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You, Me, and the Theme

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Creed, May 30, 2014.

  1. Creed

    Creed Sage

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    My question is very simple: how important is theme to you?
    For some writers, I understand it can be the first thing they go to, as a way to spark the rest of the story into existence or simply because they think it's important.
    For others (like me) it seems to be something just on the sidelines, capable of adding to the story, and certainly worth considering at times, but it's the tool from the toolbox that generally doesn't get covered in much grease.
    As opposed to an actual theme behind what I'm working on, I'll often pick up certain ideas that stand out, as simple as "Fire" and "Water" (two elements I adore subtly working into the narrative- even before I read Timothy Findley) or more complex like "The power of dreams."
    When writing an essay or project like that, I'm always told to start with a thesis. Not always my style, and certainly not for writing fantasy. And while I adore works with themes like in Lord of the Rings, it's not how I generally write.
    What about you?
     
    Last edited: May 30, 2014
  2. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I think a theme can be useful. It can serve as a backbone to build things off of or serve to tie things together. For me coming up with a theme is most useful when there's an aspect of the story that I find myself frequently conflicted over. Then I can make a theme for that aspect and use it to guide me.
     
  3. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    If you asked me directly, I'd say what matters to me is characters, but I don't think you can do a good study of two or more characters without finding some point of contrast between them--people are too complicated to just throw two complete personalities at the reader and say "Hey, these people are different!" That point of contrast develops into a theme, and you can use it to draw further parallels with more characters. (This can be a lot more organic than it sounds--if you put two people in the same situation and have them react differently, the difference determines a theme even if you don't do anything to say "Hey guys, this is the theme!")

    There's a book called Implied Spaces that uses architecture as a metaphor. No one sets out to have a triangular empty space under the roof, but you're probably going to have one if you have a triangular shape in the roof design. For me, that's what themes are--the implied spaces of my character studies.
     
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  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    If you're building your characters consistently, you're going to have themes. Real life has themes. People develop quirks and habits and patterns of thinking that shape their experience of the world. The whole notion of a character arc creates themes.

    So, it shouldn't be something you need to think about too much directly. That is, unless you want several characters to have a cluster of interconnected themes that tie your book together. Which I think of as a bit of an advanced technique. It adds to your work if you do it well, but it's another layer of complexity that you have to manage, which can lead you to forcing specific changes onto a story that don't belong there.

    I would suggest looking for which themes tend to pop up naturally in your writing, but don't worry about playing with them until you see which ones a good fit for your writing. Then you can start to build them up.
     
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  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I agree with this. I usually don't think too much about theme until I finish the first draft. Afterwards, as I edit, I'll notice themes in the story. Some I'll build up. Others, I'll down play or just leave be. It all depends on where I want the story to go. Also as said above, themes will always pop up in your writing. Some themes you may not even see.

    I've heard of fans going up to authors and telling them how they loved this theme and that in their stories, and the author didn't intentionally put any of those themes in at all or was even aware of them.
     
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  6. Helen

    Helen Inkling

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    You make it sounds like theme is optional. I don't think it is.

    A very useful approach.
     
  7. Creed

    Creed Sage

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    In my opinion it most certainly is a conscious choice… on a certain level. Like Devor said, there are themes which pop up naturally in writing, and those are, obviously, not optional. I love it when I look through what I've written and find a unifying idea behind parts of my WIP, put there without any conscious effort. But trying to (on the conscientious level) include a theme into a first draft or a first edit is certainly something people do.

    True, but again only on a certain level for me. I prefer to start with a character, build the plot and world from around them. But I think an idea could provide an axial thesis for me, as long as it isn't as specific as my profs demand a thesis must be. I'd prefer an idea, something general, something malleable.
     
  8. Bansidhe

    Bansidhe Minstrel

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    I use theme as the "spine" of my stories, but thoroughly in the background, informing conflict and character development.
     
  9. thefeyfox

    thefeyfox Dreamer

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    I think the theme/questions are one of the most important parts for you as a writer to understand in the context of your story. There are so many times I find myself up against a wall and if I bring it back to the theme or the questions my character is trying to answer within herself/himself (most of the time subconsciously) I can usually find a character to bring in to help, or a way to rework the storyline to get them there.
     
  10. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    A theme is like the bass track beat behind everything. It's not what you normally remember but without it everything else becomes unstuck.
     
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  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I went to a book signing in NYC once where a handful of published authors were in the audience talking about theme. One of the authors was from Italy and was shocked by how little the American authors thought or cared about their themes or the messages they were telling with their books. She said that you were supposed to start with a thesis and build your book around it. The American authors, on the other hand, were perfectly content to rewrite endings and "go wherever their characters were taking them."

    So my take is that there is a regional difference in how these things are understood and discussed.
     
  12. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    What Devor said. If I try to consciously come up with a theme, things get clumsy and stilted. If I just write the story, theme seems to be a side effect that just pops up on its own. Once it's there I can work with it and develop it, but if I try to develop the theme first, if I sit down and say, "All right, what's the theme of this story going to be?" I can't seem to make it work.
     
  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    For me, when I started my wip I had no thoughts whatsoever about theme. However, as I've been writing, there are certain things that have come back, over and over, and they have formed the theme. When going into the second draft that is something that I'll be aware of and I'll be able to push it through a little more clearly in the beginning of the story, where it was not yet fully developed the first time around.
     
  14. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Incorrect post destination...apologies.
     
  15. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    A few years back I had a guy criticize my stories because they had no unifying theme that kept everything together. He likened them to a computer RPG that just threw enemy after enemy after the player without any real story structure.

    Ever since then I've found that developing a theme or at least a character arc can help with structuring a story. It's rather like how you build a research paper around a thesis. On the other hand there is the challenge of keeping the theme subtle to avoid preachiness.
     
  16. thefeyfox

    thefeyfox Dreamer

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    ^ what he said.
     
  17. Helen

    Helen Inkling

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    These aren't really themes, but symbols with particular usage (for instance, water signifies rebirth and the character may be thrown underwater before a significant change).

    If we say, for argument's sake, that the theme in the Wizard of Oz is self-belief (taken from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ) then you can see how the final shape of the character, plot and world is a function of theme, not the other way around.

    You can play around to find it however you want, but the final shape has to be reworked around theme.

    Americans think about theme in exactly the same way as that Italian lady.

    Thematically, you can't rewrite endings without changing a lot of other things. Use The Wizard of Oz again. If the theme is self-belief, then Dorothy has to do it in the end. And that's why you need to give her Ruby Slippers earlier on. And that's why a big part of the story is her seeking assistance outside herself.
     
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  18. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Yeah, but themes are rules, an idea of "how you're supposed to do it," and Americans tend to recoil from that. I didn't mean that Americans have a different idea of themes. I meant that American authors don't think of it as being as important as a starting point.

    And it isn't. If a character has an arc, where they start as a youth and mature into a hero, then somebody's going to identify the theme as "coming of age." But the author didn't need to think about "coming of age" as a theme that everything ties into. The author didn't need to look beyond his character, and the character's outlook, and how that character develops and grows over time.

    You don't need to start with a thesis. You don't even need to think about themes too much if you're building your character effectively.


    ((edit))

    When it comes to the example, the conversation that I heard, I should probably clarify what took the Italian author so much by surprise. The American author didn't "rewrite" the ending, so much as scrap the ending she was planning because the characters "refused" to go where she was telling them to. She was surprised because of how little the theme meant as a focal point for the other author.
     
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2014
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  19. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Here's the thing, a lot of the themes that people see in LOTR, Tolkien did not put into his work intentionally. People actually pointed out what seemed like obvious symbolism to him years later which he insisted he had not been conscious of in the writing.

    Theme is basically the answer to "what's the big picture of this story, what's it all about?" Or, when you've finished reading a story, and sit back to think about it, what did it all mean?

    Now, you can determine this "what does the story mean, what is it really all about" factor before writing it and then write the story to fit the theme. Or you can just write the story and then determine what the primary meaning that comes through from the story you've just written was. (And then perhaps edit it to make the meaning more clear.) Either way is valid. Or you can just write the story and not worry about the theme and trust that your readers will find meaning in it for themselves.

    But there is not story that doesn't have any meaning or any "big picture" idea of what the story was about. That is just part of what a story IS. It makes sense of and instills meaning in a series of events. And readers will always find ways in which the story has meaning personally for them. We read stories for that very reason.
     
  20. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I'm curious about how you would go about starting with a theme and building a story off of that. Can anyone give me a hypothetical example of what this would be like? I think I would like to give it a try.
     
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