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.)
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.