GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 28, 2012 - 4:59am

Because I'm working on developing theme (and motivation) in my short stories, here's some stuff I'm exploring.

First, this is a good craft essay on how to spot what the heck I'm writing about (if I haven't consciously figured it out already): "Going the Distance" by Craig Clevenger.

 

With five, ten or twenty (or more) pages of narrative that isn’t going anywhere, I’ll read through all of it and make a one or two word note in the margin about the subject of each paragraph...

 

I’ll tally up how many paragraphs I’ve devoted to which subjects, and I’ll tell you what... I’ve been surprised every time.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 28, 2012 - 5:39am

Theme might be the only thing of a story that matters outside the content and context of that story, that and maybe primal level imagery. I don't really know what theme is. I've been pretty interested to ask other writers what their recurring themes are of a large part of their work, I never really get good answers though and wouldn't know how to answer that myself in regards of my own stuff.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 28, 2012 - 6:15am

I've given "theme" too much importance in the past. And by that I mean, I kept trying to figure out theme in grand terms, so I always struggled with what the hell it meant. While having a theme is extremely important, the theme is whatever you care about. Whatever you care about. I think many writers struggle with this. It doesn't have to be philosophically grand. It could be trivial, but it pisses me off (or makes me happy). I have a difficult time identifying theme, so that means the various elements in my story are "random" (they fit the story, but they don't necessarily fit the theme, thus weakening the story). If I can truly crack this nut, then my stories should be strengthened because the elements are all working towards the same goal. 

 

And for other writers who can't find their themes, hopefully the link above will give you direction in how to discover it in your own writing.

I don't believe that the natural storyteller has to worry as much about theme because they automatically write about something. It's innate to their writing. I've seen quotes from published writers who say they don't look for themes in their writing; they leave that to their critics. I think they don't have to look for themes because it comes naturally to them. They're strongly opinionated people who always have something to say, and that comes across in their stories. However, they're such good writers, that their stories aren't preachy. The moral (theme) of their story doesn't hit you over the head. A casual reader can enjoy their stories as stories. A careful reader can peel back the layers and see how the theme/motivation/symbolism all ties together into a cohesive narrative.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 28, 2012 - 6:46am

I think it could be seen as that dog you've been running away from the whole time even though you didn't know it was there until it bit you on your ass and spilled too much of your guts out on the page. Or that could be too much of a stretch.

I notice that the story I'm shopping now develops a distinct theme even starting with the first line (which is too transparent, I need to change that.) And I'd built up half the story all riffing on that theme, but all that stuff was just there so I can justify what I had planned as the real story. Maybe that's why finding the theme usually happens after the story, or when somebody points it out to you, because it's only really there to have the story make sense to the reader, the rest of your story already made sense between you and your unconscious mind.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 28, 2012 - 12:57pm

@Renfield. It'd be great to have someone pointing out my themes. Maybe I could pay cash for that service. Pick my theme, get $5. 

From Donald Maass:

But behind all that [building a story] there’s another consideration that I’ll pick as my most important dimension: Whatever it is that the author wants to say, or wants us to see, understand or get.  You can call it theme.  I call it what matters to the author. I’m amazed that many authors can’t answer that basic question about their stories, or if they can the answer isn’t an emotional one.

To view the full article, click here.

"An emotional one." That's important. Make sure it matters to me. Make sure I actually care about it. I'm changing a short story right now because I realized I really didn't care (or believe) part of the premise. It was a sci-fi trope (cliche) that made it easy (lazy) for me to throw it in there. 

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest May 28, 2012 - 1:43pm

I always struggled with this too. But, I've gotten to the point where I just write the story and in the end I'll find the theme. I also think themes can be subjective, like a song that means one thing to one person, but a completely different thing to another. Some people are just really good at spotting the big picture. My ex was one of those. She could point out every theme that was hidden underneath the story. I'm not one of those people.

There's a lot to be gained from studying the craft, and I study it too, but like I said in another thread, too much studying can become burdensome and overwhelming. It's enough to keep track of where the story's going, but then add in every element of characterization, setting, dialogue, descriptions, etc... And it's enough to drive you crazy. I say just write, write and write some more. And when you're not writing, read read read. I've found that I learn the most about the craft from reading novels and short stories. Picking up little pieces that the author does really well. Just recently I found that Nicholas Sparks has a real knack or creating tension. Yeah, Nicholas Sparks... That just proves to me that I shouldn't discount any writer because maybe they don't write a particular genre that I like. Now, I'll read just about anything.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life May 28, 2012 - 1:57pm

I've always been partial to Stephen King's observations on theme. He has a great bit about theme (as well as interesting things to say about fiction, and writers) in 'It' when he tells about Bill Denbrough's college days. 

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 28, 2012 - 6:08pm

Here's an interesting take on identifying theme.

Ask three questions to zero in on your theme: “What is this story about?” “Why do I want to tell this story?” “Why will anyone care?” Three answers. Three beams of light. Illuminating dark spaces. Revealing theme.

And why I think people on this forum will enjoy this guy's theory on theme:

Theme is slippery, uncertain. It’s like a lubed-up sex gimp: every time you think you get your hands around him the greasy latex-enveloped sonofabitch is out of the cage and free from your grip and running into traffic where he’s trying desperately to unzipper his mouth and scream for help

Click here to view his 25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2012 - 3:58am

Is it bad I don't care about theme? Does thinking about it add something to the story?

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters May 29, 2012 - 4:00am

I think that theme takes your writing to a deeper level. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2012 - 4:33am

It can, but so often it seems forced to the point of screaming author intervening to have characters do things that they'd never do. And it seems like it makes a lot of assumptions about the work as being preachy and not being a reflection.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 29, 2012 - 4:43am

The answer, Dwayne, is that it depends. My theory is that If you're a natural storyteller, you don't have to think about theme as much (or at all). There are plenty of (amazing) published writers who claim they don't know the themes of their stories and don't think about it (doesn't Hemingway or Twain have a quote about never thinking about their themes?). These writers are naturals. Their stories have a theme, but they don't have to think about it, it comes naturally. Why? Because they always have something to say. Their stories are always about something. When I read interviews with these writers, they'll say something like: This "story topic" always pissed me off, so I wrote about it. Whatever it is that pissed them off is their theme. They wrote with one without needing to think about it as theme.

So, Dwayne, if you can say that each thing you write is a response to something you just had to write about (something that pissed you off or made you happy, something that made you FEEL), then you're already doing it.

EDIT: Dwayne, that's where writing ability comes in. The good writers always write about something, without it sounding preachy.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2012 - 5:16am

I tend to write about people, not ideas.

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters May 29, 2012 - 5:29am

Yeah but you write about those people struggling with something, I assume.  There is a conflict, and that is going to be your theme, for the most part.  Whatever you are saying about that person and what they are going through and how they go through it.

Bekanator's picture
Bekanator from Kamloops, British Columbia is reading Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter May 29, 2012 - 5:31am

If you write your characters well enough, your characters embody the theme.

razorsharp's picture
razorsharp from Ohio is reading Atlas Shrugged May 29, 2012 - 6:15am

I think theme should be a starting point rather than a result. I've never understood the idea of just writing without a theme in mind and hoping, after 50k words or so, that one just pops out. That's like a football team without a playbook. Get the ball snapped to the quarterback and hope in the midst of all the confusion he makes a great play. Even if by some miracle this unprepared team scores, it certainly won't be pretty without set blocking schemes and receiver routes and whatnot.

That's not to say theme is always my starting point when brainstorming ideas. Sometimes ideas just come to me and I want to work with them. But I would never put those ideas into action until I've figured out how a theme of sorts can be applied to them. However, I think a story is usually stronger when I start with theme.

One of my favorite filmmakers, Bobcat Goldthwait (yeah, the annoying comedian from the 90s), is a good example. For his film Sleeping Dogs Lie, it started as an idea to make a movie about dark secrets. In World's Greatest Dad I believe he wanted to make a movie about how we treat everyone like a saint when they die. (I'm too lazy to find the interviews, but I remember reading in both cases how they started out with these core ideas that could be applied to various plots/characters).

When you start with a theme and draft characters and plot devices to fit the theme, everything will fit together much better than when you do the opposite. Because now your characters will be selected because of how they can apply to the theme, the plot devices won't be arbitrary events. In both Sleeping Dogs Lie and World's Greatest Dad the important plot points directly reflect the theme. To me, that's quality storytelling. It's like running the triple-option. All the players are coordinated and know where they're going and contributing.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 29, 2012 - 6:47am

@AD and Bekanator. Fully agree. 

@razor. I wish I had a theme when I started a story (hence this Discussion). I agree that starting with a theme is the way to go. I just wish my brain worked that way. So far, that hasn't been the case. I start from ideas, but not "theme ideas." Mine all seem to start with "what if" questions:

  • What if a guy woke up dead one day (not a flesh-eating zombie)?
  • What if aliens stole all the fat on the planet?
  • What if an angel likes hanging out a bit too much with the bar flies he's supposed to protect?

And just like you said, razor, my plots tend to be arbitrary. I'm sure I address themes in the stories, but I don't consciously identify them and shape the story based on them. I usually can't answer "so what?" when asked about a story. That's what I'm trying to correct and work through with my writing (and this Discussion). Hopefully, if I can get a handle on it, I'll be able to start with the "so what?" and not try to flail around for it after the fact.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2012 - 6:56am

Maybe that's the point of disagreement, because if my character really embodies a theme (except for maybe a odd combination/dichotomy) I rewrite them. I've read my own work and thought "No one is such a perfect example of suchandsuch, that needs edited."

For me the question, "So what," always has the same answer. "Who wouldn't want to see what these people do? They are very interesting."

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters May 29, 2012 - 7:04am

But do the characters progess in some way?  Learn a lesson?  Change their views on something? 

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 29, 2012 - 8:01am

Razor ... thanks for your post. It's really gotten me to thinking about how I develop a story idea. I've done it the same way for so long that I didn't stop to question it. It wasn't until I wrote out my reply above that it really sunk in that all of my ideas are "what ifs." However, the next step, changing the "what ifs" into "what I want to say" might take some work. Trying it with some of my story ideas.

I suspect that the story I write from this will feel very stilted (unnatural). I'll need to just work through that to get through this mental block of mine. Right (write) now, I think of my stories as organic ... they flow from point A to point B because it seems to make sense at the time, and I let them "grow" that way. This will be an interesting experiment.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 29, 2012 - 9:27am

Theme is overrated in some ways. You can be a good writer and good storyteller with weak theme development and be just fine, but a good theme won't save crappy writing or an uninteresting story.

It can add a lot to a good story, but theme for theme's sake is overrated. If your horror story really is about information privacy in the information age, great. If it isn't, if all it is meant to do is scare and entertain the reader, then I don't see a problem with that.

As an academic, I love to see a good theme because it is easy to study and write about.

As a writer, I think people place too much importance on it because they can't think of anything better to say or have been reading certain books that harp on it.

Say you read a story and it entertained the hell out of you. It was plotted meticulously. Every scene mattered and drove the protagonist to the climax. Every character was vivid and interesting. You think back on it and decide it doesn't have a meaningful theme. Is that book somehow not as entertaining?

Writing is an entertainment art. Sometimes, a tree is just a tree. Sometimes, a book is just about escaping a reality that is generally boring and petty.

For me, theme is something that happens naturally, and then gets developed in re-writes. I am a pretty literary writer, so usually I have theme I am developing. However, I can't tell you the number of writers groups I have been in where I've rolled my eyes when someone asked another writer "What are you trying to say?"

For me, it's about the least important thing to worry about.

 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 29, 2012 - 9:45am

My thoughts on this go back to something mentioned in another thread, that if there is not a part of a story that is bigger than the story itself then it's just another piece of bullshit writing taking up space. Even the mass market stuff is not purely disposable entertainment. The literary character pieces are tackling huge concepts of the human condition (crime/mystery is probably the other genre that comments on this specifically most often.) Some awareness of "the point of your story" is the difference between stories published on Wordpress or in The Paris Review (plus being vetted by the literary professor/agent you're screwing.)

razorsharp's picture
razorsharp from Ohio is reading Atlas Shrugged May 29, 2012 - 9:55am

@ GaryP I appreciate the kind words, but one thing to keep in mind is that I don't advocate the idea that every story has to necessarily have a direct message. Sometimes, I think it's sufficient for the idea of theme to just encompass "what do I want to examine?" Being a writer allows you to make subjective statements, but it also allows you to make objective observations.

I guess that's why, as Jack pointed out, "what are you trying to say?" isn't really a valid criticism if it demands the work to express some opinion.

In the horror story example Jack made - I like this one b/c I'm working on a horror screenplay with somebody right now - a theme that doesn't have to do with horror may make it feel disjointed and unfocussed. That's not to say it can't be pulled off - Aliens had a maternal theme to it, for example - it just might not always be a good idea. The route we're going isn't trying to make a philosophical or political statement or anything like that, we're just using a situation to examine how our characters deal with horror. And we want it to entertain and be interesting (we want to sell it, after all).

I think looking at theme as something more broad than a message opens a lot of different creative paths. Going back to the football analogy, you can go for two and try and make a statement or you can play it safe and just kick the extra point. What's best probably depends on the situation.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 29, 2012 - 11:06am

Thanks, Razor. 

For me, this is an exercise. My stories don't work (i.e., they don't sell). And I can blame this exercise all on Jeff and his Discussion about writing flaws. It got me to think about my most glaring flaw: inability to write a compelling story. I can get my characters from point A to point B, but not well enough to also sell them off to a magazine along the way. So I've been looking at how I can strengthen my storytelling. I've chosen two things to work on: well-defined character motivation (in my notes and in my head when I'm writing) and saying something with the story (I think the two go together). I'll see if that gets me over the storytelling (and selling) hump.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 29, 2012 - 11:41am

Are you in the workshop, Gary?

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 29, 2012 - 11:42am

"Some awareness of "the point of your story" is the difference between stories published on Wordpress or in The Paris Review (plus being vetted by the literary professor/agent you're screwing.)"

Is it though? You don't get to stand there with the reader and say that this particular piece of flash fiction is a commentary on materialism and the inevitable fall of capatilistic society. They have to get that from the writing itself, without your input. Chances are, if they like the story, they will find some meaning to it, whether or not you intended that particular interpretation. You can massage them towards a theme that you are trying to address, but since the rule is show, don't tell, you generally have to avoid explicitly saying it.

I'm playing devils advocate on some of this. I think theme is great. It's sort of like having really nice golf clubs. If the rest of your game is already solid, that new driver will give you an edge. But, if you are still shanking balls into lakes, you are better off addressing other aspects of the game.

That's why "What does it mean?" might be the worst critique ever. If they can't figure that out, then there is no use in telling them. The piece has to stand alone on it's own. You can't defend your writing verbally, it is what it is. Yet, it seems to be the go to for at least one writer in every workshop.

Theme is no more important than any other aspect of writing. If the writing isn't good, no one will give a crap what you are trying to say.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 29, 2012 - 12:00pm

@Gary, I might be wrong about this, but I don't think theme is going to be your biggest issue. If a story isn't compelling, a theme isn't necessarily going to fix it.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 29, 2012 - 12:01pm

Yeah, playing devil's advocate is my favorite game. These discussions wouldn't provide much insight without some counterpoint.

If you take theme more as something intrinsic with the underlying idea of a story, (because that "what if?" idea is as much the theme itself, it is just considering that theme in the reality that that "what if?" creates,) then, this theme or point of the story is what seperates this story from, say, the nutritional information on a box of Wheaties. A lot of great writers can write a story signifying nothing, that doesn't make it a particularly good story. If you write a story saying nothing, people will assume you never spoke.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 29, 2012 - 12:13pm

Yeah, I think where you and I are differing, at least a little, is how we approach the definition of a theme, because I do agree overall.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2012 - 12:33pm

@Doll - It depends on the character. Some learn something important to their lives, some don't. I'm not a fan of every story leads to deeper insight for everyone/every important character.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 29, 2012 - 12:45pm

@Renfield. Yes, I'm in the workshop (but haven't submitted a piece yet).

@Jack. Agreed (about if a story isn't compelling, a theme isn't necessarily going to fix it). 

What I'm aiming for (and already finding as I try this new tact), is that identifying what I want to say (and a character to say it) will make me re-think my story plot and logic. Hard to explain without concrete examples, but a story I've already written in my usual way has started to fall apart as I brainstorm it from the angle of what I really care about and what I want this story to say.

And, Jack, I also agree with we're probably all looking at theme with, at least, a varying definition. I think it's one of those words that everyone views differently (either slightly or vastly). For some it might be as simple as man vs. man or man vs. nature. For others, it needs to be a complete thesis statement.For other-others, it's an emotional feeling. And then some can't explain it, but they know it when they see it. 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 29, 2012 - 12:53pm

@Jack I'd agree that we're agreeing, (I might have a bad habit of doing so in a "yes, but" way.) If I could ammend my bullshitting up there it might be to call it "meaning" to seperate it from any moral commentary?

@Gary, cool. I'll definitely take a look at anything you put up there.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 29, 2012 - 3:21pm

1 - What if a guy woke up dead one day (not a flesh-eating zombie)?
2 - What if aliens stole all the fat on the planet?
3 - What if an angel likes hanging out a bit too much with the bar flies he's supposed to protect?

(some) potential themes:

1 - The meaning of life.  The possibility of contributing to society despite one's shortcomings.  Dealing with stigmatization (when people just assume you want to eat them.)

2 - Perceptions of beauty.  Human adaptability.  Cultural differences.

3 - Corruption.  Deference.  Self-deception or denial.

It just comes down to the details.  You can establish a theme without intending to do so.  You can also write a book which approaches many themes without any unified philosophical thrust.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 29, 2012 - 3:40pm

Great, where were you 20 years ago, J.Y., when I came up with those ideas?!

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life May 29, 2012 - 3:54pm

One tiny bit of empirical evidence: I got a new rejection letter - it was my first flat-out form rejection. Coincidentally, it was also one story where I actually had nothing at all to say. I think semi-subconsciously (I know, that's not a thing, what the hell), I usually do have something to say, thematically. I do have a lot of strong opinions, so of course anything that comes out of me shares those opinions - unless I make a conscious effort to suppress it.

Conclusion? Theme matters!

Actionable intelligence to be gained from my rambling? None!

Fin. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 29, 2012 - 3:56pm

@GaryP  --  haha...  I think...  (?! = sarcasm)?

I just meant to illustrate how almost any plot could deal with a variety of themes. 

Did you already write those stories?

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 29, 2012 - 3:57pm

Actionable intelligence to be gained from my rambling? None!

lol

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life May 29, 2012 - 3:59pm

Put the fat-swiping aliens story on the workshop, it already sounds amazing. If you haven't written it yet, do eet!

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 29, 2012 - 4:13pm

Conversely, Jeff, pretty much every non-form rejection I've gotten addressed that the plot didn't live up to the theme. And what's always hard for me to take from those is that there's basic story mechanics that are beyond prose and technical abilities, and it doesn't entirely have to do with characters or conflict either. If you put up big ideas in a story you have to deliver as well.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life May 29, 2012 - 4:19pm

I agree Renfield, that it is the mix that makes the difference, not just the recipe. I still feel about fiction like I did when I was first learning programming - so many things to keep in my mind at any one time, I'd end every day with my eyes bloodshot and my head pounding. Eventually I learned the basics of programming, and then, a scant 10 years plater, I can mostly do it successfully. So, I've been seriously writing for, let's see, about 2 years, so that means... fuck.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 29, 2012 - 5:22pm

@J.Y. -  ;D

@Renfield. I feel your pain.

@Jeff. It's so much like golf. A myriad of instructions on how to do it well. But at some point, you gotta grip it and rip it. And congrats on your first form rejection ... by which I mean, you're obviously right there on the cusp if you've been getting personal rejections. 

I've written all three stories described above. The first one (dead guy) got an "oh, so close" from an editor (it's burned into my memory because it's oh, so painful). The fat-stealing aliens actually got "published" on a non-paying site (so not a sale). And the third one ... can't recall if I ever sent it out or if it's in re-write pergatory while I try to figure out why the angel likes karaoke so much ... or maybe it's the tiny demon who likes karaoke. Hoping that attacking stories from this angle (consciously thinking about theme/message) will reveal who should like karaoke (and, you know what? I'm not kidding about that).

However, right now, I'm re-working an idea for my most recent short story about a 1984-type of society and the finding of a boarded-up bookshop. I've written the story already in my usual manner (written a couple of months ago). So I'm brainstorming and attacking (sorry, just watched an episode of Band of Brothers) the idea from the thematic angle and seeing what happens. Writing to commence as soon as the newer story takes form. But this new angle of attack has given me a bunch of ideas I hadn't had before. So encouraged.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner May 30, 2012 - 8:01am

Themes always create deeper story telling. I would use them passively however. No great speeches or anything, just scatter it around, or better yet, have a general theme(s) and don't actively bring it up. You should be able to set it up unconsciously throughout the story and then actively say it at the end somehow. 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters May 30, 2012 - 8:13am

Did anyone ever notice in Heart in Atlantis by Stephen King how he had the recurring theme (or I guess that might be more of a chorus but I don't care) of people being carried? 

Anyone read that book?

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. May 30, 2012 - 8:23am

I'm surprised that nobody has brought up Chuck's essay #2 Developing a Theme

I can't think of ever writing a story with a theme in mind.  I've mostly wrote stories based on a first sentence that pops into my mind.  If I get stuck in a short story, I'll try to think of another example of the main storyline, but the only example I can think of, I did all the extra theme stuff after I had written the main story.

In my story What We Keep, which is about a girl who collects the condoms from the first time she has sex with someone, I did this with baseball cards (among other things).  It was what the character's brother had kept.  There are a few more things that are or aren't kept in the story, and most of those were put in later.  

 

 

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 30, 2012 - 8:54am

Just re-read King's take on theme from On Writing (but haven't read Hearts of Atlantis). He talks about a bunch of themes he had running through The Stand, but humanity's penchant for violence was the one he kept in the forefront when working on his re-writes. He advocates not thinking about theme at all for a first draft ... so I got that going for me. Huh. Haven't read King in a long time. I think I'll pick up a book of his in the next day or two and give him a read.

@Averydoll. Did you like Hearts of Atlantis?

I'm finding that when brainstorming my story's path, it's easier for my feeble brain to use character motivation (which reflects the theme) to map the story rather than thinking in terms of "theme." It's strange what one has to do to get their mind to work on a solution; the cajoling and outright trickery one must employ to get the end result one requires. For example, my brain may never  ever be able to re-write a story based on THEME, but if I approach it on tiptoe from the angle of character motivation, I might have a chance.

EDIT: @Howie. I read Chuck's piece on Theme awhile back. I read one of the stories he says really highlights re-writing to a theme (Sea Creatures ... I think is the name, found it online). 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters May 30, 2012 - 8:55am

For me, Hearts in Atlantis is one of his best books. 

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 30, 2012 - 9:12am

Thanks. Just bought it and have it on my phone. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. May 30, 2012 - 9:20am

Dark Half and Bag of Bones are the two that still stick in my head.  

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 30, 2012 - 9:46am

Bag of Bones is my favorite.

Yeah, I think theme is best seen in the rear-view mirror. Noticing it this way you also so where it is most unrefined without your big smartypants rose-colored goggles on, know where it works, where to develop and where to kill it.

I did just notice, though, that me, I'm a really shitty outliner but I am an obsessive list maker. So sometimes I'll "outline" an idea pragmatically, just riffing free association and imagery that might relate to aspects of the idea. (I see one here in my legal pad for a class assignment, here titled "Smithereens," the story itself turning out nothing like anything on the page.)

There was something cool I read a while ago in The Collagist blog, some poet talking about a handful of themes he wanted to explore and it turned into a character and then a story or something along those lines. It was an interesting discussion, though I barely recall not actually liking the story that much itself.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 30, 2012 - 11:45am

I think I got my approach on theme from On Writing. I don't consider it consciously at all until at least the second draft. I don't really outline or plan much at all. I'm very much a pantser.

Hearts in Atlantis is great. I highly recommend it.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that May 30, 2012 - 12:03pm

Usually, my planning is just brainstorming sessions on a legal pad. Sometimes not even that. I'll start writing something without any ideas - just a random bit of something - and if that something interests me, I keep going. I've tried outlining, and it's worked for me as far as getting a piece finished, but the end results (no sales) is the same for outlining and not-outlining.

Even for this experiment, I'm not planning to outline, but I've found my brainstorming is more specific than usual based on the motivated-character approach.