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.

So

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.

51 Comments

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51 responses to “Threading The Needle

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    The “moral” of “Romeo and Juliet” is Romance makes you stupid. [Very Big Evil Grin]

    • aacid14

      I was at a convention and tended to go against the ‘message’ panelist. He used R&J as an example of love. I countered with the theme of teens are stupid. (Infatuation phase of lust not love)

      • You’re closer to the real “moral” as far as we can suss out than the panelist.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Chris Nuttall’s Afterword to his “Love’s Labour’s Won” talks about the problems of “Romeo And Juliet” especially considering the likely age of the kids.

          Chris doesn’t think much of the Friar among other things.

          IMO it’s worth purchasing Chris’ book just for the Afterword. [Smile]

        • Thank you. I thought the idiots were idiots (pretty much everybody) in that story, and probably the two teen idiots were not really in love either, when I was about 11. Never could find anyone who agreed with me until I ran into you guys.

          • Having been told that the story is great romance also left me overly touchy about any hints of idiocy in romance stories. I want sensible lovers, not idiots who get into trouble because they let their hormones do their thinking. Then I read a lot of the short romance novels and novelettes which used to be sold here on newspaper kiosks during a short period of time, found out that far too many of those required differing levels of idiocy from the protagonists in order to have a plot in the first place and stayed away from romance for years afterwards (still liked romance subplots, just not romance as the main story). Jane Austen rehabilitated me to some extent.

    • Mary

      Their stupidity would have been eminently survivable if they hadn’t been surrounded by even worse idiots.

  2. aacid14

    I have always thought of it as what word or phrase describes the story. I tend to do character growth thru redemption and accepting past but the actual plot is a bank robbery investigation.

    And now I need to find a way to include a flock of zombie ducks

    • Reality Observer

      Urp. My moral of the day is “Do not read Sarah Hoyt when you are on cold meds. It is almost as bad as Sarah Hoyt writing when she is on cold meds.”

      Now I’m stuck on trying to weave ducks (although not zombie ones) into the latest chapter – set in an asteroid fighter training base during an alien invasion…

      OK, it might amuse the wife, come to think of it.

      • aacid14

        Some trainee snuck on some balut…

      • TRX

        On Babylon 5, Ambassador G’Kar asked Zack about Garibaldi’s picture of Daffy Duck. Zack explained that Daffy was the ancient Egyptian god of frustration.

      • I know a fellow who goes by the handle “Wonderduck” and one thing he does is collect, you guessed it, Rubber Ducks. There are a remarkable variety of them in the world it turns out.

        I suppose one of your fighter trainees could hang one from the equivalent of the rearview mirror….

  3. Writing advice: purls before swine? *runs really, really fast, dives waaaaay back under the bed*

  4. And let me know if you want me to do a post on “generally appropriate plots for different genres.”

    Sure! Sounds good to me.

  5. Steve Lewis

    Sarah, I’d personally like to see the generally appropriate plots for different genres. I also liked how you took apart the Repairman Jack books and explained how the different parts related to different genres. More of that please. =)

  6. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I would like to see “generally appropriate plots for different genres.”

    I had an urge to thinly disguise modern American racial politics and take them to an even more horrible extreme.

    Theme might be ‘political favoritism and a world with supervillains who behave like real criminals do.’

    Sense might be ‘impossibility of living under the same sky as the one who done you wrong.’

    Message might be ‘the law is a compromise, police are not always ideal, but there are worse alternatives.’

    I hadn’t realized how angry I needed that protagonist to be until I studied these questions.

  7. Christopher M. Chupik

    “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”.

    Is it bad that I wish this would happen? Sarah would probably get arrested, but it would be worth it.

    • If Sarah tried that at Redquarters, Athena T. Cat would probably go into combat shedding mode and Sarah would disappear into a cloud of calico fur, never to be seen again.

      As a totally random aside, combat shedding would be a really cool power, unless the supervillain crosses cats with porcupines.

  8. 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.

    Didn’t St. Robert just about do that at the (original) end of Podkayne of Mars? Hummm… That is my second-least favorite Heinlein novel; I wonder if there is any correlation. (Rocketship Galileo is the very bottom of the heap for me, in case anybody wondered.)

    • TRX

      I liked that novel a lot, except even when I read it the first time as a kid it felt like some pages had fallen out before the end. I later found there was a different ending, and when I read that, it was no better.

      But at least it had a plot, unlike “Friday”, which moved like an amphetamine-fueled rocket, except it never went anywhere. Even St. Robert struck out every now and then…

  9. freddie_mac

    The best messages, which stay with me loong after finishing the book, are the subtle ones that sneak up on me.

  10. Christopher M. Chupik

    “And let me know if you want me to do a post on “generally appropriate plots for different genres.”

    (stands up, waving arm) Me! Me!

  11. Ironbear

    “and if you wish me to complete the series on structuring your novel by giving the different structures used for different genres, I will” and “generally appropriate plots for different genres.”

    Yes, definitely – Please, ma’am, may I have anothah? 🙂

    Hrmm. Assuming that I grok this correctly, which isn’t a given, you say that “His theme is also urban fantasy,”? That would seem to be what I’d consider “genre”, and “theme” would be what you’re calling “sense”…

    Now, most of my writing to date has been non-fiction, generally articles on various topics or ad copy back when I was a working ad artist and writer. My fiction writing up to this point has all been fanfic: I have a couple of “in-the-works” original fic novels, but they’re both in the research and plotting stage at the moment. (I tend to do copious research, and detailed plotting. It seems to be the way I work best. And then I write straight through until the first draft is done, sometimes at a fever pitch… )

    Majority of my fiction to date would be Genre: sci-fi or urban fantasy (goes with the territory: I’ve written predominately Buffy-verse and Trek-fic).

    Themes that seem to consistently run through and get explored are self-sufficiency, vigilantism vs officialdom, Heroes Journey (usually growing into a hero against outrageous odds), forming family by choice rather than birth, individualism coupled with voluntary cooperation (not mutually exclusive, IMO: I’m a big believer in voluntary association over forced), and acting to solve problems rather than being acted upon.

    If I have this right, then the “sense” in a lot of my work so far would be the underlying concept that “Humanity is the deadliest predator in existence, and if we have to, we’ll cobble together, innovate, or invent whatever is needed to overcome an obstacle or adversary, no matter how seemingly over-matched we are.”

    (I’m not sure if I’ve caught the distinction between “theme” and “sense”, really.)

    I also tend to lean toward the Jim Butcher school that the best characters are the ones that’ve been pounded on by the adversity in their situation to within an inch of their virtual lives until they’re hammer forged into something more (and better) than the sum of their parts and alloys.

    I don’t particularly do – or I don’t think that I do – “message fic” so much. I’m a libertarian, and I’m pretty sure a strong sense of libertarianism runs through everything I write… but it’s not something I consciously pound on. It’s more a factor of the situations: that the protagonists and their allies are usually on their own, and the only people they can count on are themselves and each other, and their own efforts to get out of their fix.

    I suppose that might be sense or theme also. I’ll have to think on that.

    • You’re right, that’s the genre… I really need to write with more coffee. I too am a libertarian, and I don’t consciously do message, but I won the Prometheus, so I think it leaked through.

      • Ironbear

        Ah. Okay, and no worries. Posting and commenting when my caffeine to blood ratios are outta whack has been to my detriment many a time. 🙂

        Just wanted to make sure I haven’t been miscalling things all these years.

        Meh. I’m pretty sure that it leaks through for me, too. I like guns, I’m anti-authoritarian, I’m pro free markets and minarchy, and I have a deep disdain for socialism and group think. It tends to show in both my world and scenario setups, my character’s solutions, and my character interpretations (and character likes and dislikes and ‘ships I favor.)

        I’ve noticed over time that at FFNet, and TtH, in genres that lean heavily left/SJW, my most commented works tend to attract the bulk of the libertarian and conservative leaning commenters. So they apparently pick up on something there that they gravitate towards…

        *shrug* Suits me. Cuts down on the trolls. (Having a slight rep for ruthlessly snacking on forum weasels cuts down even further.)

  12. Laura M

    I’m interested in genre appropriate plots, too. Count me in. The current WIP is adventure, but I’ve got a draft of another book to get back to that is more near future /legal/thriller-lite/space exploration/government. So, any discussion of appropriate plotting is most welcome since I’m using bits and pieces in the mash-up.

    I’m doing NaNo this month, and I’m at 41k. I’m starting to get tired.

  13. A while back I did a critique in my writing group on a story and said I didn’t understand why the story was written. I had no idea what the author was trying to convey, and I felt I had to mention it because I also felt that the author had no idea what she was trying to say with the story. Not that there should be a message in every story (there shouldn’t be), nor need there be a moral, but there should always be a reason for the story to exist beyond the idea of wanting to write a story.

    Essentially it read like a story that matched criteria as assigned by a teacher. Not a story the author wanted to write but one she was required to write for class. She did quite a good job on it, by the way, the mechanics were excellent. But there was no reason for it to exist.

    Later, at the bar, she came up with morals that matched the story but no matter how many times I said that wasn’t what I meant and tried to explain what I felt was missing, she would keep coming up with a new moral. Which is a pretty good sign it didn’t really have a moral in the first place.

    Thank you for explaining something that I was unable to explain fully. Next time I critique a story like that I hope to do a better job.

    Personally, I tend to write stories with big, but hidden messages, as in they inform the writing and are the reason I write them but I use them as a base built to lay a fun, usually action or humor oriented plot overtop. After many critiques I got used to people not seeing the depth (being a big, blonde, blue eyed, blue collar guy can cause people to not look for anything beneath the surface), and kind of preferred it that way. I wanted that stuff to be there to add depth and gravitas to the story and felt that if people were able to identify it easily then I had failed in some way. The depth is not the story and if someone reads the depth they often miss the story (I’ve found that with a lot of literary readers and writers).

    One guy, though, did read the depth and explained the ideas and thinking that underlaid one particular story and I was both flummoxed and pleased. Flummoxed because it hadn’t happened before but pleased because it was confirmation that the depth was actually explicable and I wasn’t just writing it poorly and omitting the depth of thinking that had gone into the writing of the piece.

    Wait, I’m not explaining this correctly, let me try again: Me am conservative reader and writer! Me like big boobs and guns! Deep is only hidden allusion to cleavage! Me like cleavage. And guns.

    Actually that was meant as a joke, but I just realized that in the comic strip I’m working on right now I have two sets of impressive cleavages (clevi? Actually that sounds like a good name for a blue jean tank top) and a gun. Maybe I am a stereotype.

    Steve

    • Cleavage and guns both represent the preservation of the species.

      Although with cleavage, it might be best not to open carry.

    • Ironbear

      “Me like big boobs and guns! Deep is only hidden allusion to cleavage! Me like cleavage. And guns.”

      *grin* Improbable cleavage: the Most Common Super Power. Capable of turning the most heinous villain into a stout, upstanding, red blooded Admirer of Virtue.

      Shortly followed by turning them into a limp puddle on the floor after the Wielder of the Cleavage decks them with the butt of her gun…

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Welcome, Steve. 🙂

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  15. Christopher M. Chupik

    Amazingly, someone on Vile 770 managed to find something negative to say about this.

    “Jim Henley on November 25, 2015 at 9:47 pm said:

    (cut segment about another topic)

    On Theme vs. Message, my acid test for Puppies is, “Name three stories with progressive themes that work, by your standards.” If you can’t, I’m going to suspect you of special pleading.”

    Unbelievable.

    • Sure, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. Of course, they’re not all POSITIVE stories, but social, language, and intellectual control are all things Progressives love to indulge in, they just don’t work out so well.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Yep, IMO Cautionary Tales work as “Message Stories”.

      • Laura M

        Red Mars and something by Stephen Baxter whose title I don’t recall. Those were well crafted stories, and, sure enough, I was filled with black despair by the end of them. Let There Be Light (hee, hee) was a little more cheerful.

    • Ironbear

      Somehow, I am not amazed.

    • Joe in PNG

      3 with progressive messages? Sure!
      Ian M. Banks- “Look To Windward”
      P.K. Dick- “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”*
      Dan Simmons- “Hyperion”
      *As a bonus, we’ll also throw in “A Scanner Darkly”

      • Joe in PNG

        As to the messages:
        1) Cultural imperialism can be bad- even if it is the good interfering with the bad.
        2) Empathy is one of the great things that makes us human
        3) Your own comfortable creations may be the thing that tries to destroy you- better to adapt to your environment than the other way around
        *) Sometimes the fight against an evil can cause one to become that very thing.

        • Oh, yeah — 1- in an equal society, children are communally raised and people are free to pursue their goals, with no harm. 2-War is wrong. 3- War is caused by scarcity, the human race can (should?) be made obsolete.

      • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ender’s Game, City

    • Betcha the answers to that query here somehow will escape his attention.

      • Joe in PNG

        Or they’ll special plead down to really specific author traits- “Okay, now name three books with ambidextrous, anarcho-syndicalist, asexual, 1/4 black-1/4 Tibetan Sufi female authors.”

  16. Bob

    Unrelated question, but I’m stuck with a language problem:

    Is paso, like the noun form of pasar, a legitimate slang term in Portuguese for “a counterfeit”?

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Paso is not a Portuguese term. Passo (the first person singular form of the verb passar) and passar mean to pass, you you do that with forgeries, but it isn’t a forgery.
      Forgery… Falso works. (Or falsa if it’s something that is feminine. I’m trying to remember a slang term and coming up short. OTOH one of the first (wrong) terms I used was salsificar. For falsificar. I apparently was going to salsify my brother’s old student ID so I could go to school with him. I was all of 3, I think. I took out his picture and put in a drawing of myself… Yeah, it was sasification.)