theme, Theme, your writing and you: stuff your teacher never told you
Since I’m busy working on a couple of things — including a free little ebook about writing like a bad girl — I’m cross-posting the below, which was originally at Storytellers Unplugged.
Perhaps theme gets a bad rap.
Its twin, Theme with a capital T, deserves all the potshots and ridicule and dressing-down that it gets. But if Theme is the pretentious dude decked out in Gucci and Prada who wears sunglasses at night and brags about how many thousands of dollars he dropped at his VIP table at Voyeur the other night — which was a worknight because only wage slave losers save their partying for the weekends – I live in LA, so you’ll have to excuse these kinds of analogies – then its sibling, theme, is the cute one in jeans and t-shirt, hanging out at your local pub, inviting you over for an engaging conversation.
Theme’s ego has been greatly inflated by all those English teachers who inflicted all those essay assignments through high school and maybe college, in which you learned to digest various lectures and Coles notes and serve it back in some lukewarm rearrangement that, if cast into proper essay structure, would get you an easy B. As in: b for Bullshit, or so you chuckled to yourself, having merely scanned the book involved (you rented the movie, so who needs to read?) which looked very Boring anyway.
So when you first try to write a piece of fiction, Theme has a habit of sauntering in, smoking Gauloises and readjusting its beret in the mirror (this was before Theme realized that a fedora is a much cooler choice of headgear). And Theme talks very loudly to you and throws around a lot of big words and you think, Okay, maybe this guy really is Deep and Profound. I don’t think so, but I’m a neophyte and what do I know? It’s not like I speak with a French accent or anything, like Theme does. (Of course, Theme himself grew up somewhere in Iowa, but you haven’t figured this out yet).
Thing is, you want to write something that’s fun and compelling, sure, but also layered in a way that resonates. You have something to say, dammit, even though you’re not really sure what that is.
So you take what Theme likes to prattle on about and try to force some kind of story out of it. You take it to your writing group and your group throws around words like ‘contrived’, ‘pretentious’, ‘boring’. Or maybe you submit it to a number of places and one or two years later you collect the rejection slips. By then, you’re fed up with Theme’s endless monologuing and the way he clings to you and invades your space because he doesn’t have any real friends. You’re not his real friend either, but that’s only because he’s a longwinded self-important prig. You order him out of your life. He starts haunting artsy cafes and lecture halls looking for someone new to buy into his schtick and make him feel sufficiently admired.
On top of all his other personality flaws, I suspect Theme suffers from an identity crisis. He doesn’t know what he is, exactly. His name gets thrown around so much that he suffers from overexposure, and – much like other phrases (‘self-indulgent’, ‘a powerful new voice’, etc.) – the word itself has been rendered kind of meaningless.
And the poor guy is confused by his relationships with other things, the same things he likes to peer down his nose at (premise), or dismiss as far too plebian to ever bother bothering with (plot).
Thing is, theme and premise and plot are like Siamese triplets who share too many organs to ever separate successfully. Because of that, definitions get messy. But for the purposes of this essay, I’ll take a whack.
A premise is a general sense of the milieu of the novel. It’s kind of like the storyworld in which the story takes place. In my novel UNINVITED— using my own work as an example because that’s the authorial mind I know best — I would say the premise is the loose idea I started out with.
I wanted to write something about a teenage girl in a small town that somewhat resembles my own hometown. And she has this older, golden-boy brother whom she idolizes. But something triggers him to run away and stay away from home for over a year. One day he reappears. But he brings something menacing and dangerous back home with him, and the girl herself is somehow (and unknowingly) at the heart of it (both at whatever thing triggered his leavetaking in the first place, and the consequences that unfold upon his return).
If premise is your story’s storyworld, then plot is the road that leads the reader through it. Plot is the focused sentence or two that you can toss off to someone during an elevator ride between floor two and floor six (especially if it stops at three, four and five along the way). Although I know my premise going in, it takes me a lot of thinking and brainstorming and reflecting and writing (often an entire first draft) to figure out what my plot actually is. In the case of UNINVITED, it goes something like this: A troubled young woman mourns her beloved older brother, who disappeared from home after a car accident killed two of his friends but appears to have left him unharmed. He returns unexpectedly, and the girl must help him fight off a supernatural enemy who’s come to collect him, not realizing the extent of the bargain her brother has made with the bad guy, or how it involves her.
If plot is what you carve out of premise, then theme is what emerges naturally out of plot, kind of like Venus rising naked from the water. If Theme is something you try to hammer plot and premise into, the inner logic and organic growth of the story be damned (and some writers, don’t get me wrong, can actually pull this off, and with style), then theme is something low-key and relaxed, who gives a friendly wave at the beginning of your trip and whose relationship with you, the author, deepens over time and the work of several drafts.
Back to UNINVITED. You can look at the plot statements and a couple of things jump out of you. The brother-sister relationship at the core, siblings depending on each other to fight off some kind of mysterious menace (I named that menace Archie, by the way, in direct homage to Robert Cormier’s Archie in his books THE CHOCOLATE WAR and BEYOND THE CHOCOLATE WAR. The fact that Archie implies ‘archangel’ just made it much more perfect).
That, for me, was kind of the heart of the thing that I wanted to tell. UNINVITED is meant to be a fun, hopefully compelling, supernatural story that gives you a nice case of the creeps here and there, but running underneath is a kind of storyteller’s rumination on family vs. the abyss. In the last handful of years I’ve been either writing or attending to the details of creating my own family (or watching reality TV, but we shall not speak of such things), so it’s not surprising that I’d end up writing about family. I’m not interested in anything sentimental or saccharine (or the inverse of that, the look-beneath-the-surface-of-the-sunny-suburbs-and-find-dark-crawling-maggots kind of story, although I do enjoy those).
What I’d been thinking about has a lot more to do with how cold and difficult the world is, and not just because of the basic struggle of making a meaningful living, both physically and emotionally. But also for the vast temptation of its dangerous playgrounds, how you can get sucked into things and consumed, lose your soul (it’s no coincidence that the supernatural storyline runs parallel to, and intersects with, the protagonist’s experiments with a popular drug), how much we all need someone not just to watch our backs but help shield us from the cold and the wind.
So that, to me, was the ruling theme of the story. (Someone else might take something completely different from it, which is cool. That’s what stories are for.) Something about family vs. the abyss. Something about the balance between walking your own line and finding your own freedom while remaining connected to others in that way we need, in order to nurture and safeguard our souls.
Where I find theme really steps up, though, is in the end revisions (unlike Theme, who wants to run the whole show, usually loudly and obnoxiously, from the get-go).
Revising is awesome. The bloody, messy, difficult work of first-drafting is done. You know your story, your characters. The end is in sight. Instead of marking off your daily wordcount – 500 words, 800 words, 1500 words, yay, now I can go have a beer – especially those days when the writing comes hard and you have to push yourself along, you can lose yourself in the depths and nuances of this complete, pre-existing thing. By this time you’ve been living with the book for a while, so certain things are becoming clear to you. And clarity, as they say, is good.
If the early draft is all about getting the stuff from head to page, revising is about choosing what stays and what goes (and what needs rearranging or fleshing-out). What you’re supposedly ‘supposed’ to do is take each scene, each element of the book, ask yourself, “Does this advance the plot?” If it does, good, if it doesn’t, out it goes. (This is why it’s so important to figure out just exactly what that plot is in the first place. An obvious statement to make, yet any agent will tell you about all the well-written, engaging manuscripts they read that they’re nonetheless forced to reject, because, in the end, for everything it does right, the book just doesn’t hang together. It has a muddled, confused center. It lacks clarity, unity.)
The danger of abiding solely by this question is that you end up with a book that is too plot-driven, too stripped of color and nuance and life.
The simple fact is, characters cannot thrive by plot – or outline — alone. They have (or should have) lives that extend beyond the page. They have relationships with other characters, and they need to have conversations within those relationships that advance the plot, yes, but still create the illusion of full-bodied psyches and personalities at work, as well as an involvement (even if it’s a lack of involvement) in the world around them. They have personal histories. They are haunted by things. They’re living in an environment that goes on around them and impacts them even as they impact it. This is the kind of stuff that grows not just from whatever kind of outline you tend to use, but the actual novel-writing itself, and which the outline itself needs to fully incorporate and keep adjusting to as the writer moves along.
So how do you build on the bones of plot, how do you layer in meaning and substance and flair, without sandbagging the plot itself? How do you respect and use your outline without becoming a slave to it? How can you step away from it without losing sight of the road altogether?
Perhaps by realizing that theme is the thing nestled inside your plot, and by drawing it out more, you create a bigger story.
Perhaps by reaching a point in the process where, instead of asking, “How does this advance my story’s plot?” you start asking yourself, “How does this build on my story’s central theme?”
In the case of UNINVITED, by the time I hit the final draft I could recognize some of the push-pulls going on in the novel, the dueling forces and tensions of the narrative. If the book’s themes center on family and personal responsibility (one of the reasons why it’s more or less a ‘young adult’ novel), then the opposing forces have to do with the abyss (alienation, isolation, and the temptations that pull us in that direction), and also with notions of freedom and carelessness and recklessness, and the damage and consequence that can result. And if connecting with other people, having someone who gets your back while you get his, is what steers you away from the abyss, then I somehow wanted to weave that through the material also. So when I got the notes back from my editor, I was able to make decisions accordingly.
For example, my editor pointed out that one character’s motivation for helping out the other characters needed to be further explained and developed. So I invented a backstory in which the brother had helped out this character in the past, and the character felt obligated to return the favor. I had a lot of fun with the idea of the ‘abyss’, which, since this is a supernatural novel, gets to translate into literal terms, and also helped me understand the essential nature of my bad guy and how my protagonist could end up defeating him (and what she needs to discover in order to do so). If banding together helps the characters get strong, then longstanding baggage and fissures within their relationships make them vulnerable; the bad guy knows this and exploits those points of personal conflict to get closer to the thing that he wants.
Also, certain words reoccur throughout the narrative. The characters talk about ‘fixing’ things – whether it’s fixing a meal, fixing a problem, fixing each other. They talk, or argue, about living in the moment. And my young female protagonist is forced to redefine herself not just as younger sister to a protective, and often overshadowing, older brother, but as a soon-to-be older sister to unborn twin brothers, a relationship in which she will assume the protective, wiser, mentoring role her own brother takes with her. During one important plot point in the novel, she and her romantic interest (who need things to talk about and bond over in order to advance the subplot of their relationship) discuss stuff like this. The romantic interest conveniently (for the purposes of theme) has a younger brother of his own (who at one point is also endangered). Not to mention, my protag’s older brother’s psychology – what haunts him, what motivates him to make the decisions he makes that gets them into this mess in the first place – has to do with a backstory event in which he failed to look after his younger sister, and the guilt he’s carried ever since.
The danger of laying it all out like this is that it starts to sound a lot like Theme, and not theme, was at work here. Hopefully in my book this kind of stuff isn’t too obvious (and if it is, that’s a failing). Hopefully the reader will just skate along through the story, but when she closes the cover she’ll feel moved enough to recommend my book to a friend. Theme isn’t about a grand statement so much as one creative decision after another, one creative decision building on another.
In the end, what you find, hopefully, goes beyond a simple chainlink of action plus consequence plus another action plus another consequence. You end up with a story more thickly, deeply braided. Without theme to bring together the different strands, the story itself can get flat and one-dimensional – or messy, muddled, overlong, with a lot of extraneous and seemingly pointless material.
If premise is the world of your story, and plot is the road that guides you through it — weaves you over the mountains and through the desert and finally to the relief of the coast — then you might say that theme is the car you’re traveling in. It makes the people you pass take admiring notice, or look away in disgust or pity, or just shrug and get on with their day.
Needless to say, the kind of car you’re traveling in is totally up to you. Choosing is part of the fun of the ride.
And when you see Theme swaggering along the side of the road, thumb cocked with a lot more confidence than he’s actually feeling, you might want to speed up.
Or take pity on the guy. Pick him up. Buy him lunch.
You can always drop him off at the corner.
What’s the theme of the project you’re working on now? Did you discover it as you wrote the story, or did you have it in mind from the beginning?