On "message," "theme," and Stuff Like That

When I’m working on a story, there is usually some background idea I’m investigating; what some might call a theme, although I don’t entirely understand that word.  In practice, it means that at some point in the process–usually pretty early–I discover that I’m using the story as a means to work out or explore some problem that I don’t understand but find interesting.  Whether anyone else ever figures out my subject is beside the point: it makes the process more fun.

So, here’s the thing: from time to time, I hear references from other writers about “introducing” a theme or some over-riding subject, and I hear it spoken of as if it were a separate process from the creation of the story.  That’s what mystifies me.  How can you, on the one hand, create a story, and on the other play with broader ideas, as if they were independent of each other?  Isn’t the whole flow and working out of the story an expression of whatever theme is being explored?

I’m not expecting an answer to this.  It’s just a thing that has been on my mind for a number of years and I just figured out how to say it.

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0 thoughts on “On "message," "theme," and Stuff Like That”

  1. I’m not sure, but I think you just articulated one of the underlying manifesti of the Pre-Joycean Fellowship.

  2. How can you, on the one hand, create a story, and on the other play with broader ideas, as if they were independent of each other?

    The answer, sadly, seems to be “write a shitty story.”

  3. ::Mark::1:: Wow. Interesting. I need to think about that.

    ::invid::2:: Maybe. But I wonder if that’s what they’re doing, or only how they’re talking about it. I’ll probably never know.

  4. I mostly get to a point in the story–pretty near the end, usually–and find the damned thing was lurking underneath all along without me knowing it was there.

    So in the rewrite I try to make it look as if I’d meant to do that. Along with all the other things I try to make look intentional in the rewrite.

  5. So let me understand you….when you write one of your complex Taltos novels, you know all the twists and turns beginning to end before you write the first chapter??

  6. Thomas McCormack, in The Fiction Editor, the Novel and the Novelist, sez that Theme is an abomination, and that writers and editors ought to run away from anyone who seems to think the concept is useful. He recommends an alternative concept, which he calls by the name ‘axiom,’ and which I think means just what it sounds like it means: the unquestioned assumptions about how the real world operates that inform the work at its basic foundation layer. This has always made a lot more sense to me than any of that crapology I learned in English classes about Theme being a crucial component of Story.

    When I hear writerly types talking about Theme, I remember that I’m not the only person in the world who thinks the concept is worse than useless. Then, I duck out of the room, because I know my smugness will be unbearable, and that it will eventually buy me the mother of all righteous ass-kickings at some point. Still, I don’t get how Theme is supposed to be useful. I sure hope it really isn’t, because I’ve been actively avoiding it for years and years.

  7. ::Emma::4:: Yeah, me too.

    ::Mudd::5:: No.

    ::j.j.woddyatt:11:: I avoid “theme” insofar as it is, as has sometimes been described, “a single declarative sentence stating the point of the story.” On the other hand, if you consider it an interesting question that the author attempts to work out, or work at, during the course of the story, then it can add interesting layers, or some of what Emma calls the “chewy bits.”

    Axioms, on the other hand, are fun because they give you something to question.

  8. “Theme” is for essays. “Message” is for preachers, and makers of political short films. Novels tell stories. IMO, every time writers get confused about that, something bad happens. Usually it involves a metaphorical soapbox and a good bit of browbeating and sophistry, and maybe a book flying across the room.

  9. I always thought if the author could have summed it up in one neat sentence, why would he or she have gone to the bother of writing a whole book? Overarching ideas are fun to identify, but they’re not the sum of the story, and I think “themes” generally sound trite divorced from their context. You could say “censorship is bad” is a theme of Farenheight 451, but that kind of leaves a lot out, and is a much mealier sentiment than what you’d get from reading the book.

    Also, what Emma said.

  10. I’d say “theme” needs to emerge from the background, along with setting. If you’re really trying to force it into the story late in the process, then yeah, that’s going to be a mess. But it’s another matter entirely if you see a theme forming, and then rework your story to let it emerge.

    Theme should not need to abuse the story itself, and in the best works, it doesn’t. Consider the theme of immortality in Zelazny’s work, or that of transformation in Chalker’s.

    And if I had to pick one theme to encompass *your* work, it would be “self-determination in an overlarge world”. This of course is one of the Grand Old Themes, and it’s easy to hang almost anything on it. Just running down the list:

    Vlad has developed his “true self” in a series of successively larger mileus — in flashback, as a minority in the Empire, then among the rough players of the Jhereg, later among wizards and even the gods. Everybody wants to push him around and make him do what they want, but he not only resists, but thrives.

    Kayvaan and company develop from impetuous youths to reliable adults, and eventually take part in the larger history of their time, even while facing overwhelming powers hailing from beyond their ken. Likewise for their kids, and for Morrolan’s crew.

    Likewise, the princes of “Brokedown Palace” each need to seek out their essential selves, in a world that’s decidedly bigger than their little kingdom — then it is not only those essential selves, but also the powers from Outside, which meet in the final conflict.

    Even Cowboy Feng spends most of his book trying to “find himself” among all the hostility, and your take on the Revolt In Heaven comes down to various parties choosing their places as their universe expands (again).

    Of course, you also use “minor themes” — food for Vlad, honor for Kayvaan, magic/power for Morrolan, and so on. That helps keep the major theme from becoming too obtrusive….

  11. Theme as we’re discussing it here may well be vague and bogus (as my creative writing prof used to say): it’s so often used in lit crit that it may have lost meaning. What I often talk about when I’m brainstorming a story is the “about” (which doesn’t make as much grammatic sense as theme, but works better for my development process). What is the story actually *about*? One story could have many different facets (girl vs. giants/fae, girl coming of age/finding a place for herself in the world, or girl’s relationship with sister, as three examples of stuff that I think will be involved in my current project). But the core of the story, in my head, is the relationship between the main character and her sister–it’s the driving force around which all of the other bits fall into place.

    I don’t know if that’s the same idea as what you’re talking about–it looks like bigger ideas are being discussed in the comments than just relationships (or the themes I learned about in middle school English: man v. man, man v. nature, man v. self, etc.). But I wonder if that’s the kind of theme other writers talk about “introducing” in their work–perhaps once they’ve identified the “about,” they call it a theme and run with it.

  12. I work best with examples. The Katherine Kerr Deverry series has the ongoing theme of life, death rebirth, try to do better next time cycle. However in each of the books she seems to explore different sub themes that are represented in the different characters and their actions. The main character themes go from book to book, the lesser characters’ themes fizzle out sooner. The themes within themes made the early books a lot of fun to read. Eventually the series fails because the main characters just kind of exist to fill space.

    I believe that “introducing” a theme might pertain more to “when” a specific sub theme is introduced into a story. I can’t really imagine how you could write a coherent story without any theme to start. The theme could certainly change as you write and the characters grow. From the readers’ point of view, if done properly, they shouldn’t be able to tell when the writer changed themes.

    The one story I wrote started with a good person content to do good things theme, by the end of the book they became a bad person doing bad things. It wasn’t so much disjointed themes as my main theme being the descent from good to bad with the reader deciding if events or personality caused the descent.

    Sub themes often wander into and then out of stories, and are a good strategy for making a book less one dimensional or heavy handed. No one likes to get bludgeoned with a repetitive recurring single theme.

    Of course if you subscribe to the “cool stuff” writing method, you can make your own rules and keep it interesting without worrying about whether or not the reader gets your theme.

  13. I think it depends on your goal when you decide to generate a written work. Sort of like the difference between top-down and bottom-up design.

    You can start with a theme and evolve a story around it or you can start with a story and weave a theme into it. Depending on the skill of the writer you’ll either get entertaining diversion or stultifying crap.

  14. Isn’t this just the Grand Old Question of particulars and universals? If so, count me on the side of Aristotle and Brust on this one; themes exist in concrete stories and don’t have any existence outside of them. The theme just is its exploration in actual stories.

    The lit crit gobbledygook results from treating themes as if they exist in some rarefied Platonic sphere that the writers themselves are only fumbling to access. IMNSHO, any concept of literature in which critics know more truth about writing than the writers themselves is necessarily rooted in bullshit.

  15. Jonathan::15:: Some nice remarks. I pretty much agree with everything until the last sentence. It’s not that I think you’re wrong, it just seems like an over-simplification. It isn’t unusual for critics to have insights into a work that the author missed. I’d think, therefore, that critics can also have insights into writing in general that many authors might not have considered.

    Otherwise, yeah. There’s a Robert Hunter quote I can’t quite remember, but something to the effect that it isn’t about having something you want to say and disguising it. If there was clearer way to say it, you’d say it that way.

  16. skzb:
    That’s a fair criticism. I don’t mean to deny that critics can, through their own experiences of many writers, know something that a particular writer doesn’t. There is such a thing as a good critic! It’s this idea that they have privileged access to some celestial realm, a realm the writers themselves are only fumbling blindly in the shadows to reach and that the critic reaches by transcending these messy particulars, that I find radically false.

  17. When I think of themes, I generally associate it with music, where a typical form will be themes and variations. The same sort of thing can work itself out in fiction as well. In a work with various subplots, the theme and variations occurs as follows:

    In King Lear, a theme is the proper relationship between a father and his children, stated first in Lear’s troubles with his kids. A variation on the theme occurs with Edmund and Edgar. The contrasts between these — the way Shakespeare riffs on them — adds to the richness of the play in a way that wouldn’t occur if you just had the plain melody of the Lear/daughter plot.

  18. Ker_thwap:

    It actually wouldn’t have occurred to me to call the rebirth in the Deverry books a theme, which now has me wondering just what the word means to me. I think I might have referred to reincarnation (in those books) as being a ‘device’ or a ‘story element’ or somesuch; it’s part of the structure of /how/ the story is told. When we talk about a theme in a book or series, I personally picture an idea or situation that is revisited from several different perspectives, but one that’s not part of the explicit flow of the story itself. I’m at a loss for words here, a bit, but something the story says or shows, rather than something the story IS. (When I started thinking about themes in the Kerr books, the first one I came up with was forgiveness, and the need to let go and move on…which the reincarnation element of the story gives ample opportunities to explore)

    However, I’m not sure if the distinction is real, or just in my head :)

  19. From the lit crit point of view themes are huge and I think THAT is what makes things literature and not just a good story. These themes enable those reading them to vicariously work out the problems along with the narrator/characters even writer. That’s what makes them classics, to stand through the ages because these themes are universal and timeless.

    However from the writing point of view I think these themes develop themselves in gifted writers. Gifted writers I believe are people who care about the world, are as confused by it as the next guy and creative enough to put it in a context that anyone can identify with. (We’ll see if I turn out to be one of said writers. Seems to me like Mr. Brust would qualify.) I don’t think you can force a theme into a story. It has to come out on its own.
    I especially love the way Stephen Donaldson uses overarching ideas in the Mordant’s Need duology. Rereading it recently really reminded me of what made those books stick in my mind. It was the underlying themes that unknowingly touched me so deeply. That I believe is what makes good sf/f of literary value. Because it can achieve the same effect and almost in a subversive way, that people enjoy. I digress though. As I usually do. lol. Interesting topic. Sometimes now I feel like I have a split personality wanting to go into literary criticism and writing, but it gives me an interesting perspective on things.

  20. Late to the game, but I’d offer that theme can be choate or inchoate, and for most authors it is the latter. In my own writing, I use the word “idea” to express this, possibly meaning something similar to what Alana Abbott means when she writes “about.”

    When the author/characters are working through, chewing on an idea which is not resolved, theme remains inchoate. That’s cool, I think, as in most cases the ideas chewed on are not often subject to resolution. Leaving them open invites the reader to continue to chew/think.

    Yet sometimes the author has something to say, most often causing the story to fail. I think this is easier to do well in a short story, a la Harlan Ellison. Occasionally a gifted writer who is not a very good story-teller will nail this (1984). When it all comes together, though, a good writer and story-teller who has something to say….

    Jacqueline Carey, for example, works deftly with a singular idea on a very broad story. Take the concept expressed as “Love as thou wilt,” and the story of Phedre becomes a powerful statement as well. Hard to swallow for a veriety of reason (many of which have to do with the world-as-it-is), but I find it strongly compelling.

  21. I teach my students, of course, about Theme, and Tone, and Mood, and all that Critical stuff. I do not, however, teach them that writers insert theme into their works, but that the themes are there because they were somewhere in the writer’s mind when they wrote, or because they are in the mind of the reader when he/she reads it, or both.

    Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is rife with ideas and statements on American culture and the taint of Puritanism on our collective souls. That doesn’t mean he consciously put the stuff in there, it just means he felt that way, so it’s in his work.

    Sometimes I think we bring Theme to the novel, which is why two readers could read any given book and have differing opinions as to what the Theme of the work is.

  22. Okay, Michael, now we’re getting into the fun stuff. How to express this? Sometimes theme is there in back of your mind. But other times, it’s kind of…mmm…a game. “Hey, it would be fun to fool around with *this* sort of idea, and make it run through the story, and see what effect that has on how it plays out.”

    That’s part of what makes it fun, to write and read and talk about.

  23. There seems to be a strong current of anti-intellectualism in the fantasy & science-fiction genres, a notion that the “story” (or the “science”) is all that matters — that the literary tools of theme, structure (and even style) are, at best, useless. I find this deeply disturbing. Why read a story that’s completely self-contained and has nothing to say about the world when you could be reading something that’s actually enriching or relevant or interesting? (warning: may contain bias.)

    Of course, *using* literary tools is by no means a guarantee of having something to say; many comments have pointed this out. My favourite example of an author failing at what JP@21 calls “choate” theme is the perennial high-school assignment, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”; it sets up an entire self-contained universe in which people are barbaric, in order to show that people are barbaric. Not only is the theme heavy-handed, but it leaves no space for disagreement. “This is the way it is,” it instructs the readers. Such bullshit.

    I’ve always found Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” to be the perfect counterexample. It isn’t a story, really; has no plot, no characters, no science, even. But it’s utterly brilliant, and deeply poignant. Unlike Jackson, who bludgeons her theme through shock&awe, LeGuin simply hypothesizes about a world — deliberately shaping it without ever leaving the realm of rhetoric — and then implies her thematic question, never quite saying it out loud.

    I don’t mean to create an opposition between “choate” and “inchoate”; I agree with JP@21 that the former often fail but can be nailed in certain cases. Rather, I think it’s important to point out that stories don’t even need “story”, really, but, in order to sustain interest, theme is pretty crucial.

  24. Apophenia @ 25: “There seems to be a strong current of anti-intellectualism in the fantasy & science-fiction genres”

    Damn skippy there is. And it makes me nuts. How can you write fiction–especially speculative fiction–and yet sneer at intellectualism?

  25. skzb@26: “How can you write fiction–especially speculative fiction–and yet sneer at intellectualism?”

    Here’s a way: Read a bad issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction. That can turn you off intellectualism big time :)

    Seriously, though, the NYRSF has had some fine articles, but I recall that sometimes it seemed to get lost in a haze of aesthetic and critical theory, perhaps the only academic areas more obtuse to the outsider than sociology.

    I stopped reading it after a while because the brows had gotten way too high over there for my taste, and as a self-confessed user of the word “etiolated”, those are some pretty high brows. But I admit I haven’t looked at that magazine in years, so perhaps it has improved. (Actually, now I’m interested; I’ll look at it again next time I’m in a SF bookstore.)

    As an aside, by the way, since it comes to mind due to the similar title, despite its almost complete disinclination to deal with genre fiction, the New York Review of Books is still a great magazine, a good mix of random art, art history, literature, and political articles only some of which are actual book reviews.

  26. I think the difference is in intent. “Theme” is something the author is working out for himself, an idea he’s playing with. “Message” is something the author is trying to convince the reader of. The first contributes constructively to storytelling, but the second usually distracts from the story. And it’s irritating. And “sending a message” is one of the most heinous catch-phrase clichés of our time.

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