Hey, it’s been a long time. Too long. I will endeavor to be better about posting here regularly with what I’m up to, appearances, progress, thoughts about writing and all the other fun stuff in this writer’s life I lead.
I’m going to begin catching up with what’s happened most recently. Today, I and some fellow members of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers presented in conjunction with the folks from Three Corpse Circus on Aspects of Writing, specifically Plot, Character, Mood and Setting, Theme, and Revision. I made a recording of the whole presentation and as soon as I work my audio engineering magic on it, I will post it here and elsewhere as an mp3. In the meantime, here are my notes about theme, translated from my short-hand chicken scratch. Enjoy!
I’m going to tell you what theme is and give you some examples, both in general and specifically from Dracula, one of my favorite novels. Then I’m going to tell you how keeping your theme consciously in mind can improve your writing. Then, I’m going to give you an exercise to generate your own themes.
First off, everyone says, “Write what you know.” That means that you should work with the themes that you know and understand. I often write about isolation and loneliness. My characters feel isolated from society through choice or circumstance and I write about the effects that has on them.
Theme, in general
So (fucking) what?
Themes represents the larger ideas that are behind and that drive a story.
They are universal concepts that allow your readers to connect to the specific events of your story.
Themes are universal concepts, not universal truths. There can be several possible treatments of the same theme.
Poverty leads to crime.
Poverty does not define a man; he can rise above.
Specific example: Dracula; repression of female sexuality
Almost a cliché to equate death and blood with sex and the exchange of other—bodily fluids—in Victorian literature, but I’m going to do it anyway.
Lucy Westenra—described as sweet and pure
Even in her sweetness and purity, she wants to marry 3 men.
Violation of social mores; she must be brought in line.
Becomes Dracula’s victim through acts representative of adulterous sex
Four men transfuse their blood into her in a repetitious sequence that tries to satiate her needs. (Gangbang of blood)
After Lucy becomes a vampire, she engages in perverted motherhood by preying on the children of the neighborhood.
Killed (controlled) with monogamous sex; i.e. Arthur (her fiancé) ramming a big, wooden stake while Lucy spurts gouts of blood, finally succumbing to death (orgasm being known at that time as “the little death”) .
One story can have multiple themes
For example: Dracula
Repression of female sexuality
The New Woman
Xenophobia—fear of that which is viewed to be foreign or strange
Shift into modern age
Interrelationship of themes in a story
Shift into modernity; repression of female sexuality (Lucy); the New Woman (Mina)
In horror, theme can reflect a deeper fear
Lucy is an aberration that needs to be controlled by patriarchal society. Lucy, while not an outright threat, is still a curiosity that needs to be treated with caution.
Every story has a theme, conscious or unconscious
If a character does anything, the reader infers motivation, then draws conclusions as to the theme and how the author feels about it
For example: Van Helsing describes Mina as the perfect being, with the brain of a man and the heart of a woman; he describes Lucy as wanton, that her actions are a perversion and, for the good of her soul, must be killed. We infer this to mean that however respectfully curious Stoker was of the New Woman, a sexually liberated woman was a threat that must be controlled or, failing that, destroyed.
Theme is the motivating power behind everything and is important because the reasons behind events, not the events themselves, are what interest us. Otherwise, stories would read like lists.
Writing with your theme consciously in mind strengthens your characters, plot and setting as well as the mechanics of your writing, such as word choice, structure, etc.
If you have the story first—examine characters’ thoughts/actions in relation to the plot
Why are they doing what they are?
How does that relate to a more universal idea?
From that, draw a conclusion and form a statement
This statement is your treatment of your theme
Revise with this treatment consciously in mind
Simple statement that contains a thumbnail synopsis of character, conflict and resolution
For example: Dracula; repression of sexuality
Unbridled sexuality leads to destruction
I’ve subtracted the gendered aspect of that premise because Dracula, the epitome of unbridled sexuality, is destroyed as well.
One last note: Statements are stronger than questions. Your treatment of a theme will be stronger if it makes a statement rather than begging a question. Simply presenting a theme without deciding how your characters (and through them, you the author) feel about it and asking your reader to make up their own minds is weak writing because readers will draw their own conclusions anyway. Your job is to make readers connect with your treatment of your theme. You do this by writing with conviction.