way you intend to use it and then discuss that use of the term. Two is to discuss all the various meanings and uses of the term ‘theme’.

I hope this helps.

Good luck on your article.


Silver James said...

I have trouble with "theme", too, Molli, though I must say that Vince did a heck of a job summarizing the topic! Thank you, Vince.

I tend to discover my themes after the first draft, though I suspect some small part of my brain is already aware of the ground I'm going to cover. In FAERIE FATE, the theme is "second chances." In FAERIE FIRE, it's "making and keeping promises," and in FAERIE FOOL (as yet unwritten so I'm amazed I know - lol), it's "be careful what you wish for."

What's amazing, is I hadn't actually figure any of this out until your post today. THANK YOU!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Molli, I'm remind of an interview I just read with Ursula K. Le Guin.

"The theme was just there. A given. Writing a story, I generally take what’s given and run with it. Then the critics can tell me what it Means."

I think themes will emerge regardless, but the question is whether we look for them in our work and what, if anything, we choose to do with them. We can let them sit to be interpreted, or use them as vehicles for a point or argument, depending the sort of work we're writing and whether we've got a message to send. Broad themes like love, revenge, friendship, second chances can crop up pretty regularly, given how much of novels is about interactions between people, but I think to talk about a book's particular theme is to look at how the book approaches that theme. Not just revenge, but 'revenge is the answer' or 'revenge is wrong' or whatever.

At the same time though, I agree with Le Guin, in that we don't necessarily have to have Something To Say. Given the subjects we work with, we'll wind up bringing about themes regardless, and others will interpret them as they see fit. William Faulkner's fiction, for example, always seems to revolve around the decline of the South and has undertones of incest, both of which are also prevalent themes in Gothic fiction (although it's decline of a family/etc, rather than the Southern US, heh) Whether he's trying to make some argument through the recurring incest theme, however, is harder to say, and can be interpreted differently by different readers, so the meaning just sort of comes out on its own.

In my own ms, I had some themes in mind in the beginning, some of which I abandoned when I knew they wouldn't work. Others came around and made themselves known. I reread the first ten chapters at one point, and discovered constant references to debts and to masks/veils and the like, and realized my themes had made themselves clear, so I decided to run with them. The mask theme has since expanded into something much larger, but it will never be expressly stated in the text, whereas the presence of debts and obligations will be much clearer. I don't think I necessarily have an argumentative slant with those themes, but I've written enough papers to know arguments can be made for almost anything. At the same time though, I'm sure others could approach the ms as dealing with abusive relationships, a theme that caught me completely out of left field, and I'm not quite sure how others will interpret it. I'm just running with what's given me, and as Le Guin said, others can decide what it Means.

Jana Richards said...

Hey Molli,
Great discussion today. Everyone certainly had something interesting to add to the mix.

I think I agree with the concensus in that I truly don't have a theme in mind when I set out to write my story. But as everyone here seems to agree, a theme usually emerges. Funny, but the theme of many of my books seems to be trust and betrayal. Hmmm... I wonder what that says about me?

It was interesting what Vince said about premise, precis, moral, and theme all overlapping. It seems to make sense. The premise (the situation) and the theme (what you want to say in your story) should be closely related.

Great topic Molli!

Molli said...

Hello all--I'm home for the night now, and catching up; thanks for taking time to read and comment.

Kathye, your comment reminds me of something I read on one the sites I searched: a fellow writer said she hadn't figured out what was missing in her ms and wondered if giving some thought to theme might help her to tie it together. Don't know if that's an issue for you or not, but it made sense to me.

Danielle, I agree that being aware of theme (whether you write towards it consiously or not) will make a difference in both writing and reading. So far I've preferred to forget about it on a conscious level in order not to take away from my initial reading enjoyment. Second time around, though, I think it would help in determining what worked, or didn't, in the story execution.

Karen, interesting idea of considering theme in setting up and maintaining emotional conflict. I'm going to file that one in my "take it out and turn it over" file for further mulling.

Suse, what you said made sense to me--I want the story to be seamless and follow an inevitable path, not lecture, which could happen if I focus on theme at the expense of the other story elements.

Vince, thanks much for the comments and illustrations. I had thought to include comparisons on the use of theme in fiction to its use in essays and music; you've done that for me succinctly then taken it to areas I hadn't considered. I can see why you refer to it as an area of interest for you.

Silver, good to hear from you. I like your terminology, "discover my themes". How do you think it makes a difference to your next draft? Or does it?

Hayley, as always, intelligent consideration and exploratory response. You've contributed with a unique perspective that invites further thought. And you discussed an author whose work I generally find too dark to fully enjoy, but who nevertheless wrote a story that is one of my all-time favourites: Silver Metal Lover. Have you read that one?

Jana, you asked what our recurring theme says about you. I have a feeling it says you've observed it, not necessarily through personal experience but I expect it made a strong impression. Could make for an interesting round-table discussion, hmm?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great post, Molli. As a writer of inspirational romance, I have to say that every inspy book has a theme with the most common ones being forgiveness and redemption.

I'd have to say in my Prairie Junction trilogy, the theme is accepting that God will love you regardless of what you've done. No matter how 'bad' you think you are, He'll still forgive you.

In my current wip, the theme is 'righting a wrong'.

And this new group blog that I've been invited to join is using themes as their posts. Our first 3 weeks online will have a theme of reviewing our favourite non-fiction books. Following weeks will feature different themes and we'll even have a poetry day. After having the freedom here, it's going to be challenging to continually fit the themes over there, but I'm very excited about it, too.

Molli said...

Hi Anita - thanks for stopping in, late or otherwise. You may find the writing exercise I'll be submitting in the newsletter fun if you're looking at that new challenge if fitting in to pre-set themes. Keep an eye out for it, and let me know if it's useful.