Monday, September 19, 2011

Why? Theme? Why theme?

I found the following video through my friend Susan the other day (not the first time I've found something awesome at her blog). It's one of the TED talks, which I love and find only mildly addictive (mildly, I tell you, mildly!). It's not really about writing, but I think it applies. It's about business and people and success - what leads to success, and why people will follow that success. The question is simple. Why are you doing what you do? People will respond to what you believe, and not just to what you have, however great that might be.

The video is worth a watch, if you have the time.

The way it applies to writing, however, is theme, or so I've been thinking. Why are you doing what you do? What do you believe? It's not that you can't find a powerful theme while writing a story (it's been done, and will be done again), but there's something powerful about knowing what you're doing. Knowing your theme. To me, the theme is the hot emotional core of the novel. What is the feeling it's trying to explore, and trying to evoke in the reader? And in what way?

Knowing the emotional center of your story means you know what drives the story. And answering that question (Why?) allows you to use that theme. This is an opportunity. If you know the why, you can shape the story itself around what you are trying to do, around what you are feeling (and what you hope your reader is going to feel). The conflicts will be designed to specifically set these feelings into motion.

This is definitely something I want to work on more. I think a lot of writers hit the keys, get the story out, and then realize what they're writing about. But they're not using that theme; it's a sideline. And it's not always easy to edit that theme into a complex and powerful vision. It can be done, but it's hard; we're talking about the structure of the story itself.

Theme = why?

A simple little equation.

What about you? How do you approach theme, Fellow Sophisticates?


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Thanks for the shout out! (And I love the word math. :))

As usual, you get to the heart of it: theme is something you should use intentionally to sculpt the story. Some writers I think fear doing this (thinking they will come off preachy or stilted); others struggle with how to do that. I'm in the latter camp. Using theme intentionally is like using words intentionally - of course we do it, but there's a lot of intuition that goes into word choice, as well as frontal lobe power.

Great post!

jbchicoine said...

To be honest, when I started writing my novels, I didn't give theme a whole lot of thought. Not until they were nearly complete did I even have an inkling about all that, but I could see the theme pretty clearly. So, when I started doing some rewriting, I knew my theme and it was far easier to stay on track and develop those 'emotions' you were talking about.

Now, as I'm a few thousand words into a new project, it seems I'm obsessing about theme--it's almost stifling--so afraid I'm not building on it properly...guess I'm really still a newbie at heart...

Matthew MacNish said...

There is nothing but death, and sex, and sexy death.

At least in your writing.

But seriously, I do have an idea of theme in my novel, but it's got to be kept a secret. Except you'll probably figure it out.

I'll try to watch this now.

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I usually base my theme on either something I'm really passionate about at the moment, like aggressive driving, or if I just have this really cool idea for a science fiction story and the theme can fit into it nicely, such as, the eyes are windows to the soul.

Munk said...

“A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images” Albert Camus

D.G. Hudson said...

I have to agree with Munk, and not just because I've read Albert Camus.

Theme can permeate your story or it can hide in the background. It's the author's awareness that makes the difference.

Sometimes you have to consider the main turning points in the story to recognize the theme that emerges.

Great question. (I skip motivational videos though, not my cup of tea or coffee.)

Bryan Russell said...


It's not really a motivational video, all rah rah. TED talks are more like introductory science papers, or philosophy papers, or ecology papers, etc. Sort of a way to introduce people to new science, new discoveries, new ideas, new music, new just about anything.

I'm not really into the self-help genre myself, so I understand your reticence. And, also, your day will probably be just fine without watching it. :)

Marsha Sigman said...

It sort of just comes to be part way through the story and I try not to get in the way.