November 29th 2012
The Skill List Project: Theme
This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I foolishly suggested we should look at Theme. Grumble, grumble…but I guess we have to deal with it sometime, so let’s go.
Message? What Message?
When we talk about a story’s theme, there’s a temptation to ask, “What does this story say?” This is a legacy from our high school English classes…or rather, from our vague memories of high school English classes, which may be a whole lot different from what our teachers were trying to get at. Anyway, a lot of people (especially novice writers) think that the only way a story can have a theme is if the story has a message.
Now a lot of good stories do have “messages” of one sort or another. To pick the first example that comes to mind, The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs delivers the message, “Be careful what you wish for; you might receive it.” Some online versions of the story actually start with that statement…but I suspect the line is a recent insertion by someone who couldn’t just let the story stand on its own. (The line wasn’t there when I first read the story, and I’d never heard the saying until well into the 1980′s. Star Trek aficionados will remember that in “Amok Time”, Spock used a much wordier phrase to say the same thing. I believe that’s because “Be careful what you wish for” just wasn’t around back then. But I digress.)
The point is that having a message doesn’t automatically make a story bad. On the other hand, we’ve all read stories that were ruined by sermonizing: where the action suddenly stopped so the author could deliver a diatribe. I’ll pause for a moment while you reflect on your favorite horrible examples (*cough* “This is John Galt speaking” *cough*). Such writing has given Theme a bad name, and has led many a reader into vehement kneejerk dislike of anything that smacks of “message”.
This is unfortunate. Science fiction has a long tradition of “message” stories, particularly cautionary tales (often known as “If This Goes On” stories). As for fantasy, the genre has deep roots in “teaching tales” such as fables, myths, and folklore. Saying that a story can’t have a message divorces SF from its heritage; it also says that writers shouldn’t write passionately when something scares or outrages them.
Besides, it’s impossible to write a story that doesn’t send some kind of message. If the good guys beat the bad guys, that implies that Good (at least occasionally) triumphs over Evil. If the good guys lose, the message is that being Good doesn’t guarantee victory. If there are no good guys or bad guys, but only shades of grey, that in itself is another message.
So I see nothing wrong with message stories—they often say things that need saying. Yes, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t agree with your views, or who are hypersensitive to any sort of “preachiness”; but that’s a chance you have to take when there’s something you want to say. Better to speak boldly than force yourself to stay quiet.
But I Don’t *Have* Anything to Say!
Novice writers often have the opposite difficulty: they don’t want to think about Theme because they don’t have a message that’s burning to be shouted from the rooftops. “Why do I have to say something? I just want to write stories.”
That’s fine as a starting position—you may not have anything you desperately want to get off your chest. But stories should be about things that matter: love, or loneliness, or the price of success, or friendship, or suffering, or guilt. If you don’t dig into the stuff of life, your story is worse than trivial; it’s irrelevant. SF has its share of superficial stories (e.g. science fiction “puzzle” tales, where clever troubleshooters solve purely intellectual problems). However, those tend to be very short. If a story goes beyond a few pages, it has to have emotional resonance.
So perhaps you tell a love story. You don’t have to decide on some “message” about love; besides, any explicit pronouncement would be trite. But you can write about a love between two particular people to the best of your ability. Is it going to add up to some nice neat message? Probably not. But your theme is love and your story simply says, “Love is sometimes like this.”
Or maybe you write about sorrow. Or war. Or the nature of justice. These are topics that can’t be glibly encapsulated. You can’t possibly say anything about them that hasn’t been said before, but you can still address them seriously: set up a scenario and show how the theme plays out in some specific case. You don’t start out with some statement you want to make—you simply explore and see what happens. If a specific message emerges, then great, you’ve discovered something that was waiting in your heart; if not, you’ve still looked at something worthy of examination.
Or maybe, when you start writing, you don’t have a theme at all. The seed of your story could be a character, or a setting, or some clever twist of plot. You don’t have to decide in advance how you’ll give your story some depth…but before you finish the last draft, your story should be about something.
This applies even if you’re writing a comedy or a gung-ho action adventure. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was blissfully about exuberance. Blah-blah-blah Nazism, blah-blah-blah God, blah-blah-blah Marion…that stuff was just window dressing. The theme of “Raiders” was the feeling of being twelve years old and imagining yourself as a hero. That’s an awesome theme; I’ll put it up against “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” any old day.
And what are the skills you need to deal with Theme? The skills of taking something seriously (even when it’s exuberance) and of not flinching wherever it takes you…the skills of not settling for clichés and of not getting lost in the minutiae of plot/dialogue/description, but keeping your eye on things that matter. It’s much much easier said than done; but the effort is worth it. Make your stories about something, not just people running around doing meaningless stuff.
Time for the Closing Theme
There’s plenty more that could be said about theme, but I’ll let you all hash it out in the comments section. And now that I’ve dealt with one intimidating subject, next time I guess we’ll look at another: symbolism. (Be brave, be brave…)
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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