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A question on theme(s)

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Garren Jacobsen, Dec 9, 2020.

  1. So, I am writing a new book/trilogy. This book will follow a father and a son. The son, however, is going to be the chosen one and will go through a classic hero's journey. The father, well, the father will be the mentor, with all of that will entail. I imagine, that, at the end of book 1, ole pops will go the way of all the mentors and, well sacrifice himself, thereby allowing the son to escape and do super mega ultra hero things.

    In any event, for the first time in my writing life, a theme/motif popped out to me on the first draft: a parent sacrificing for their child. Indeed, the first scene has a common sacrifice of the dad giving his kid a snack that the dad was planning on eating for himself because the kid forgot to get some for himself. I intend on having the Dad sacrifice all throughout the book until, well he dies (epically I might add).

    Now, this is the first time I have really had a theme to run through a book on the first pass through, so I wanted to ask the following:

    1) how would you handle themes to not make them too hamfisted and
    2) what do you do to contrast a theme to highlight the theme better
  2. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    1: So no two people are going to agree on at what point a theme is barely there and at what point the author is beating you over the head with it. People have different reading levels (as in, how "closely" or "critically" they read), have different awarenesses of similar themes or pieces of media, and have different personal tastes as to how themes can be handled. There is no right answer to this. You need to look at how other stories handle themes and decide what you'd like to do. Like in Care Bears, the power of friendship and stuff literally solves problems (with love laser beams) because that's what you'd expect from a story like that, but a novel about war and the bonds people create going through the same trauma is going to handle the power of friendship very differently. Beta readers can help a lot with this.

    2: You can always use another character as a foil. If the theme is about a parent sacrificing for the child, what if there's a character who does the opposite, perhaps the bad guy? Big bad also has a son, but makes him go fight the heroes and be in danger because he doesn't want to put himself in harm's way.
    Malik likes this.
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    1 - IMHO, I wouldn't worry about this too much on the first draft. I find it's better to over do it than under state things initially. You can always pull back or cut out. It's simpler to do that than to try to get back in the right head space to insert something. Also, sometimes you have to travel over well trodden ground to get to the interesting stuff.

    2 - one way to highlight things is to run parallel story lines that mirror one another, where one person makes one choice, the other character makes a different one, so you can explore the consequences and outcomes the different possible paths. The parallel story can be something subtle and small, or it can be something prominent that dominates the story. It can teach a small lesson that the hero can use, or it can be a major obstacle for the hero to overcome.

    If you don't want things to be black and white you can have multiple plots and subplots that each explore the theme from a different angle. This allows you to play around in the gray and allows your hero to be wrong and your villain to be right in some instances.

    The characters within these subplots can also be at different points along that path, some may be at the beginning, some at the end, and seeing other characters at different points along a similar journey can act as a glimpse into the past and future of your hero's journey. They can be warnings. They can be signposts pointing towards a safe/right path. They can be reminders showing how far someone has strayed, or a reminder that they're going in the right direction.

    Malik likes this.
  4. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    I tend to write first and then see if the theme I had in mind needs to be apparent or not. Sometimes a subtle approach is better and I don't add anything, sometimes I feel I need to add a few words here or there to make the theme more apparent. I don't particularly like reading stories where the theme is hammered into me. I was also taught that one way to highlight a theme is to have a secondary plot within the main story, and use that as a sort of contrast.
  5. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    I would be careful of having too much sacrifice from the father. This would either make the son too dependent on the father or resentful of all the help or both. The best help anyone can give is teaching someone how to do things for themselves. Perhaps have a little less sacrifice and few instance of teaching. Speaking as a father, I feel my overall obligation isn't sacrificing for my kids, it's helping them to be successful on their own.
  6. Malik

    Malik Auror


    Subtext and theme are intertwined. The theme is what you're saying with the literal text; the theme is what the story is about. The subtext is what the literal text doesn't say, but that the reader takes away from the book regardless. Parallel storylines are a great way to do this.

    The way to not make this too hamfisted is to double down on subtext. It takes a skilled hand; dialing in subtext is one of those things you don't so much learn to do as learn to recognize in other authors and then steal once you start seeing how it's done. Subtext is a lot like voice in this respect; it's invisible when it's done properly, so it takes a lot of study to learn to recognize it.

    (A story could be, "a man goes to the store to buy bread and has a nervous breakdown when he can't make a decision." The theme might be, "Abundance and its realization." The subtext might be, "The abundance we experience daily in the Western World proves that this is actually Heaven, and therefore we're already dead; it's just that we're dead inside and our bodies are still going through the motions." You don't ever say that last part out loud, you let the audience figure it out for themselves. Some will, some won't.)
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I will double down on the write it and see how it feels. Now, me personally? I tend to like character growth andthe out of character. A father who breaks off a small bite but eats most himself, etc., and THEN changes to sacrifice at the end is more effective to me. In the same way that betrayal of a friend/ally is so powerful, so to is the unexpected growth/sacrifice (even when it’s a bit cliche and therefore not totally unexpected) more powerful than a character selfless throughout the novel.

    In respect to theme as Malik was saying... And some will come away with something completely different. My favorite example in movies is Patton, an anti-war flick that’s been used as a rah-rah military flick for recruits.

    One issue I have with my own series is how book 3 ended with what could be seen as a ham-fisted thematic element, but in fact, it was just how the story needed to end for the next books. I also have another thematic issue because of Covid-19. In Trail of Pyres I introduced a plague, which brings about tyranny by the bishop, who essentially pushes the king and aristocracy out of power with quarantines and other extreme measures in the name of the gods. This then, turns into an opportunity for a man whose family was pushed out of power years before to sweep back in, starting a little revolution in the name of personal freedom for the little guy... and of course, it brings him BACK to power. This was a happy little plot when I envisioned it and planted the seeds, but now it plays so well into current politics that it bugs me. But, not much I can do about it, it’s how the history has been built in my head for a decade or more.

  8. Spacebar

    Spacebar Scribe

    2) Already been said, but create a foil. If you're showing how a father's sacrifice can bolster his son to achieve great heroism, then you can also show how a father's carelessness and neglect can destroy his child's future. It doesn't even have to be direct abuse. You can just show how a father not involving himself and failing to set a good example can lead to his child being influenced by wayward elements and falling on the wrong path. Then at least the message isn't, "Die for your son or turn him into a monster, your choice." The dichotomy is between involvement and conscious neglect.
  9. I like the idea of using a foil. Now, how about this notion, that part of the father's arc is learning to trust his boy to be the chosen one, to make his choices, to fly on his own, and that the reason they get in the predicament that requires the sacrifice is because of the father not trusting his son enough and that, in order to make the sacrifice he has to let the boy make his own choices (thereby completing the arc)?
  10. Spacebar

    Spacebar Scribe

    That would fit your theme nicely. Maybe he fails to allow his son to make a lesser sacrifice earlier on, failing to trust his son to assess the costs and benefits of his choices, which is how he ends up costing them both much more later.
  11. ConquerorWorm

    ConquerorWorm Acolyte


    It seems to me that what you're describing is maybe closer to a characterization than a theme? Showing the father as a self sacrificing person. Of course, this can tie in to a theme of self sacrifice as well, so I'm certainly not saying that isn't or shouldn't be your theme. However, to me the theme is not just what is repeated the most in the story but that which the story says the most about. Changes, hardships and conflicts tend to say more than things that just are or just happen. If we, for instance, follow a character who struggles with selfishness, trying to do the right thing but constantly ending up chosing the easy way out, it makes us think more about the act of sacrifice, what it actually entails, what we would do in the same instance, et cetra. It's in these sort of conflicts (internal or external) that I think we tend to find the themes. So, to me I guess it's more a question of "what are you saying about self sacrifice?", not that you necessarily need to come up with a clear answer to tell the reader (you absolutely don't have to do that).

    That said, I think it sounds like a great method to aproach the first draft with this theme in mind. Definately not saying that you should overthink. The story obviously makes you think of self sacrifice so that's a great seed for coming up with ideas and writing scenes. However, it is possible that once you've finished the first draft you will find an even more specific theme, a problem that the story proposes to the characters or you as a writer.

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