Yay! So it’s time to write that book! But … about what?
Before we even start thinking about setting or characters, or even genre, let’s take a step back and think about what we actually want to talk about for the next few hundred pages. It’s got to be something we care about to keep our attention for that long, not to mention our readers’.
When I skip this step, the theme gets really grouchy. “What about me?” it whines. “This is my story!”
But I didn’t want to write an after-school special. Who likes stories where, at any time, a theme-Freddy could be about to jump out and stab us?
As it turns out … everyone does.
The theme is our central message. It’s going to come up again and again, and serves as the glue that holds the whole story together. For our part, we want our story flow naturally around it, like a big stone in a gentle current. If we don’t then it’s going to shake the reader up. It might as well reach out of the pages and smack the reader square in the face.
Theme: Cool mermaid story. But did you know that overfishing is a serious problem ?!
Let’s compare our after-school special and the movie Trainspotting.
In the special, our theme is the main star in almost every single conversation, but it’s contrived. The river isn’t going around the stone, it’s trying to push it down the river with brute force.
In Trainspotting, the theme is lurking in every scene, too. It’s in Renton’s sobriety and collapse, and is an undertone in all of his interactions with others. It’s the OMG BABY ON THE CEILING. The river isn’t pushing the stone now – the stone is firmly in place, and the river is made of heroin.
Both movies touch on “drugs are bad”. Both feature people living their lives and dealing with addiction. The writers chose to expose the theme to us in very different ways, though. In Trainspotting things are more abstract because that’s how addiction feels. In the afterschool special, I think they assume that their audience is … dumb? They stop just short of personifying addiction into a member of the cast.
Compare that to a story with a weak theme (or maybe I just didn’t get it). Take Napoleon Dynamite. Now if you like the movie, you might want to sit down. Breathe. I don’t hate it; I just don’t get it.
After following that wonker around for over an hour, I had no idea what was happening. Worse yet, I didn’t really care. It meandered until it seemed to think enough time had passed and then – full stop. I remember looking at my friends as the credits rolled, like: what just happened? I honestly wasn’t sure if the credits were trolling me into a false sense of security so that it could hit me with another hour of … whatever that was. The theme was not guiding that story… unless the theme was some Seinfeld-esque “there is no theme”. Same difference, IMO.
So, yeah. Turns out, a strong theme is really important.
I hated to admit it. Reading through my old stuff, the garbage I discarded lacked a central theme. It was made of little circuses of interesting events that had been tied together by a thin little ribbon I affectionately call “plot deviceium”. Or, as the Barely An Inconvenience guy is fond of saying:
Producer: Oh, that guy is here now. What’s he up to?
Writer: He’s busy being in the movie.
Producer: But why, though?
Writer: … because he’s in the movie. And I’m gonna need to you get all the way off my back on this one.
Producer: Oh. Okay, then!
It sounds ridiculous, but we are all guilty of it. I know now that I’m capable of some truly amazing mental gymnastics when it comes to holding on to a scene that I love that disagrees with my theme. Killing darlings is hard.
Neil Gaiman had a fabulous MasterClass where he said (paraphrasing): writing is telling the truth in lies. There was no Riding Hood, but that lie teaches us the truth of Don’t Talk To Strangers. The best stories speak to us on a level that goes deeper than the words we choose, even when those stories are (on the surface) just fanciful tales about talking wolves.
So we’ve come back to the big question: what’s a truth that we want to lie about for a few hundred pages?
For my story, I have a (probably unhealthy) level of interest in political and social issues. My generation (if the entire concept of generations wasn’t total bullcarp) feels like it is firmly but quietly sandwiched between old power and the young freshmen that will take those retiring seats. So, when the new crew does assume control, what new challenges are we going to see in response? How will we get past them?
“But whoa! That’s a heavy load of political opinion to drop on someone just out of the blue. Tone it down there!”
Exactly. It’s a super dry topic, and sure to turn most readers off. We’re thoroughly tired of it as a culture, except maybe for the political bloggers. It’s not the tone I want to set here at all.
It turns out that we can talk about heavy stuff very easily. One might say it’s … barely an inconvenience. Fantasy and science fiction have been the go-to medium for this sort of thing since … forever. The veil of fiction lets readers poke at uncomfortable topics if we want to. When we don’t, we still get to read a fun little story about a sleepy princess. Every genre has little tricks it uses to lie about its weight.
With our topic etched into stone, we’re ready to start fleshing out the “fun” parts of a story. Genre, characters, plot … oh, my!
So, here we go …
P.S.: Terry Pratchett was a master at using a fake world to help us explore very real issues. If you like your humor dry and haven’t heard of him, you’re welcome.