Threading The Needle
Theme, plot and meaning in your work.
Yes, I know, I know. You’re out there going “but aren’t we all about the story and not the message.”
Yeah, of course we are. If by message you mean the clumsy, stupid, predictable message you find in message fiction.
Full disclosure: I was an awful kid who begged for books in all occasions, appropriate and not.
I don’t remember going through a “children’s book” phase. I might have, but I don’t think I did, as I learned to read by reading Disney comics (which are not “precisely” just children’s books.) However even at seven and eight, when I was reading… mostly Mark Twain and westerns, if I remember correctly, I would beg mom for what was called in Portugal then “Historias da carochinha” (Beetle stories.)
These were books about the size of my palm and comprising maybe ten pages. But hey, a snack is better than starvation.
They republished all the common fairy stories like Cinderella and the Princess and the Pea, and also a lot of little stories probably pulled from Victorian morality tracts.
The stories were good enough, most of them, even if they were sort of the reader’s digest version of the tales.
BUT at the end of each booklet there was a sentence saying: The moral of this story is X.
I hated that with a burning passion, partly because it was an insult to my intelligence and partly because if you have to make it that blatant, you’ve failed.
I’m not asking you to do that. I’m also not telling you to write a novel with set pieces that all speak your lines and reinforce your pov.
I’m definitely not telling you to repeat what the largely insular NY publishing establishment wants to hear about the world. Not only would it be an unkindness to reinforce their imaginary world, but you might as well be driving a truck, as repeat the series of meaningless, reflexive moves you’ve read in all these stories.
However, a novel is a long story (you might have noticed this, as it has a helluva lot of pages, right?) and for coherence and internal feeling of development, it needs to have … a line, for lack of a better word, from beginning to end.
My mom, getting few and far between jobs to design full wardrobes for the wives of soccer players about to go on tour (if only the Portuguese teams had been better) contrived to feed us (dad’s salary at this point was largely ornamental) by buying an automatic knitting machine.
She eventually found she liked it, and ended up making sweaters for fun, even after dad’s job started paying, until about ten years ago when it got to be too much for her.
If you’ve seen those machines here, they are mostly plastic. This machine, acquired in the fifties, was all iron. It has a sort of little rail a square contraption runs on, and the knit hangs beneath. Mom would pull at threads with a little hook, run the contraption from end to end and back again, pull at some more threads. The motion is not unlike that of a loom. (The sound is like a train. Because we were very poor and mom liked to feed us and you know keep a roof over our head, when I was little she often worked 12 to 16 hour days on that machine. This means it was the sound track of my childhood, and I wish I had recorded it as I’m sure when I’m old and ill, it would bring me a sense of security.)
Sometimes when I asked mom a question, I got back the answer “Shush now, this is a complicated pattern, and I’m pulling a thread through.”
Weirdly, I often see my work in terms of that machine. My mom would come and pick me up at school and say “hurry up, I left a piece hanging from the machine.” Years later I told the kids “Come on, I left a piece hanging from the computer.” Not literally, but I picture a half finished novel as hanging mid-air, and I’m afraid of losing the sense of what it is.
And I pull the threads through. Sometimes simple patterns and sometimes complex. (Beware of complex patterns until you’re a master of the craft — at 23 books published, I still am not, but then I’m a slow learner.)
So what are the threads?
The threads that give a sense of unity to the story are Plot, Theme and Sense (you can say message, but sense doesn’t need to be a message you want to deliver to someone. I’ll explain.)
I just finished devouring the Adversary Cycle of F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack. (Burp.)
His plots are thriller plots — and if you wish me to complete the series on structuring your novel by giving the different structures used for different genres, I will — which usually involve a search for a mcguffin while someone’s life acts as the clock (“find the mystical blah by midnight or the kid gets it.”) He usually has more than one “problem” running at the same time,which again is a thriller trick to keep it moving fast. The problems usually turn out to be related, which is not so much a thriller thing as an urban fantasy thing.
His theme is also urban fantasy. It slowly builds a cosmogony that gives sense to the entire cycle of novels. Butcher and Correia do this too. It is less common in science fiction and fairly nonexistent in romance. Sometimes it appears in a reduced form in thrillers or mysteries. F. Paul Wilson’s cosmogony is notable for being urban fantasy with an atheistic background. It could turn ugly and meaningless fast, but it doesn’t because the Sense or, if you will the message of the books is a sort of rugged self-sufficiency based on self-control and looking after yourself, those you love and even hapless strangers.
This looking after yourself and those who need you is also fairly prevalent in Butcher and Correia.
Now the reason I called it “Sense” and not message is that no one is beating you over the head with it. There is no final line saying “And the moral of this story is…”
The “Sense” the feeling that pushes you to the catharsis (remember that a fiction story is an emotional experience, not just an intellectual one), is not a message. It doesn’t need to say anything socially relevant (though self sufficiency and looking after others is, of course, relevant) or socially conscious, or socially bupkis.
It just needs to be part of the character’s drive and motive and something the character believes deeply in.
Why something the character believes deeply in? Because otherwise you’re going to contradict it in myriad ways in the background, in little spots and jots you can’t pay attention to. You can’t write at cross purposes to your belief. You can try, but you’ll give yourself away and create an inferior work.
So, how do you thread sense and theme through?
Most of this is unconscious or at least subconscious for me. It wasn’t till I was done with Darkship Thieves that I realized I’d rewritten Heinlein’s Coventry, only longer and er… politically different.
Of course that’s not all of it, I’ve been fascinated with bio engineering humans since my teens, when I read Simak. And that is why the large, uber theme of my books, all together tends to be “Learning to be human”. This is not something I do on purpose. It’s something my mind leans to.
BUT at some point you’re going to sit down and whether at plotting, at writing, or at revising, you’re going to think “So what am I doing with this? What emotions am I pushing? What problems am I examining?”
When and how you do it depends on whether you’re an advance plotter, fly by the seat of the pants, or revise a pile of words into coherency (all of them are VALID methods of work, don’t let anyone tell you that you must do one or the other. And btw I’ve used all three at different times on different books.)
However at some point you’re going to look at what you wrote (I’ll use that for the sake of brevity. You might be PLANNING to write it) and you’re going to think “Um… I talk about ducks a lot.” (No, no one’s theme is ducks, but this is easier to explain.) “You know, later on, when the hero is stopped on the road, I’ll have it be because a bunch of ducks escaped from a duck farm, instead of that deer thing.”
The same with the “sense” of the novel. Say your “sense” is “you should always be well dressed” (No, I also don’t think anyone does this. Don’t know. Don’t read chic Lit. BUT it’s possible, right?) Well, should your crisis be about your character breaking her foot by falling on ice? Or should she break her foot because she was wearing inappropriate shoes? And how is she going to hide the cast now?
I’ll point out both theme and sense are a bit like garlic, which Nero Wolfe said in one of his books, about a trout recipe, that you should take a very little and rub it ON THE COOK, then get whatever residue that gets on the fish.
It’s very easy to overwhelm and become preachy and no one likes preachy*. (Particularly if you’re preaching about ducks. What are you, nuts?)
Also try to be balanced even if you do have a point of view (like behinds, they are. Everyone has one.)
Take Rome and Juliet. You probably learned, as did I that it was against the medieval idea that parents got to arrange the children’s marriage. So it is. Kind of. Sort of.
The final coda does point out that all are punished. But the all probably includes the dead lovers themselves.
You see, the theme of the book might be romantic love versus arranged marriages, but the sense of the book is “haste”. Everyone is in a goshdarned hurry, from the two idiot children, to Juliet’s idiot father, to, even the idiot friar. They all want what they want and they want it RIGHT NOW which causes the accumulation of errors leading to tragedy.
And that sense of urgency, though sometimes present in adults, is very much a thing of young teens. Which precipitates the tragedy but also makes you think about the importance of calmer cooler heads in ordering affairs of the heart.
It is also, at heart, a novel of very bad parenting including you know entrusting Juliet to a bawdy nurse. BUT that might or might not have been intentional, since the plot requires her to be badly guarded. OTOH it reinforces the sense of haste and the sense her father is not quite grownup either.
So if the message were there it would be “It’s best that love prevail, if you’re not too young and too in a hurry, but there’s something to be said for parents holding you back, unless of course they’re intellectual infants. Oh, and keep an eye on your kids fer goshsakes.”
Note it’s not a “bumper sticker” moral but a complex one.
If you’re subtle enough, and think it through enough, so will yours be. If your “sense” for the novel fits in a bumpersticker, you is probably doing it wrong.
1- Figure out the theme and thread it through WHERE APPROPRIATE.
2- Figure out the sense of your novel and thread it through WHERE APPROPRIATE and not in people’s faces.
3 – If your sense of the novel fits in a bumpersticker, you iz doing it wrong.
4- most of 1 and 2 come down to building believable characters that fit the story you want to tell, and then not violating their individuality.
5- if you end in a line saying “the moral of this story is” it’s likely you’re over the top and turning off readers. Also it’s possible Sarah A. Hoyt will come to your house and hold your cats/dogs/dragons hostage till you stop being a wise*ss.
Next Week: Born that way, the character that suits the tale.
And let me know if you want me to do a post on “generally appropriate plots for different genres.”
*No one likes “and the moral of the story is” unless they are my elementary school teacher, who became enamored of it and started requiring we put it at the end of stories. Now, after a unit on nature, she told us to do a story about interacting with nature. And yep, all my classmates ended up with the sort of sappy-pious thing that goes “I will respect nature, because…”
You might have noticed I have some issues with authority. Just a few. So, to being with, I wrote about someone hunting a rabbit. And second, I wrote, “The moral of this story is: don’t go hunting wabbits, because they’re wascally.”
I was in trouble for WEEKS.