Waiter, There’s a Theme in my Novel — novel workshop — 5 (?)

Look, I’m the first one to say that I usually have no clue what the theme of my novel is going to be. In fact, a good way to stomp me – which my publisher managed to do twice.

Not only that, but I’m completely puzzled by writers’ bios that say “I wanted to write a novel about the decay of Western civilization” or something like.

Blog posts, sure. If you ask me “What is the theme of this blog post?” I can usually tell you. It starts with “Oh, I need to write about how 100 years of hanging crepe and mea-culpas is enough” (Tomorrow, at ATH.)

But books?

Books start with “There was this girl, see, and there’s someone in her room. Only she’s in a spaceship and everyone in there has been vetted by her scary dad. And yet, there is someone in her room.” Or “there is this man in a prison cell. He’s been in solitary for 14 years, and he’s a bit nuts, but someone has been supplying him with reading material and music. And besides, he thinks he’s a monster, but I don’t know why.”

This is not a theme. It’s a situation. But it is nonetheless how my novels start, usually with a feel behind them that this story is too big for a mere short. (They “feel” different.)

So when you ask me “Theme?” I get completely stomped.

In fact, someone who used to be in our beginners’ writers group (and the reason we changed our name and meeting place) the same person who used to start every comment with “To begin with this didn’t work for me” stomped me completely after the Shakespeare trilogy came out, when I told him I’d sold a trilogy and he said “Theme???”

Because in my head Ill Met By Moonlight and the sequels weren’t about “theme” but about reconstructing Shakespeare’s life with elves, and therefore “solving” a lot of the puzzles that have bedeviled scholars for generations. (I must have come across convincing. Because the cover didn’t even say “fiction” I got irate letters from scholars telling me I was nuts to think there were elves. Pfui.)

But of course, there is a theme to the series. It is actually one of my enduring underlying themes, the sort that I return to like the tongue returns to the aching tooth: genius, and the supernatural dimensions of genius. Because there is something to genius – true breakthrough genius – that seems to us mere mortals like something that can’t be fully grounded in the real world: that has to be touched by something else. And if there’s a theme to the Shakespeare Trilogy it is that.

Granted, IMHO it’s also perfectly acceptable to say it’s about “being obsessed with Shakespeare and Marlowe. Deal.”

But since then, almost all of my books do have a theme. The space operas are of course about the balance between personal freedom and societal interaction. The shifters series is about personal responsibility and the conflicting loyalties of a small, secretive group, and the human race as a whole. If you abstract further than that, both the series are about what it means to be human.

And if you go closer in, each of the stories has a particular theme: Draw One In The Dark is about growing up and out of your parents’ shadow and whatever they’ve done to you, and learning to accept responsibility for who you are. Gentleman Takes A Chance is about learning a romantic relationship with a person who often seems like a different species. Noah’s Boy is about bucking societal expectations, but also responsibility to a larger community and those who can’t help themselves.

There are underlying sub-themes, and a lot of these are things that appear over and over again in my stories, like, for instance, the meaning of being human and responsibility for self and others. And how to be responsible for others, without crushing them. Etc.

But there is usually a major running through team. In Noah’s Boy Tom stops being a guy just trying to survive and assumes the mantel of responsibility and command, because he has to, for instance.

Here’s the thing: I don’t usually know what the theme will be in a novel till I’m halfway through. That means that what I should – and have learned to do – is go back and inject it, and make it clear.

For instance, the opening to DST came because after I was halfway through I realized that the theme of the novel is that Athena thought liberty was in running away from involvements and responsibilities and that the only thing she really wants at the beginning is normalcy. “I never wanted to go to space”. She wants a normal life. She wants to be a normal human. She ain’t gonna get it.

Having got that, I went back to inject the theme into the novel. Not just in conversations, but in circumstances, too. Don’t have her volunteer to go out and fix the spaceship. Have it forced on her. Have her try to steal the spaceship in the middle of the book and never think of what will happen if she succeeds. That sort of thing.

Most of it, you’ll find, is already there. Your character is what he/she/it is, and he/she/it will work itself out. But it’s a good idea in revision to make sure it’s consistent and makes sense throughout.

No the theme is not just the province of literature professors. If you’re sure there’s a consistent and resonant theme running across the story, you’ll find that your readers have a more satisfying experience and remember the novel forever, as opposed to a disposable read they forget.

More on this next week under “The Story Was THIS Big” – writing a big story.

31 Comments

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31 responses to “Waiter, There’s a Theme in my Novel — novel workshop — 5 (?)

  1. Theme? Um. I think the theme of most of my work is “There are these really neat people and they’re doing some really cool stuff. Now, there are problems, but because they’re not wimpy whiners, they get up off their asses (can I say “asses” on this blog?) and do something about it.”

    Does that count as a theme?

  2. Shamelessly stolen from a MAD Magazine gag: “What’s the book about?” “It’s about 450 pages long.”

  3. No, I don’t deliberately set up a theme at the beginning, either; like tWiB says, ‘neat people doing cool things’ – but the theme is usually clear to me by at least halfway in. In the last book but one, the theme was of proper Victorian ladies taking one step and then another out of the stultifying expectations that they had been born into, and I was able to carry it out in the cover design: a dark and fussily-decorated interior hallway, with an open door at the end, leading out into a bright outside, with a blue sky, green trees, and golden grass waving in the wind, In the book before that, it was a woman who had essentially given up on romance in her life – because of her heavy responsibilities and all – and managing to completely overlook the one man in her life who did love her desperately. (He’s a total nerd, of course – a 19th century Aspie.) And in my first book, I didn’t even see it until the end; it was a study in good leadership.

  4. Draven

    Reminds me of the ‘Yes, but what is your book ABOUT’ gag Larry talks about.

  5. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Sounds to me that “theme” is like “style”. IE the writer shouldn’t really worry about it at first because it’ll come on its own. [Smile]

  6. A few weeks ago we were conversing with some friends about the meaning in Witchfinder. Jonathan and I were going . . . um, to be fun?

    Eventually they decided that most of the major characters had a destined role they were trying to avoid, and by the end of the book they had all settled into it, less successfully for Gabriel than for the others.

    I have no idea whether any of that was intended, but I thought it was interesting what they came up with.

  7. Christopher M. Chupik

    These days, I’m more aware of theme. Sometimes when I don’t have one in mind, I find it in what I’ve written so far, and proceed accordingly. The good news is that theme does seem to emerge spontaneously for me now.

  8. Holly

    So theme is . . . one or more of the beliefs of the author sneaking in subconsciously or placed in deliberately? Huh. That would kind of explain gray goo books.
    The way you put it, theme’s easy to see: it’s accepting responsibility and redemption.

    An off-topic question: for converting a file for Kindle, does font matter?

    • Go with one of the ones Kindle offers but don’t embed. That way people can change it.

      • Holly

        Fonts Kindle offers? I asked Amazon, since it’s not turning up in FAQs or search, and they said they’d reply within 24 hours–I’ve got much more than 24 hours of work to do. Font’s not hard to change, unlike learning to type paragraphs without tabs for the automatic indenting. (I have the desktop and cell phone programs. There’s no ability to change fonts in them.)
        What do you mean by don’t embed? Is this something I need to do in OpenOffice or is it something I choose when I upload?
        Thanks so much for your advice and help.

        • Baskerville, Caecillia, Caecillia condensed, Futura, Helvetica Palatino. I also use Georgia, calibri and times new roman.
          Ack, anyone here know OpenOffice. In word, you have to CHOOSE to embed the fonts.

          • Holly

            Thanks. Times it’ll be then, I guess. (I prefer Courier New for ease on the eyes, but I am reliably informed that I am weird.)
            If it’s a word processor thing, I can probably figure it out. I don’t like Word, but I can always install it if I have to–it’s around here somewhere. Once, about twelve years ago, I ran spellcheck on Word and it ate my file. 40,000 or so words. I’m still holding a grudge, even though, retrospectively and judging from other writing from that time, not many of the words would be salvageable.
            What I’m trying to do right now is turn a short story I wrote as an assignment into something publishable. It ends a scene too late, the first three paragraphs are crud, and there are whole scenes missing in the middle, but then, I was limited in space because college assignment. And I can see this now, when before I could only see it wasn’t working right.

            • I’ve found a tool for going directly from OpenOffice to ePub called Alkinea. I should probably check for an update, since it’s been a while since I used it.

  9. Uncle Lar

    Seems to me the approach most of y’all take is to create rich, fully involved characters that a reader can empathize with then turn around and torture them mercilessly. A streak of sadism might just lie not all that far under the surface of most writers.
    Not Ms. Sarah of course. I’m sure she pulls the wings off her characters for much more noble and plot driven reasons.

  10. I usually don’t discover a theme until I’m sweating the blurb and trying to figure out what my character wanted all along and what was standing in her way.

    btw, is there going to be another book plug Saturday? It would be a given that it’s defunct the moment I’m about to release a new book.

  11. Eamon J. Cole

    Theme? I’d be happy if my characters would just settle down and let me see some direction. I’m not even looking for plot right now, just — where do I aim my compass before I start walking?

    I keep getting glimpses in the fog, pieces of scenes, thoughts… But I can’t nail anything down. I’d set it aside and look to something else, maybe some shorts, but time is crowded for me and my brain insists on obsessing about this one book.

    Despite the block, I can sorta feel out some themes, whether they manifest clearly in the finished work or not.

    Family, the one we gather about ourselves. It’s the next chapter in my Baen contest short, and both background and foreground gather family for the MCs.

    Falling into leadership, reluctantly. Particularly at a level larger than the MCs expect/think is their role.

    Defenders, sacrifice, and walking forward with eyes open.

    Now, if I can just — get my fingers around it.

    Plus, obsessive brain, self-doubt/uncertainty…

    Fear is the mind-killer. Self-doubt likes crippling wounds.

  12. Angus Trim

    Thanks Sarah. Great post.

  13. Luke

    I’m evidently in the minority. I’m hyperaware of theme.
    It comes from running RPGs for too many years. The players are going to do the damndest things, and there’s no way you can prepare for them. But if you’ve got your theme nailed down, you can see how to tie things together until they loosely resemble a plot.

  14. Laura M

    Is “the government isn’t going to get the rest of us to space,” which I thought of as subtext in my first book, a theme or a message?