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Theme and Setting

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I read an article by Steve Pressfield not long ago in which he laid out clearly (for me) the importance of theme and setting, and the distinctions between them. I'm writing a short story now in which that distinction came home and made a real difference in how I tell the story. I hope what follows proves useful to my compatriots here.

The story is called The Carrotfinger Man, about a monster in a forest, two dwarves trying to take a shortcut, and three pixies who lead them astray. The premise derives from Breton folklore, so I had the setting almost from the start. I chose dwarves because I arbitrarily decided not to use humans. I needed them to get lost, so pixies were an easy choice. They pull pranks. The plot just about writes itself, doesn't it?

I wrote a draft, then did a revision. Only that late in the process did I realize that I had not done much of a sketch of my protagonists. They had little backstory, other than that they were bladesmiths delivering a job to a human Count. On the other side of the forest, naturally. But who were they, and why care? Without that, this story couldn't hope to be much more than a horror story. In which case, lose the pixies.

I had two dwarves because that afforded opportunity for dialog. It was obvious to give them contrasting personalities, so Manus is responsible while Ki is impulsive and feckless. But there's still no theme. I had the setting in detail, but there was no theme and that's important. I'll come back to that in a minute.

Somewhat randomly, I decided that when pixies do a prank, once the joke is revealed, the prankster must be held harmless. The victim can counter-prank (which leads to pixie versions of vendetta), but no violence or legal action ensues. At the same time, if the prank does actual harm, the prankster must make amends. There is an obligation there.

And with that word, obligation, I had my theme. It was about Manus' sense of obligation, Ki's lack of same, and how the encounter changes them.

But it is more important than that. Now it's not a horror story. The horror is simply the catalyst. But the theme now gives focus to the backstory. Manus is a man burdened with obligations he wishes to escape but is too responsible to duck. Ki is feckless, but in truth longs for some way to commit himself to something. But, being feckless, it has to be something immediate. There can be lots of other aspects to their backstory, but the theme provides a filter. Only the stuff about responsibility matters.

Same for dialog. There are a hundred things the two could talk about along the way, including eek! monster! But I can now center the scenes around obligation.

It even affects word choice. In a horror story the vocabulary would lean one way. Now it leans in a different direction.

Armed with this new understanding, I'm working my way back through the story. Entire passages I thought were fine, are not. Mostly they're simply not needed. At the same time, places where I had made notes along the lines of "too abrupt" or "why" regarding character actions, I now know exactly the context to provide.

The theme of this post is, "theme"
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I dismissed it, perhaps too soon, because the setting for this story was, well, set. But I can and should say a bit more.

It's a Breton tale, but that's a varied country. The story could have taken place on the coast. It could have taken place in cultivated areas because that's where the original monster hung out, catching stray travelers at night. But I wanted my heroes to be out of reach of any potential rescuers. I still could have put them on moors, but I chose a forest, which brought its own benefits such as strange light through autumn foliage, and centuries of rotting leaves on the ground.

The setting did give me some off-page fits. I have my dwarves mostly in and around mountains and while there are hills aplenty there's not really a mountain range in Brittany. Just for the sake of world consistency (I have multiple stories in Altearth), I had to invent reasons why there would be dwarves in Brittany. None of that makes it onto the page.

Making the season autumn did mean I had to decide if the leaves had yet fallen. They haven't, because I did not want footsteps to crunch. The season also more or less fixed the time of sunset, which in turn affected when my heroes first take the shortcut, which in turn affected roughly how big the forest is and how long certain scenes take. Time is as much a part of setting as is place.

The final piece of setting was choosing where the fight scene happens. That was very iterative. What must happen in the fight affects the lay of the land, which in turn affects what can happen in the fight. The fight is still a bit unfinished and I may still add or remove bits of landscape.

Overall, setting provides context, but it's theme that brings coherence.
 
Theme is my weakness, because I have some natural resistance to the idea of "tying it all together." I also don't like heavy-handed delivery of a theme. But probably all my favorite books had it.

So in the early stages, I usually fall into the plot + setting trap, and have interesting characters to throw into that trap. I mean: Interesting world built? Check. Plot determined? Check. Now, my characters, have at it!

But that's not enough.

So for a project early in development, I've had the primary characters, the plot, and the setting figured out, but things weren't coming together in a wholly organic way. Something was missing. I'd meant for it to be a revenge tale, but revenge is only a motivation not a theme. Unless it becomes the theme, which idea only solidified in the last week for me. Similar to your example, this notion of making revenge a theme sprang to mind suddenly after I'd realized that I hadn't fully explored my characters' motivations. Sure, the MC is out for revenge, but what's the villain's motivation in all this? What about the motivation of another primary character, the villain's younger brother? All are out for revenge, although not against the same person, and one of them not until later in the novel. Heck, there's a supernatural entity involved too; maybe it begins to act out in vengeance—against all of the above? Heh.
 
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goldhawk

Troubadour
The final piece of setting was choosing where the fight scene happens. That was very iterative. What must happen in the fight affects the lay of the land, which in turn affects what can happen in the fight. The fight is still a bit unfinished and I may still add or remove bits of landscape.

Why a fight? Isn't being lost in the woods enough? I'm thinking the protagonist should be the personification of the theme and the antagonist should be the personification of the counter-theme. But you have the two protagonists acting as the counter-theme to each other. So why do you need a monster or a fight? I think it would be better if they were too extreme in their positions on obligation in the beginning and could only find they way out when the become willing to compromise. Perhaps the pixies could help. ;)

PS: Now that I thought about it more, I think you should bring the pixies back. The pixies are Tricksters. The purpose of a Trickster is to script away all the excuses and reveal the core of a character, in this case, of the two dwarfs. The pixies keep tricking the dwarfs until they decide the other has some merit in their position (on obligation), at which point, the pixies become bored and leave.
 
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Peat

Sage
You must spread some reputation around before giving it to skip.knox again.


I'm more used to thinking of theme from the perspective of RPGs but I do think its very important and very distinct from setting.

For me, theme is important because it guides your thinking. There's a million things that could happen in a book - how do you choose which ones? How do you know what you've chosen in B is truly coherent with what you choose in A? That's what theme gives you. It gives you a guide line for what will fit and what will not. You don't have to make the theme explicit to the readers but you yourself need to know what the story's about other than "Plucky Street Urchin Saves the World!".

Wonderful demonstration of how to go about it and why it matters. Thank you Skip.
 

goldhawk

Troubadour
Even more thoughts.

It seems to me that there are 3 antagonists in the story: the pixies, the forest, and the monster. Since the struggle of the protagonists is about finding a balance of obligation, I can't see how a forest can act as an antagonist to that.

As for having the pixies as the antagonists, I wrote about this in my previous post.

But to have the monster as the antagonist, it wold have to be foreshadowed before the dwarfs entered its lair, the forest. The monster would have to take on the role of Trickster, which means it can't be killed in the climax. Killing it would imply the obligation is not important to the dwarfs, and indirectly, not important to our society. This is not something most people would agree with; they will say this is an awful ending.
 
Responsibility/obligation is not a one-off thing but something that endures and can come to bear on many things if not on all things.

So I see an opportunity–and maybe this has already been realized with the sudden realization of theme–to show the theme through various choices or decisions presented to the characters.

There are different levels of obligation, also.

So I don't have a problem with multiple antagonists. These are merely different signposts suggesting a choice in direction for the dwarves.

Interestingly, I wonder how motif intersects with theme. Isn't the shortcut in the forest an analogue to Ki's impulsive, feckless nature? It would just so happen that the two dwarves are aligned at first. Ki would take the shorter path to fulfilling their obligation and Manus would be in full agreement because delivering the goods in a timely manner would satisfy his sense of obligation.

But the pixies represent chaos throwing this alignment out of whack–at least the opportunity for that.

But what about the monster? A great dependence on execution and what/how you want to integrate the theme.

What if, after an encounter or two (however minimal) they have the opportunity to avoid the monster near the end? Do they carry on with their initial mission, leaving the monster; or does one or the other of them, or both in agreement, come to feel obligated to kill it? So they put their main mission off, realizing that if they die their delivery will never happen, and go seeking the monster. This is a conflict of goals.

What if they do not have the opportunity to avoid the final confrontation but during that confrontation they do have an opportunity for escape? Do they? Let's say that those silly pixies inadvertently come between monster and dwarves. They are sure to die horribly if the dwarves take that opportunity to escape, themselves. Do the dwarves leave them to that fate?

And so on and on.
 
C

Chessie

Guest
Theme is awesome. Without it there's something missing, a tasty ingredient in the story icing. Good thread.
 

goldhawk

Troubadour
So I don't have a problem with multiple antagonists.

I don't either...providing they fit into the story. I don't see that here. I see them as fitting into the setting but not the theme.

And handing off the role of antagonist is tricky. It has to be done gracefully and smoothly or the reader will experience a WTF? moment.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Interesting comments. It's fun to see how quickly people take a story in new directions. For myself, I'll stick with the one antagonist. It may yet fold back to a simple scary tale. One of my aims is to make this magazine length, so it has to come in right around five thousand words. Mood may have to triumph over all.
 
Interesting comments. It's fun to see how quickly people take a story in new directions. For myself, I'll stick with the one antagonist. It may yet fold back to a simple scary tale. One of my aims is to make this magazine length, so it has to come in right around five thousand words. Mood may have to triumph over all.

There wasn't much to go on, some blanks. :D

Although to return to the general topic...I'd mentioned being predisposed to not liking heavy-handed delivery of a theme. There are some stories that really are about the theme—for instance, parables and fairy tales—but in most tales the theme is utilized more subtly. The theme might be experienced subliminally or in describing the tale with 20/20 vision in hindsight (i.e., when analyzed later.)

To what degree will a theme affect the details of the story or imbue those details? Choosing details while informed by the theme may not necessarily mean that every detail must present the theme in a new iteration. Sometimes the monster is just a monster. Sometimes a villain, while presenting the hero with an opportunity for revenge, is not himself seeking some form of revenge. And so forth.

It's an interesting topic.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
This topic is close to my heart. I write by a rule that states "don't write anything unless you have something to say". I get that is not true for everyone, but it is absolutely true for me. When I get an idea, or a character, or a plot my first question is "so what"? What am I trying to say? Do I have anything important to say? Anything new? Anything unusual? Anything I find important? If the answer is no then I don't write it. Period. I move on with a project I actually have something to say something about.

My favourite stories are those that say something about the world, about humanity. Galapagos (by Kurt Vonnegut) comes to mind.

That is how I find my theme and then I build my story around it. Everything feeds into the theme.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
I tried to talk about this in my article on the front page.

I know that people have different reactions to the idea of having a theme. But simply identifying a character's natural theme can do a lot of good for your work. You don't even have to have deep thoughts on the subject - it's enough, if I may, just to present contrasting ideas on the topic, and to let the subject matter speak for itself.

Skip's got two perspectives focused on obligation - and one of those characters has an obligation to pull off a bunch of crazy fun pranks. I think that's an awesome way to present a theme, even without having any idea of what he has to say about it.
 
I know that people have different reactions to the idea of having a theme. But simply identifying a character's natural theme can do a lot of good for your work. You don't even have to have deep thoughts on the subject - it's enough, if I may, just to present contrasting ideas on the topic, and to let the subject matter speak for itself.

I'll give a little more background on my revenge tale and how Skip's thoughts have reshaped my thoughts about the way my own tale recently clarified itself.

First, I have an MC who comes to the city planning to avenge his mother's death, but the villain (the target of this revenge) doesn't know this. The villain, who's now in his late twenties, killed the MC's mother ten years earlier, when a teenager, and hasn't dwelt on that event. It's ancient history.

So I have a clear motive for my MC. But the villain needs to be active in life doing his own things and pursuing his own goals unrelated to that MC's activities.

But ... what's the villain doing? My initial decision was pretty common as such things go. The villain is heir to the throne but doesn't want to wait around for his mother, the ruling queen, to die. So basically he's plotting to overthrow her. I'd run through ten or more scenarios for how he might advance his plot.

But ... why is the villain plotting this? The standard "I want to be RULER" motivation just didn't seem strong enough for me. It was flabby, an ad hoc solution to the question of what this villain's life is like before the MC eventually comes into his sight.

And, incidentally, why did the villain, when a teenager, kill the MC's mother?

I'd already decided that the villain was going to be the worst sort of misogynist. So there's that. And there's the sociopathic use-women-then-discard-them explanation for the murder 10 years ago. But again, this is a little too easy. Need to make a bad guy seem villainous? Have him do such things.

I'd already decided that the king had died years ago. That's why the ruler is a queen. And it hit me. Revenge. This villain, who had always been close to his father, blamed the queen for his father's death, and he wants revenge. He thinks she actually murdered his father. And this is also part of the origin of his misogyny and led to his murdering the MC's mother all those years ago. [Me: "Eureka!"]

After reading Skip's example, I realized that what had happened was that I'd discovered a theme for my story. Plus, I'm interested in the way both of our examples relate to character motivation and to having a better understanding of characters.

Anyway, so yes. I think these things will run through the novel, but in writing the novel I'm not trying to make a statement about revenge and don't even want readers to be pondering that theme. Not exactly. Although maybe a meta reading during analysis after-the-fact would produce some extra thoughts. [Not a word is written yet, so who the heck knows at this stage?]


Incidentally, there's also a supernatural entity in my story. So last night while thinking about these bare-bones descriptions, they almost screamed Hamlet! at me. I didn't exactly plan that. But if it's to be a revenge tale....
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
FifthView hits close to the mark for me. Not trying to make a statement about <theme> and don't even want [care] readers to be pondering that <theme>.

The theme is really there for me. It brought the story together *for me*. It shifted things such as: the heroes are trying to complete a job to the heroes must complete a job. The heroes try to help the pixies -> The heroes feel bound to help the pixies. Even though they don't want to (actually, one hero does, the other doesn't). It's still pretty much the same story, but now I see a path through the forest. As it were. There are many other ways through; this is the one I'm taking.
 
Thinking about theme is probably more important in short works than longer ones. In any lengthy work, themes will just tend to develop... If you read enough of my stuff, I have no doubt you will find explorations of Libertarian themes of freedom and personal responsibility (and explorations of their opposites) and a bunch of other stuff. If anyone ever asks me about themes in my books, I will answer like a good Freudian... what do you think they are and what would your mother think of that? heh heh. The reader will also pull themes from their own prejudices and life experiences, so why mess with that freedom... look! a theme!
 
Thinking about theme is probably more important in short works than longer ones. In any lengthy work, themes will just tend to develop... If you read enough of my stuff, I have no doubt you will find explorations of Libertarian themes of freedom and personal responsibility (and explorations of their opposites) and a bunch of other stuff. If anyone ever asks me about themes in my books, I will answer like a good Freudian... what do you think they are and what would your mother think of that? heh heh. The reader will also pull themes from their own prejudices and life experiences, so why mess with that freedom... look! a theme!

I wonder if this is simply the difference between conscious and subconscious development of theme, or the requirements of the medium.

A shorter form seems to require more conscientious care, if for no other reason than that distraction from the theme can cause such a horrible mess when extraneous matter enters. It must be compacted.

A longer form allows more time, perhaps more subtlety—at least, a larger variety of elements for developing the theme, from different directions, and more diversions are possible without breaking the tale.

Beyond wondering whether consideration of theme is important, I'm curious about the nature of theme.

I think that, typically, theme is thought to describe an overarching element of a story, a singular description of the whole story. What's "the theme" of this book, this movie, this poem? I think Heliotrope probably sees it this way? [See comment in thread above.] It's a message, a singular communication.

But I wonder about the utility of considering sub-themes or multiple themes in a longer work or at least approaching writing a novel by thinking of various thematic elements.

For my story, revenge is a theme, but family loyalty and/or dysfunction will play a role as will "the limits of human observation" —i.e., "best laid plans of mice and men."

A different approach to this question would be to think of the theme as an emergent alloy of these, insofar as those three interrelate and affect the plot and story in a particular way. Is the emergent thing, These-three, the actual theme? It would be possible to imagine a story with revenge as a theme that would fold in different elements than what I'll be using, leading to a different alloy. Revenge-As-Myopic-Family-Dysfunction might be different than Revenge-As-Master-Slave-Dysfunction.

—although, come to think of it, using emergence as a framework for understanding theme might also explain why a subconscious or even unconscious utilization of theme could be possible for longer works, simply because the weaving of various elements may automatically lead to the creation of theme.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Yeah, it can get pretty abstract, can't it? I mean, if you read some Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt novels you are left with an amazing, fast-paced adventure... but not so much theme, really... Or at least not an obvious one. But if you read (or watch) Chocolat the theme is obvious (making judgements of others, overcoming judgement and opening up your heart etc) and the author uses a variety of sub-plots to make the theme more vivid. The same goes for Galapagos which I stated earlier, where the theme is basically "Humanity's enormous brains were actually really bad for evolution and made humans stupider instead of smarter."

I know for myself, sometimes as I go along a theme comes to me, and then I have to go back and check and see if anything else I wrote could feed into the theme or be changed to fit into the theme in a more concise way, but I think that is because I prefer the Chocolat or Gladiator or Galapagos sort of story to a simple action/adventure.

I think, really, like most things a balance is probably best.

When I think of revenge as a theme I think of Braveheart, or Gladiator, or The Count of Monte Cristo. They all managed to cover revenge in so many different ways. Braveheart used revenge as the subplot for the French Princess in some ways, and the young Robert the Bruce in other ways. So in this way I think that the theme can be the motive behind the MC in the story.

But typically in my stories I use the theme as the Ebeneezer Scrooge moment. The lesson. The ultimate thing the MC has to learn in order to change or succeed or make things better. So when I come up with a theme like "don't judge others just because you don't understand them" which would be sort of the loose theme of my Blackbeard project I shape my character arc around this theme, this ultimate lesson. So my MC would need to start out as a sort of judgemental know-it-all who thinks she's so smart and clever and learns over the course of her journey that things are not always what they seem and the world is not so black and white. She will struggle with this lesson in many ways over the novel, and then ultimately it will be the lesson she has to understand before she can succeed at the climax.

I know I LOVE a good story where I can see some obvious change from the beginning of a text to the end (like A Christmas Carol) so I try to do the same.

Edit: Note that GRRM has said in a few interviews that his "focus" or "theme" in GOT is that "Humanity's biggest threat is itself, or that there is no good or evil other that that which is in ourselves". He likes to focus on the possibility of redemption.

Edit 2: But Dem is correct in that different readers will read different things into your story. In university, I wrote an essay on themes of "Anti-Christianity and traditional Scottish paganism" in Wuthering Heights. I not only received an A+ on the essay, but the Prof asked to keep it for her course handout for the following years and suggested I continue my Graduate work in Emily Bronte because I had new things to say about her work that hadn't been said yet. I will never know what Emily actually meant as her theme in the novel, but that was what I read into it.
 
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