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Theme and Setting

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
I just realized I never did touch on "theme and setting" which I mean to in regards to Galapagos...

So like I stated earlier, the theme is "humanity's big brains made them stupider instead of smarter" or "if people would only rely on their hearts instead of their big brains we would be much better off." Basically, humanity is all dead because of technology and thinking they were making the world better with thier enormous stupid brains.

The irony of the theme/setting (for those who haven't read it) is that it takes place with a group of humanity's final survivors trapped on Galapagos island, which is the island where Darwin did his research into evolution. Get it? Funny! Kurt Vonnegut did a great job tying in his entire theme in with his setting.
 
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Well it's possible that the emergent theme will force a lesson, whether up-front or as a kind of afterthought while a reader muses on the novel he's just finished.

Let's take as an example my quick characterization of one emergent theme: Revenge-As-Master-Slave-Dysfunction.

Those elements could be recharacterized depending on the execution.

  1. From a somewhat Nietzschean perspective, but also given what we in our contemporary milieu can now see, social inequality can lead to ever-renewing cycles of revenge as the poor exact revenge on the elite and the elite strike back. So maybe the "lesson" for such a story would simply be to look at how resentment fueled by social inequality could lead to the destruction of a society. (A little like GRRM's "Humanity's biggest threat is itself, or that there is no good or evil other than that which is in ourselves." Heh, Beyond Good and Evil?)

  2. Alternatively, perhaps Revenge-As-Master-Slave-Dysfunction could be recharacterized as Revenge-As-Glorious-Resolution-To-Inequality–i.e., our MC emerges from slavery to overthrow the masters who have been so cruel to him, not as a visionary wanting to reshape society but as rabid seeker of revenge. This isn't from the grander perspective of #1, maybe, but it can be immensely enjoyable. The lesson might be "Yes you can" or "Elites are not immune" or "The meek shall inherit [paradoxical because pursuing revenge is not meekness]." Or else maybe the lesson is merely "Social inequality is a BAD THING, an EVIL THING." It is possible to preach to the choir–successfully.

The above may be a crude example of what I mean.

Whether theme strides out in front or leads from the back, is intended to offer a lesson or merely raises questions that can, depending on the reader, inspire some kind of lesson, may not be entirely important? Or simply depends on what kind of book the writer wants to create?
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
I think it depends on the type of story the writer wants to create. I think there will always be those who love the underdog "rises up above all odds" type of story, and I think there will be those who don't need it and just want entertainment.

I love a "spiritual" awakening when I read or watch movies, so I tend to prefer stories with a more heavy handed theme.

My husband does not, and prefers to be entertained so theme is not as important as action sequences. (He doesn't read, so he may not be an accurate representation for fiction lol).
 
We often encounter the notion that good writing raises questions. This observation could be applied in multiple ways, but I wonder to what degree theme raises questions, and the nature of those questions.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
I think, maybe, the bigger (or more controversial) the question, the more heavy handed the theme?

I think that ties into the "don't write unless I have something to say" that I mentioned earlier. I have a lot to say about what it is to have a child with disabilities so that theme tends to come out a lot in my stories because it is something I'm passionate about, something I feel a lot of emotion about, and something I find important to write out. I also feel very passionate about parenting in general, about education, about politics, about socialism and social justice etc... so these are themes I typically draw on when writing so that I actually care about what I'm writing about.

When I think of the biggies like Margaret Atwood or Charles Dickens, or Chaucer (to go waaaaaay back)... they were asking some pretty big and controversial questions.

Margaret Atwood's' most famous work The Handmaid's Tale was very controversial and is totally unabashed about presenting a dysfunctional fundamentalist Christian Dystopia that squashes women's sexuality and individuality. She posed some pretty big questions about feminism and religion.

Charles Dickens (who grew up in a family prison because his father couldn't pay his debtors) had the nuts to present lower class British society in a way that made it seem more humane than the upper class and poked fun or downright insulted major social institutions such as utilitarianism and capitalism.

And Chaucer raised a lot of questions about the piety of the church officials and the rich, and wrote in the language of the peasants at a time (English) when previously texts were only written in Latin and only read by the clergy or the wealthy...

Big questions/ideas = big themes.

Smaller questions or just entertainment = less focus on theme?
 
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Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
I just got out my Fire in Fiction by Donald Maahs to see what he says, because there does seem to be a bit of a fear, or even aversion to having a distinct theme now a days by writers.

I think perhaps "The Moral of the Story" is another way of looking at "theme", so this is what he has to say:

How do you shape the events of your story to your purpose? Are you afraid that if you did so readers would reject what you have to say? You are not alone. It has become unfashionable to make statements in fiction. In our politically correct, post 9/11 world, is it perhaps even unwise to assert our views?

I believe the danger lies in not doing so. Stories draw their power from their meaning. If you ask me, challenging readers' beliefs is not a weakness, but a strength....

What is the truth that you wish the rest of us would see? That is the purpose of your novel. That is your message. I wish more manuscripts had them. A great many do not.

Some bemoan the decline of reading and lament the sad state of contemporary fiction. Are they right? Sometimes I wonder.

Many contemporary novels focus on daughters, journey's home, and the aftermath of significant events. Another trend is to make characters of Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle or to borrow their creations. What has happened to us? Have we lost confidence in our own imaginations? Are we afraid of portraying grand characters and big events? Do we identify only with victims? Is the story of our age no more than a tale of survival?

Perhaps. Contemporary fiction reflects who we are. And who are you? How do you see our human condition? Where have you been that the rest of us should go? What have you experienced that your neighbors must understand? What have I missed? What makes you angry? What wisdom have you gleaned? Are there questions we're not asking? Do the answers of the past no longer serve, or are they more apt than ever?

Simply put, what the hell do you want to say to me? If I remember nothing else, what would you have me recall when I close your novel's covers?

Having something to say, or something you wish us to experiences, is what gives your novel it's power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what's burning in your heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.



- The Fire in Fiction, pg 248
 
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And who are you? How do you see our human condition? Where have you been that the rest of us should go? What have you experienced that your neighbors must understand? What have I missed? What makes you angry? What wisdom have you gleaned? Are there questions we're not asking? Do the answers of the past no longer serve, or are they more apt than ever?

Simply put, what the hell do you want to say to me? If I remember nothing else, what would you have me recall when I close your novel's covers?

 
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Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
^^^^^^ :) This is why you make me so happy FifthView, and it seems like I only take the time to get in these long discussions with you. That is exactly it.

Theme = What the F*ck is your story about?
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Not everyone is a Stephen King fan, but if you mention The Shawshank Redeption or The Green Mile many people will say they loved those stories. I think, deep down, people appreciate big themes.
 
I would say I appreciate stories that approach "theme" as an exploration of positions rather than as an indictment of X position or as a proof of Y position. Fictional stories to prove a point are kind of the ultimate straw man argument... here! let me make up a story that proves I'm right!

Umm, yeah, okay.

Not that these can't work... Dickens was extremely good at this, but let's face it... not many Dickens' walking around. In fact, I enjoy Dickens and others more if I don't bother thinking about themes. Screw that old english lit guy deep inside.

The movie Avatar is an excellent example of a hair-pullingly-bad straw man story with great visuals to pull it off. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, American Psycho, brilliant uses of story to carry a theme. Most environmentalist/political/religious/anti-religious stories suffer from straw man disease as much as politics itself, becoming propaganda more than great story. With help from Fantasy, Avatar avoided becoming pure propaganda, LOL. This is actually a strength of fantasy.

Historical settings are also a great way to help carry a heavy handed theme.
 
I would say I appreciate stories that approach "theme" as an exploration of positions rather than as an indictment of X position or as a proof of Y position. Fictional stories to prove a point are kind of the ultimate straw man argument... here! let me make up a story that proves I'm right!

Umm, yeah, okay.

Not that these can't work... Dickens was extremely good at this, but let's face it... not many Dickens' walking around. In fact, I enjoy Dickens and others more if I don't bother thinking about themes. Screw that old english lit guy deep inside.

The movie Avatar is an excellent example of a hair-pullingly-bad straw man story with great visuals to pull it off. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, American Psycho, brilliant uses of story to carry a theme. Most environmentalist/political/religious/anti-religious stories suffer from straw man disease as much as politics itself, becoming propaganda more than great story. With help from Fantasy, Avatar avoided becoming pure propaganda, LOL. This is actually a strength of fantasy.

Historical settings are also a great way to help carry a heavy handed theme.

When in doubt just use an evil corporation or Nazi's as an antagonist. Works for Hollywood. :rolleyes:
 
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