Sunday, May 07, 2006


What's this theme thing?

I consider the term theme to be interchangeable with allegory: a symbolic representation of ideas through a narrative.


Actually, it isn't that complicated. Look at fairy tales. Little Red Riding Hood is all about not talking to strangers. Beauty and the Beast is about how looks don't matter when it comes to love. Cinderella is about avoiding a life of hard work by marrying the right guy. And so on.

Sometimes themes in narratives are intentional. Sometimes they're subconscious. Sometimes they are in the eye of the beholder, and have nothing to do with the original intent of the artist.

Having a strong theme in your work is one more thing for the reader to latch on to, identify with, ponder, and enjoy. Human beings strive for meaning, and search for answers. When meaning and answers are also entertaining, they are a lot more palatable, and substantial. Like food that tastes good and is also good for you.

The majority of my writing touches on a recurring theme. It's hidden under jokes and action, but it's there.

In the novels, Jack is never the one who ultimately finishes off the villain. She plays a part in chasing the bad guy, but she isn't the one that kills him.

There is a very specific reason for this. In my personal philosophy, life isn't about reaching goals; it's about chasing goals. You can't always win, because sometimes things are beyond your control. All you can do is try your best, and find ways to live with yourself if your best isn't good enough.

In other words: You're more than your goals.

Jack doesn't realize this yet. But she's slowly learning.

To remind her of this, I surround Jack with characters who all live to serve their base needs---needs that Jack normally forsakes in search of a higher sense of self.

The secondary characters in my books--Phin, Harry, Mr. Friskers, Jack's Mom, and Herb--all have their basis in the Freudian id.

--Phin values his needs and comfort over all.
--Harry chases fame and money and shirks responsibility.
--Mr. Friskers is angry and demanding.
--Jack's Mom seeks sex and attention.
--Herb eats too much.

Jack, however, represents superego. Her quest to become better, and her ultimate acceptance of the fact that she might not, are the primary elements of her character. She doesn't get the bad guy, but she tries to live with herself anyway.

Addressing this theme by spelling it out is obvious and preachy, and neither of those things are desirable in a narrative. So I use allegorical action to convey the theme.

The insomnia Jack struggles with is representative of her lack of control over her life and goals.

The good night of sleep she always has at the end of the book isn't because she's reached her goals---it is because she's accepted that the goals are out of her control. Punishing yourself isn't the answer. Which is why the last line of each novel relates to theme.

At the beginning of each book, Jack is 100% committed to catching a killer. This is her primary need, and the motivator that drives the plot.

During each book, Jack interacts with people who indulge themselves rather than deny themselves, as a subconscious reminder to Jack that perhaps her priorities are skewed.

At the end of each book, Jack forgives her failures and embraces life. In other words, catharsis in the form of the final showdown leads to a temporary reprieve from the neurosis, and an acceptance that perhaps her peers have the right attitude.

So the theme of the novels is: Try the best you can, because trying is all you can do. But if you try too hard, life isn't worth living at all.

Why did I pick this theme?

I didn't. It picked me. Anyone who regularly reads this blog can see how my quest to become published, and my attitude toward this career, are tied into this philosophy. It's what I struggle with, and what I aspire to.

I'm passionate about this topic, and hopefully some of that passion comes through in the writing.

Do you have any themes in your book? What messages are you imparting to your readers? What philosophies or issues are you planting in their minds? What are you trying to say? How do you convey these ideas without beating your audience over the head with the obvious?


Allison Brennan said...

I didn't pick my theme, either. I don't even know if I can identify it. My books tend to be about people needing to accept their past, the good and the bad, the mistakes and the successes, in order to become complete human beings.

I think my other recurrent theme is that killers are not born evil, but are created. That violence is a cycle that started when the con artist Satan convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. That even if we can't stop every killer out there, we have an obligation to stop the ones we can.

I'm sure there's more, or less, to the theme my books. My first goal is to entertain (and scare people :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent post. I think too many writers make a mistake of casting about for some message to deliver, when your "message" usually comes out in the writing, without you thinking about it. I was inspired to think about the themes in the Byzantine mysteries Mary and I write on my own blog. Themes

s.w. vaughn said...

I'm trying to say, "Read my book." Sadly, my theme doesn't seem to have an effect on editors or agents (at least, competent ones).

(Mostly) kidding aside, great post, Joe. Themes are powerful tools for novels and too often overlooked, though I've found that they tend to emerge as I'm writing rather than be a defining presence at the outset of the novel.

I despise editing, but I enjoy going back to add layers of meaning and deepen the theme throughout in subtle ways -- the occasional repetition of temperature as a means of setting mood (hot or cold), for instance, reinforced by descriptions that invoke those extremes without coming out to say it: the red color of a nearby object, the glare of the sun on a reflective surface; or at night, the piercing glow of a streetlamp cutting through fog like a beacon.

Sense of smell and touch can also be tailored to suit theme without bashing a reader about the head with "This book is about THIS!"

More genre novelists should give careful consideration to theme. Maybe it would lessen some of the stigma associated with it. Genre writers tend to be slapped with "plot driven" labels, when many of them are actually more concerned with developing character and theme, making for a richer story.

That is all I have to say.

Jeri said...

I agree with Mark and Allison. Theme examination usually comes during the rewrite and is often surprising. I never put a theme for my last book into words until the art department asked me when designing the cover. I had to crank up the Theme-a-nator to come up with something that could be summed up in one sentence. Er, two sentences. One was a theme for the series, and the other was the theme of Book 1.

Looking at any author's body of work, you can usually pick up on themes, however unconscious. I can imagine someone walking up to me one day and saying, "What did you do to give yourself such a guilt complex?"

Anonymous said...

Another wonderful post, Joe. You're going to have one hell of a book someday from all this!

I start with premise and character and place and write the first draft. Usually I discover the theme or themes in the second or third drafts. It's something I've subconsciously followed all along. In DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, it was all about self image, and how far someone will go to hold onto that self image. I think it's a recurring theme for my character Laura, who was taken by nasty surprise once in her life and is never going to be that weak again. She sees herself as strong and in control, and by visiting homicide scenes over and over, she is in fact having some control over the outcome. In some ways that's close to Jack's theme, because even though you can catch the killer, you can't put Humpty back together again. You can't bring back the dead. You can make a difference by getting justice, but it is a lesser difference.

I usually find myself thinking about these things after the fact. They suddenly show up and I say, "That's what the story was about!"

Mark Pettus said...

I write without an outline, and with only the vaguest idea of where my story is going - when I begin. The characters drive the story,and sometimes the theme doesn't become obvious to me until I'm well into mid-book.

In Transit Gloria, two major themes leaped out at me in one scene (a scene that I wrote as a segue). The most important of those themes was you have to be honest with yourself - no matter what lies you tell the rest of the world.

I was so excited that night, I called a writer friend (the only well-known writer foolish enough at the time to have given me his phone number) at 2 a.m. to share the news. He understood, and shared my excitement.

I think the theme was manna - from heaven, if it suits you - from the muse, if it doesn't. I know it came from outside and above me. That scene also produced two minor characters that were later important to the story. It was a good night. I fondled the muse all night long. She just smiled and made cooing noises.

Unknown said...

In this context "theme" = "brand". Or it does for me. As a new arrival to the land of the published ("sold" via phone but haven't signed the papers yet) I was asked by my editor if I had thought about my brand.

The answer was yes.

I hadn’t thought about it before I started writing . . . I had arrived at it after completing two novels and starting a dozen more (I HAVE to write the opening chapters of any idea I have, HAVE to). I can look at my body of (potential) work and see that there is a theme running through it. A hook to hang my hat on. A brand.

It was a bit scary to realize that everything I write can be summed up with the simple phrase “Second Chances”. Everyone in my books is looking for a new start. A second chance. To reclaim something/someone they lost. Everyone is damaged.

I could spend years in therapy trying to figure out why . . . or I could just write.

Bernita said...

Every age has its dragons - and you deal with them as best you can.

mapletree7 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mapletree7 said...

You are consiously choosing themes.... are you concerned that engaging the same theme in three successive books will get repetitive?

Eventually the 'lesson' should stick and Jack should move on to the next stage of growth, no?

JA Konrath said...

Eventually the 'lesson' should stick and Jack should move on to the next stage of growth, no?

No. And yes. And no.

One of the issues with writing a series character is: Should they change throughout the series?

Larry Block's Matthew Scudder started out as a hardboiled alcoholic ex-cop who illegally functioned as a PI.

Now he's married, licensed, and dry.

Ask any mystery fan what the best Scudder book is, and chances are high it won't be one of the last five.

Robert B. Parker began the Spenser series with the titular PI as a hard-drinking, two-fisted wise ass.

Spenser has become Spenser Lite--practically married, rarely drinking, never getting into fisticuffs. And the wise ass is played for cute rather than cutting edge.

So what should I do?

On one hand, I want Jack to grow as a character.

On the other hand, I don't want her to lose her edge or motivation.

I've decided to make her age slowly---maybe a year every few books. That way, she doesn't have any major personality changes. Her learnign curve will be book-by-book, rather than global.

If she figures everything out, she won't be as compelling.

But if she stays stagnant, readers will get tired of her.

So the best thing to do is take baby steps.

It's a fine line to walk...

Anonymous said...

I hear you, brother!

Unknown said...

Eventually the 'lesson' should stick and Jack should move on to the next stage of growth, no?

I have to wonder if the idea of the character failing to grow and move on is why a lot of series lose steam for me? I love the first few books, but then I find myself mentally screaming at the later books.

Too many “ARGH” moments when the character fails to grow and learn.

I can think of several series that have fallen by the wayside for this exact reason . . .

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I'm a write first, figure out the theme later kinda guy.

gugon said...

The one time I attempted to write something with a theme in mind beforehand, it came out pretty lousy.

I never think about theme anymore while I'm writing. Usually it reveals itself later.

Jude Hardin said...

I don't think much about themes as I'm writing, but I do notice some recurring ones after the fact:

* Obsessive love invariably leading to disaster.

* Electricity and fire as vital yet deadly forces.

* Forgiveness vs. vengeance

* The eternal soul vs. the fragile physical self.

I think my themes lean toward the spiritual, where Joe's seem to be largely intellectual. I guess we could get into a discussion about Freud vs. Jung, but all I really want to do is drink a beer and watch The Three Stooges.

Mostly, I leave themes to be explicated by people much smarter than I am.

Erica Orloff said...

Regarding Jack changing . . . I'm all for characters that stay messy.

In my series books, the main character may learn a lesson or two, but, to take a line from Godfather III . . . "they pull me back in." Even if the main character has moments of change, recognition, epiphany, I populate the character's world with such a dysfunctional, motley, criminal element that she has no choice but to remain pretty stuck. And deep down, she likes it there.


gugon said...

A long time ago, I had a writing instructor tell me that, in all stories, the lead character must change - grow in some way - learn something.

It didn't make sense to me then. WHY must the character change? Isn't it enough that they had the experience? How often, in real life, do people actually change in any substantial way? Rarely, I'd say. More often, we see people go through hell, only to come out on the other side and do exactly the same things that brought to hell in the first place.

I think creative writing instructors often do more harm than good when they tell their students that they must develop a theme for the story - and they must illustrate how their characters change from the experience. For me, that's like trying to walk with a ball and chain.

If the story flows out as it should, everything else will fall into place. Your subconscious will inject what it wants to say.

That's my two cents, for what it's worth.

Jeri said...

A character can learn and change, but then those changes can result in other ways they can be screwed up. The resolution of one issue can fire up a whole kettle of other issues. It's not as if real people get "better" and more psychologically with-it as they get older. Some people do, but most of us just trade one dysfunction for another.

That being said, I wish authors would let series die natural deaths instead of dragging them out in endless repetition. But I can understand the financial and editorial pressures they must face to keep cranking out the cash cow. And most readers tend to prefer the familiar.

PJ Parrish said...

I like themes in fiction. But I don't like didacticism, especially in crime novels. When I read a crime novel, say, set in the Everglades, I don't want to be preached to about how developers are killing the Glades, especially if the plot isn't too good. You don't need a theme to tell a good tale. But the best writers manage to use theme as a sort of underground railroad. It is there, working beneath the plot to propel things along, but you never see the mechanics. Then you get to the end and realize the writer has subtly driven you to a destination while entertaining you.

But I totally agree with Gugon's comment that writing teachers can kill you. I liken them to ballet teachers (I used to be a dance critic, so I rely on this and sports for cheap metaphors!) -- a good ballet teacher teaches you CRAFT but leaves you alone to figure out how to express yourself through dance. But a bad ballet teacher, man, they can cripple you -- literally. So can a writing teacher.

When I teach writing, I always preface the session with a caveat that no one -- least of all me -- has the answers, that all you can get from a writing teacher are sparks that might help light your way. But you have to find your own path.

Whenever I listen to a bad writing teacher, I hear Pink Floyd singing, "Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!"

Unknown said...

But a bad ballet teacher, man, they can cripple you--literally. So can a writing teacher.

I think creative writing instructors often do more harm than good when they tell their students that they must develop a theme for the story.

I always wonder what strange things are afoot in the creative writing world when I see people talk about stuff like this. I have a BA with a minor in creative writing and an MFA in creative writing, and I’ve never taken a class on how to write, or where an instructor told us to “develop themes” or anything even vaguely like that. None of the programs I’ve ever seen offer anything like this. You study fiction and poetry and analyze WHY it works, HOW it works, etc. And you WRITE and go to a critique group. That’s it.

IMO, you can’t teach someone to write. You can only explore literature, and through it craft, and hope that the writer will find and co-opt those elements that speak to them.

Amy said...

This is so weird. If I thought there was anything to psychic ability in humans or this Jungian stuff, I'd say there was something to all that psychic stuff because... I write about themes, you write about themes quite independently without realizing it. Then, on another writing loop, THEY write about themes and my local writing group has a presentation on the use of themes. All within a two or three week period.
Must be something in the air. Or is it...collective consciousness?
Um...naw. I vote for additives in our water supply, which has a nice, nasty conspiracy ring to it.
Speaking of themes, though, I do have to mention I think you might have missed the boat on the Cinderella theme, although that might have been a deliberate boat-missing event. The point of Cinderella is that if you never complain and are a good little girl and do everything you are told, you will be rewarded. Cinderella's reward was getting to go to the ball in a new, fancy dress, and finally, finding someone who values her (and rubbing her family's nose in it--revenge IS sweet). Yes, that reward is, unfortunately, also a rich guy who is a prince (not exactly a person I would chose to marry due to having no private life at all, but that's a discussion for another day).
I do think themes pick us. My themes tend to involve social acceptance versus the need for independence and self-expression. Lately, my themes have mostly been about me trying to work out how you deal constructively with the death of loved ones. Sounds like a lot of hooey when you write it like that, but what can I say? That's it.

JA Konrath said...

If anyone is interested in keeping the discussion going, Tod Goldberg has someinteresting things to say about this topic.